September 27, 2015: Family of tragic Syrian refugee known as ‘wetsuitman’ in bid to visit his grave

The Sunday Herald, September 27 2015

The family of a Syrian refugee known as “the wetsuitman” after his body washed up on a beach in the Netherlands when he tried to swim the Channel are calling for help to visit his unmarked grave.

Mouaz Al Balkhi, 22, died last October after a failed attempt to swim from Calais to Dover. His story came to light in June this year after months of research by Norway’s Dagbladet newspaper.

Journalists were investigating a body that had washed up on the Norwegian coastline at Stavanger. The body was later identified as Shadi Omar Kataf.

Al Balkhi’s body had washed up on the island of Texel in the Netherlands on October 27 last year.

Journalists found the two men had bought identical wetsuits from a branch of the sports shop Decathlon in Calais on the same day.

They managed to identify Al Balkhi earlier this year after DNA from the body matched his mother and father.

Al Balkhi’s uncle Adnan Abdul Baki lives in the South Side of Glasgow and helped to look for his nephew in Calais when he went missing last October.

The 58-year-old wants to make sure his sister Suhila Abdul Baki, is able to see her son’s grave in Texel, north Holland, so the family can have closure on his tragic death.

The family are refugees in Jordan and are effectively stuck there. If they left the country to visit Al Balkhi’s grave they would not be allowed back in.

They do not want to risk leaving when they have no asylum anywhere else.

Al Balkhi tried to come to the UK because he was not able to return to his family in Jordan. He had left them to try and finish his engineering studies.

Abdul Baki said: “His family, because they lived in Damascus, near the border of Jordan, fled to Amman, the capital of Jordan.

“Mouaz was studying in Damascus University. He didn’t want to go with his family because he thought he could try and finish his studies.”

After six months Al Balkhi went to join his family because he was being interrogated by government forces and feared for his safety.

He went to Jordan but did not get a university place in Amman.

Imagining a bleak future, Al Balkhi left to study in Turkey but did not get into a university.

With relatives in the UK Al Balkhi made a decision to cross Europe and come to Britain.

Abdul Baki, who has leave to remain for five years with his family in Glasgow, said: “I’ve been here nearly three years. He wanted to be with his family here. He wanted to come and we could look out for him. He could be guided by us.”

Al Balkhi flew from Turkey to Algeria. He paid people smugglers to hide him in a lorry to get into Libya.

He spent 10 days waiting for a spot on a boat to come across the Mediterranean.

Al Balkhi made it across and arrived in Dunkirk in France in early September. He made 10 failed attempts to hide in lorries to try and get into the UK.

Abdul Baki, who came to the UK in the back of a lorry himself in 2013, said: “He was keeping in touch with his family, with his mother and sisters.

“He just kept getting caught by police and couldn’t get across.”

It is understood Al Balkhi then travelled to Italy because he thought he could take a plane to the UK.

He came back to the French coast when he failed.

Abdul Bakhi said his nephew then went to Calais on October 7.

He said: “When you stand on the side of France you can see Dover. He texted my brother in Bradford to say: ‘I can see the UK’.

“My brother told him you could but it was still a very long distance. He advised him to try and go in the back of a lorry.”

His sister Rahaf, 19, was the last person to speak to Al Balkhi.

She received a Whatsapp message at around 6pm. He said he missed his family.

Abdul Bakhi said: “They didn’t hear from him but they thought he had maybe tried to cross in a lorry and he had no internet signal.

“After seven days we began to worry.”

The family knew he had been running low on money.

Two weeks after Al Balkhi had gone missing, his two uncles went to Calais to look for him.

Abdul Bakhi said: “We had a photo of him and we went round all the people. Nobody knew him. It’s because he had only been in Calais a day.

“We went to the police and they took all the information about him. We went to cafes, restaurants and other places to see if anyone knew him.”

They returned to the UK. Days later Al Balkhi’s mother asked Abdul Bakhi to return and look again.

“But he had just disappeared,” said Abdul Bakhi. “We just didn’t think he had tried to swim. We thought he had been killed, maybe he was in prison. But if he was killed they would find a body. One month, two months, three months, six months.”

Meanwhile, investigations were continuing into the identities of the two bodies.

Abdul Bakhi said: “An Arabic journalist in France helped us. He spoke to a journalist in Norway he knew was looking into the two bodies.”

“The journalist asked my brother in Bradford to take his DNA.

“There was some doubt. So they ask for DNA from his mother.”

That DNA matched with the body found in Holland.

The family do not know when Al Balkhi met Omar Kataf and how they tried to swim across.

Abdul Bakhi said the images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lying face down on a Turkish beach brought back the memories of his nephew’s death.

He said: “I saw that and I thought that happened to my nephew. Aylan maybe one day his boat tipped over in the night. It’s very sad.

“It shows how desperate people are for safety.”

Abdul Bakhi said the priority was to campaign so his sister and her family could see the unmarked grave where Al Bakhi’s remains are.

He said: “My sister wants to see the grave of her son. There is good people there. When they heard his story they began to place flowers. But his mother wants to see it.”

Al Balkhi’s sister Rahaf, who speaks fluent English, said they hoped to be resettled in Europe, possibly in the UK where their relatives are.

She said: “It’s very hard. Sometimes we pray and we wish that it was not Mouaz, we pray there is some mistake with the DNA samples.

“But after a while I have started to accept it more.

“We would really like to be in a place that is near to Mouaz, like the Netherlands, but because we have family members in the UK we think it is a more suitable place. It is not far from Holland and we can go easily to his grave.

“We wish to live our lives, to work and study. We cannot imagine anything better than being near Mouaz.

“Now he’s lost his life, we can’t see him so we feel like we just want to see his grave.”

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