Chapter 6 Transcript : I’m going to jump

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BENT MELCHIOR : I love the biblical stories. Not because I am a rabbi, but because biblical stories are symbols. 

Who doesn’t know the story about Adam and Eve? Do you really believe that the world was created in 6 days and then suddenly there was a person there who felt a little bit lonely so god made life more interesting by creating, by splitting up that person into 2 persons. I mean is that literally how it happened?  

To me, the fact that the bible talks about one person. And that person was not a man. That’s a mistake. People think that since it was Adam -- but Adam means a person. A Human being. In Hebrew. Later it became a boys name so people think it was a man. But the bible says it was male and female. That person was male and female. And then it was split up. Why only one couple? Why not a hundred couples or thousand couples? And the answer is because we shall understand that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve. Nobody has more blue blood or red blood. It’s a symbol. A wonderful symbol. 

We all are descendants of the same people. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI : Bent Melchior and my grandmother were rescued from a little fishing boat on the shores of Sweden in 1943. That year, the estimated number of displaced people in Europe was somewhere between 21 and 30 million. And there would still be two more years of war. 

Communities were completely annihilated and lone survivors like my grandmother were displaced across Europe. Hitler’s Final Solution eradicated Jews from Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic Countries, Romania and others. And as the war continued, Italy and France would also join this list.

Sweden was a neutral country. After being saved by the Swedish fishermen, Hana and the fellow refugees who survived the escape from Denmark, were helped by the Swedish Red Cross.

HANA DUBOVA: They quarantined us in an agricultural school where we slept in the gym on mattresses and they processed us. But before they quarantined us, of course they asked us all of these questions. Do you have relatives? Do you have any way to make a living in Sweden? And so on. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Not having any other options, Hana exchanged her labor for room and board. 

HANA DUBOVA: So, I asked the school whether I could stay there and work in the kitchen and they said yes. And I got room for that. And food for that. I wore a big heavy sack apron and cleaned the herring. And then I also washed those big kettels where they make the food. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: She stayed there 8 months working in the kitchen, until the spring of 1944. Then she decided to go to school again. Women didn’t have a lot of options at the time, so she decided to do what she did in Denmark and offer to work in exchange for an education. 

HANA DUBOVA: And so [laughter] I started repeating myself. I started applying to nursing schools because umm what what did women become? School teachers, nurses, nannies. So, I did the same thing. And I was accepted in one hospital as free tuition if I do the manual chores. Which I did. I cleaned the hallways. I cleaned the instruments. I cleaned the toilets And I stayed there to get nursing education.   

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Working in the hospital, Hana realized what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to become a midwife.

HANA DUBOVA: I know when I witnessed the first birth as a nurse, I thought I’d die. I was crying and  crying and crying and crying. I couldn’t believe. So that’s what I really wanted to do. Bring life to the world. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI:  Hana started working towards a nursing degree. 

In the meantime -- allied forces began a massive invasion of Europe. Over 150,000 British, Canadian and American soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, forcing Hitler to relocate his army and his resources to Western Europe. This resulted in Germany’s defeat in the East. With Hitler distracted fighting the Americans and British, Soviet troops advanced into Poland, Czechoslovkia, Hungary and Romania. 

The Soviet Army’s rapid advance into Poland surprised the Germans, and they rushed to destroy the evidence of their mass murder. This led to one of the first liquidations of a concentration camp -- Majdanek -- in July of 1944. The Germans demolished the camp built in occupied-Poland. But the gas chambers remained standing.

Germans transported the prisoners deep into Germany to other concentration camps -- some by train but most in forced-marches. They walked hundreds of miles without proper clothing or shoes. Tens of thousands of people died in these death marches from hunger. Or because they were shot because they couldn’t keep up.

For those who did survive, many ended up at Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany. It was overcrowded and plagued with disease. In April of 1945, When British soldiers liberated the  camp, they found a scene unimaginable even for a horror movie. 

Thousands of dead bodies were strewn about the camp. There was no running water. The 60,000 prisoners still alive were stuffed into barracks. They were fed only three times a week. 

A British soldier who was there recalled, quote “The bodies were a ghastly sight. Some were green. They looked like skeletons covered with skin -- the flesh had all gone. There were bodies of small children among the grown ups. In other parts of the camp there were hundreds of bodies lying around, in many cases piled five or six high.”

Two weeks later, after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Hitler killed himself in his underground bunker. 

Just over a week after that, Germany surrendered. 

HISTORICAL TAPE: This is the BBC home service. We’re interrupting programs to make the following announcement. It is understood that in accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, an official announcement will be broadcast by the prime minister at 3 o’clock tomorrow, Tuesday afternoon, the 8th of May. In view of this fact, tomorrow Tuesday will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday.

HANA DUBOVA: The war is finally over. Finally, the war is over.

RACHAEL CERROTTI: It was 1945, and now a new crisis emerged. Where was home? Where were the millions of stateless people supposed to go?

A rumor spread around Sweden. If anyone had fled from Denmark during the rescue operation, whether they were Danish citizens or not, if they returned they would get citizenship.

HANA DUBOVA: Now, you have to understand all these years I was citizen of nothing. And it’s very very difficult to move around without citizenship. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: The idea that she could be a citizen of Denmark was huge. So she went back.

HANA DUBOVA: They interned us again. And we were quarantined again. And I had again nowhere to go. I was not a Danish citizen. That rumor was false. You didn’t become a Danish citizen. I wasn’t a Swedish citizen. I wasn’t a Czech citizen. I was nothing. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: I’m Rachael Cerrotti. We share the same sky.

RACHAEL CERROTTI:  By the end of the war, Europe was in ruins. Leaders were redrawing borders. And millions of displaced people were searching for any loved one they could find who might be alive. In the 6 years of World War II, roughly 80 million people had died -- 4% of the world’s population. 

The first year I traveled following Hana’s story, I spent a lot of time thinking about open borders. In my ten months in Europe in 2014 and 2015, I never once had to show my passport. All of the countries that Hana’s story took me too were part of the Schengen Area -- a mutual agreement of 26 European countries who had decided to abandon passport control at their borders. 

But, by the time I returned to Europe the next summer -- the  summer Sergio and I had our wedding party in Denmark -- the political climate had changed. The American presidential election was underway. The British had voted to leave the EU -- better known as Brexit. And political unrest in the Middle East and Africa drove staggering numbers of people to seek asylum in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of migrants were doing exactly what my grandmother did. They fled persecution. 

The number of displaced people in the world climbed so high that for the first time it surpassed records set after World War II. And people weren’t happy about it. 

[[ Montage of Headlines ]]

Scenes of rioting, and that's amid growing tensions over record numbers of migrants. 

The migrants, many of them escaping war zones, only to now being confronted with a wave of assaults and arson attacks.  [chanting]

Hundreds of refugees heading to Europe have apparently drowned in yet another tragedy in the Mediterranean. They died when their boats capsized near Egypt. European countries have recently reduced search and rescue operations for likely stranded refugee boats. They took the measure as part of plans to halt the inflow of asylum seekers escaping war in Africa and in the Middle East, especially Syria. 

More than a thousand people gathered to demonstrate against a new refugee center. [chanting]

There is something unsettling about standing in a square once named after Adolf Hitler and listening to thousands of Germans chant nationalist slogans. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: As politicians started adopting xenophobic and anti-immigrant platforms, the shift in politics changed my grandmother’s story. No longer was her survival just a redemptive tale buried in the shadows of the past. It was a forewarning. A symbol. 

The first time I visited the fisherman’s family in Sweden where my grandmother’s boat came to shore, they brought me to see a house a few streets over from them. They told me that this house was where my grandmother stayed that first night she made it to Sweden -- before she was quarantined by the red cross. I took a few photographs. The house had been a Bed n Breakfast, but now it looked empty. The grass around it was overgrown. The trees were bare. The windows were shut. And the sign once advertising open rooms had a big white X over the name. 

A year later, when I returned to Sweden, I walked back over to the house. The grass was now a healthy green and the bushes were filled in. The summer hid the skeleton of bare branches. And a few wooden chairs created a social space on the yard. 

As I picked up my camera to snap a photograph, a teenage boy walked out onto the wrap-around balcony. He flashed me the peace sign.

Then a woman came out of one of the ground-floor doors. “No photos, no photos,” she said. So, I pulled my camera away from my eye.

I walked towards her and introduced myself in one quick breath, “Hi, my name is Rachael. I’m from Boston. My grandmother stayed here when she was a refugee in 1943 during the Holocaust. I’m here working on a documentary project. And, I’m just wondering. Why can’t I take pictures?

She told me that there were teenage boys living in the house now. They were all refugees. From places like Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. They’d all come without their parents. And they’d all come by boat. She told me it was better if I didn’t take any pictures because some people hated that the refugees were here. She said they’d come and burn the house down if they knew where these boys lived.

After that, I started reaching out to refugees in Scandinavia. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: So we can start by having you introduce yourself. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: I photographed and interviewed them. I got to know them. 

MOUDI: I am not the best at that, but like okay. My name is Moudi. And I am 27 years old.

RACHAEL CERROTTI: In my mind, they’d become part of my grandmother’s story, too. 

MOUDI: And yeah, I am from Syria. And I have been living in Denmark for the last 4 years.

RACHAEL CERROTTI: That’s how I met this guy. Moudi. And in this episode, I want to spend some time with him. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Can you tell me a bit about where you come from and what home is like?

MOUDI: I grew up in Damascus. Most of my life. I had a great childhood. I didn’t come from like a rich family, but we were you know, middle class as you could say, yeah, but we were rich in love, you know. {laughter}. So, yeah, I am a basketball player. I played in a professional level in Damascus. And I played for the Syrian National Team. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: I met Moudi in Copenhagen. He’s tall -- 198 centimeters tall. Translated for us Americans that’s about 6’4. Moudi pulled back his curly black hair with a headband. When the war in Syria began, Moudi was 18-years old. He was just starting his career as a professional basketball player. He was close with his family and the oldest of 4 siblings. 

MOUDI: When the war started. It wasn’t like it was really something that you could feel in the beginning. Because it starting very slow. It started very slow and we adjusted with it. We lived a normal life with it, so we got used to it day by day. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: The Syrian War started in 2011, when pro-democracy protests erupted throughout the country. The protesters were challenging President Bashar Al Assad. They demanded an end to the authoritarian practices of his regime, a regime that had been in place since his father had become president forty years before. Assad responded to the protests with military force and by 2012, the uprising had turned into an all-out civil war. 

That’s when bombs started going off in Moudi’s neighborhood.

MOUDI: That was the most scary part because it started to be like everywhere and anywhere. You really don’t know when is it going to happen. You are just going to your practice or going wherever I have to go and suddenly you hear like, a crazy noise of a bomb. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Quickly, politics fractured relationships between neighbors, family and friends. 

MOUDI: People started to get divided by who is supporting the government, who is not supporting the government, who supports the revolution, who doesn’t support the revolution and all these kinds of things so even between my friends, we divided. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: And then playing basketball became dangerous. Small flyers began appearing in the locker rooms threatening the team. The flyers warned that if Moudi and the others continued to play, they ‘d be killed. 

MOUDI: But we didn’t care about it to be honest. We just keep going.

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Until one day in 2012.

MOUDI: I have a friend on my team called Basel. He used to play in the national team for many years. He’s older than me. He was like a big brother for me. I learned a lot from him. I was still 18 at that time. And uh, one day after the practice, he was shot in his car. Around 10 shots. And he died after that. That was like the moment where everybody figured out that this isn’t a joke anymore. It is serious and it’s happening. 

After that, in few month, another friend of mine unfortunately died, another few friends of mine got into the prison. We used to be a great big group, now we are just getting smaller and smaller. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: International organizations and leading powers, tried to bring the conflict to an end to no avail. And the fighting came closer and closer to Moudi’s home.

MOUDI: It was dangerous to go out in the nighttime, there is always fights happening. So sometimes, if you don’t hear shooting during the night, then you can’t sleep because it is not normal. Then you are really scared. So, I remember the days when there was no shootings, we were like all sitting, like there is something wrong, like they need to start shooting somewhere because otherwise we are really scared that it is going to be inside the same neighborhood where we are at. And then when we listen to it fighting in a different place, then it is like, okay, great, now we can sleep.

You don’t feel it and you feel it at the same time. You know, but life has to go on. And when you are living there. It is your country. It is your place. It is your home. You are not just like going to give up on the first moment. And you will have to, sometimes there is no other option. Because okay, now you can’t live. What should you do?

RACHAEL CERROTTI: For Moudi’s family, that question came at the end of 2012, when one day brought so much fighting to their street that they could see bullet holes in the buildings next door. Dead bodies covered the ground.

MOUDI: My mom just said, no more. We, we are leaving. We are leaving the country.

The first thing I did of course was just went to my wardrobe actually and just took all my basketball clothes because that is something I have been collecting since I was a kid. So, I couldn’t like leave it behind. I took only all this and I took my laptop and thats it. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: What else was important for your family to take with them?

MOUDI: At that moment, we actually didn’t want to take anything because the only thing you think about is just leave. Like right now. The plan was we was going to Egypt and then hopefully we will come back after like maybe one month, two month when the situation is better. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Moudi’s mother was Egyptian. So they went to Alexandria, where her family came from. In Syria, Moudi made a good living playing basketball, but once they got to Egypt, his ability to support himself disappeared and he began having to rely on his parents. Any money he did have in savings became worthless. The Syrian Pound dropped in value with each passing week. 

He did find a basketball club in Egypt that wanted to sign him, but the rules stated that because he wasn’t Egyptian, he would be considered a professional. And each team could only have two professionals on it. And, American players were always chosen first. 

So he thought maybe he would study. But once again, because he was Syrian, he could only enroll in private universities. He wasn’t eligible for the free education that his Egyptian peers received. He was 20-years-old and he felt like his future had been robbed. 

MOUDI: I had the thoughts of course that I wish I’m not living in Egypt. I would love to move and I would love to go somewhere else.

RACHAEL CERROTTI: And there was a rumor going around. He was hearing about these illegal boat rides that took people to Europe, across the Mediterranean Sea. But he had strong feelings about that. He thought it was crazy that people would risk their lives just to get to a new country.

MOUDI: I was like against it 100%. Who the fuck do something like that, it is so stupid. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Back when Moudi was playing basketball in Syria, he met a lot of Europeans and Americans. That is one of the reasons his English is so good. He had coaches from places like Romania and Macedonia. He had contacts in other countries, and friends who had gone to Europe to play basketball. He looked to them for help. To maybe get him a contract with a European team. He told them he didn’t care about the money. He just wanted to be living his own life again. 

It got close, especially with a team in Spain. Contracts were sent over. Plans were made. But the visa never came.

MOUDI: Rejected. Because I am Syrian, ya know. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Was it because of the war that it was difficult to get a visa. Or in general would it have been difficult?

MOUDI: I don’t believe that it is difficult if there was no war. Because a lot of people go from trips like for vacation, to go just like visit some country. Of course if you have a job and if you have a life in Syria like they know that you are gonna just go and have a trip and come back so a lot of people used to do that for vacations and stuff like that. Because also Syria economically was healthy. And there wasn’t that much troubles that makes you actually want to like just live somewhere outside or something like that. People were happy there. But, yeah, after the war, of course they wouldn’t give you a visa because they know you are moving, you will never go back. And they consider stuff like that. So you can’t just say, oh I am going for vacation. They know very well what is going to happen. It is going to be the longest vacation you will ever take in your life.

RACHAEL CERROTTI: So then he tried illegal routes. He tried to get a fake visa which would cost $5000, a huge amount of money for anyone in Egypt. His friends and family all chipped in with money to help make this possible for him. But right when he was supposed to make the exchange -- money for visa -- the man he was negotiating with disappeared.

MOUDI: So then it was was like, thats, there is no chance anymore and depression started to attack and life started to be like different and really got tired. And then I gave up. I was just like, that’s it for me. I give up. And then uhh, that idea came up into my brain. The same idea that I used to say was so stupid by traveling on the sea. It just hit my brain again and I’m like maybe I am going to do that.  

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Moudi found a smuggler that said that he could get him on a boat for 25 hundred dollars. Half of what the visa would cost. 

MOUDI: He said the next trip is one week. I was like cool, perfect, I am doing that. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Had you talked to your parents about wanting to do this before? Did they know this was on your mind? 

MOUDI: No no no, Never. They would never expect that. Because they know that I am the most person who is against it. I just keep swearing at people doing it.

RACHAEL CERROTTI: So he waited to tell to his parents until the night before he left. 

MOUDI: According to the people who made it, usually they make it in like 8 to 10 days max. So I just packed according to the plan that if I make it it is going to be that and if I don’t make it, then it doesn’t matter. Because it’s gone.  

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Moudi understood that when traveling by sea, there are only two options -- you either make it to shore. Or you drown. You live. Or you die. 

He filled a bag with a few cans of food, an extra pair of shoes wrapped in plastic bags. A pair of jeans. And one shirt. He didn’t bring his passport or any identifying papers with him, knowing that they would get wet and ruined. He had no phone, no computer. Simply the bare essentials of what he might need along the way.

The smugglers directed him to a part of Egypt that wasn’t far from the Libyan border. There, he met around 250 other hopeful migrants and refugees. They waited in the empty darkness, where the desert met the sea.

[[ sounds of waves]]

MOUDI: They had to move people in groups. Then they had to move to small boats that takes you to the big boat. When I say big boat, I don’t mean big boat. I just mean it was bigger than this small two boats. It was very small too.  

RACHAEL CERROTTI: These smaller boats were essentially fishing boats. Once their group was called, Moudi and the others had to swim to it and climb on board. Each was filled with about 20 people. And from there they transferred to the big boat. 

MOUDI: And then suddenly that boat, when the moment we entered it, started to moving further. It started moving further further further further. And it didn’t stop. So we thought, phew maybe we made it. Like now he is moving. The first thing that these people think about is crossing the international sea because the moment we cross, we are safe. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: The boat Moudi was on made it into international waters. But then they stayed still. 

The passengers huddled together and as the sun rose, they began to panic. Why weren’t they moving anymore?

MOUDI: So we are asking what is going to happen now? Are we done? Are we moving. They are like, no, we have to take the other people. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: The fisherman told them that the police attacked the other boats. Only they made it into the international sea. So they had to go back into the Egyptian waters and get the other passengers.

MOUDI: And we were like, but that is dangerous because you are again going into the Egyptian Sea and again going outside again. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: They went back anyway. But once in the Egyptian waters, the fisherman got word from the smugglers that it was too dangerous to transfer the migrants, so again, they sailed back to the international sea.

MOUDI: Every time they have to come and leave, we losing one day because they have to go always in the nighttime. This happened for exactly 10 days. 10 days on going in. They get a call from the outside telling them like it is dangerous, there is police, go back, we go out. We go in, there is a word, go out. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: No one on board knew what would happen next. They stayed still on the boat in the water, moving back and forth, waiting for the smugglers directions. 

MOUDI: We started to run out of food even this fisher started running out of whatever gas. We are losing patience. We don’t have any like connection to the outside world. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: The fishermen started fighting with each other over what to do with the passengers.

MOUDI: They can’t go back to Egypt with us. They want to go back to their families as well. But if they go back to Egypt with us, they will be in big trouble. Because we are already in the international sea. So where did you get these people from. You know. And also we will be in trouble because we didn’t leave the country legally so we are entering illegally now. So we don’t have papers or anything. So, they started to talk about leaving us on some small island somewhere. It was just so tiring to think about it and it was so scary at the same time because you really don’t know what could happen. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: On the 10th day, the fishermen made contact with a boat returning from Italy, and it was decided that the passengers would transfer to that boat. 

MOUDI: Before they moved us, they asked us all to sit down in the corner, and sit down because there was a high waves. So the boats they were trying to connect them to each other with rope, but it keeps hitting each other.

RACHAEL CERROTTI: The passengers were told to prepare to jump from one boat to another.

MOUDI: And that hits, you know. It started to break a little bit of the wood inside the other boat. Because it was so strong. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Everyone would have to jump anyway.

MOUDI: You know, you are 10 days in the sea. You don’t have like any power. The muscles is dead. Everything is like not working and they were just like holding the person and when the boats come close to each other, they throw it to the other boat. And it was so scary to look down. There was a sea that is so crazy and the waves are high and the boats are hitting each other so bad. And every time they hit each other, they just go like far from each other. They were just throwing people without thinking about it. So for me, I was just imagining being in between. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: When it was Moudi’s turn to jump, he pushed everyone away. He didn’t want their help. 

MOUDI: I was just like standing there and they holding my arms. And I was like, just leave me alone. I’m going to jump. I am going to do it myself because if I fall, then I fall. It’s my fault.

I always know that I always know that I jump high and all this, but I was like no chance. Like I’m not going to make it. I can see it is far. And I don’t know how. Like one of my legs touched the other boat and then the guys hugged me you know and then they threw me inside the boat. And I was shaking so much. I couldn’t look behind me because there was another like 18 people going through the same process and I was just hoping everyone can make it. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Everybody did make it. The new boat was filled with more than three hundred migrants who had been collected from various other boats in the sea. They were told they were maximum only one day away from Italy. 

MOUDI: We asked the captains like where we at, what’s happening. And they are like, yeah yeah yeah, tomorrow we are arriving. Amazing. Then tomorrow comes, hey what happened, where we at, he was like yeah, some problem happened, but yeah tomorrow we are arriving.

RACHAEL CERROTTI: For three days this went on. Moudi and the other passengers who had come from Egypt had now been at sea for 18 days. Double of what he’d heard was normal.

MOUDI: I slept so much on the boat that somehow I started understanding like the sea. I started understanding like the sun. What time it is without looking at the watch because I don’t have a watch. I started to tell it could be now around two and a half because the sun is right there. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: As he got better at feeling the time from the sun, he started to sense something else too. 

MOUDI: Something like was uncomfortable. I started feeling like something is not going right. I can’t see the sun on top of my face during three hours, two times. There must be a problem. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: So Moudi said something to one of the other passengers. A man from Iraq named Hassan.

MOUDI: I told him, Hassan, I feel like there is something wrong. And he said, yeah tell me tell me. I feel something is wrong too. What do you think? I said, I feel like we are rolling around same spot. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Hassan agreed. So they went to another passenger who they knew had a phone with enough battery left to open a map with GPS even though they were offline.

MOUDI: And he turned on his phone and we looked at the location. And there we were shocked. We are basically still between Egypt and Libya. So we haven’t even moved. So we have been for the last few days at the same spot. 

Then, things started to be out of control. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: They confronted the captains. The other passengers became paranoid, and as the news spread, that fear became anger. And when the anger came, the boat became unstable because everyone was moving. The passengers threatened the captains. They told them if they didn’t tell them why they were staying still, they would throw them into the sea. The captains confessed -- they were waiting for another shipment of people.

MOUDI: We were, WHAT. If you put one extra person on this boat, it will sink. We are 320 people in a boat that doesn’t take more than 50. And they are like yeah, but they got a call from outside that they have to wait for another shipment. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: The captains told the passengers that if they moved, the smugglers might kill their families. 

MOUDI: People went insane. The captain started crying. Like, begging us to like stay stable and like you know, just to accept it. Nobody of course accepted that. We forced them to move. 

And that was the day when they started moving for real because we told them that we are following you on the map. 

[[ sounds of waves]]

RACHAEL CERROTTI: As they finally headed towards Italian waters, the sea became the enemy.

MOUDI: It was the most scary day ever during the trip because the waves were so high that I swear when the boat is going up with the wave comes, you could look at it. You think that it will hit you and it will kill you. And then the wave come and lift the boat all the way up and then when you look, you can see that the sea is too far down. It’s like you are on the fifth floor or something. It’s too far down and everything is dark in the middle of the day. There was no rain. It was just waves and crazy hurricanes or whatever happening. And it stayed like that for the whole day and the whole night. We were all screaming. And we know that any wrong move that could make the boat flip around and everybody will never never, no matter what, never can survive this. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: A few days after the storm, the boat arrived to Italy. 

MOUDI: The best thing to see is like a ground in front of you after 21 days in the sea without seeing it. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2013, 60,000 migrants came to Europe by illegal boat rides across the Sea. In 2014, when Moudi crossed, that number jumped to more than two hundred thousand people. And in 2015, it was reported that more than a million migrants and refugees arrived to Europe by sea. And of those million, half were Syrians fleeing the war. 

It’s also estimated that in this peak year — 2015 — 4,000 people drowned trying to cross the Mediterraenan Sea. Most of these people — survivors and the victims — were refugees. They risked their lives to flee war, conflict and persecution in their home countries. 

In Italy, Moudi was helped by the Red Cross. He told me that he didn’t even recognize himself. He was sick and very skinny. During the course of the trip he lost something like 20 kilograms, around 44 pounds. His beard grew big and his skin became dark. He spent the first night in Sicily and then went on to Milan where he found someone who helped him get a fake id so he could fly to Denmark.  

And, in Denmark, he did what asylum seekers are told to do. He turned himself into the police.

MOUDI: I didn’t have any reason to come to Denmark to be honest, but it’s just like the fact that we always hear that Denmark is the happiest country in the world so I believed that. And the other main reason of course was the language. I knew that in Denmark, it’s the second best country speaking English after the United Kingdom. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: The Danish Refugee Council placed Moudi in a small town on the Danish island of Jutland. His parents sent him important documents including newspaper clippings that proved he was a professional athlete. He began playing basketball again and slowly adjusted to life in his new normal. And soon enough, he made some connections that got him a try out for a basketball team in Copenhagen.

MOUDI: When I came to Copenhagen for this tryout I stayed only for one night. But I remember that I loved the city. Like the moment that I walked in the streets and watching how people are living and like sitting in cafes and like I never sit in a cafe because I was like I’m broke as fuck. I was looking at the people. I was like, this is exactly where I belong. This is the life I want, you know. I look at it like, one day like I will be sitting there. I’m going to do that no matter what it takes.

[[ sounds of Moudi coaching basketball in Copenhagen ]]

RACHAEL CERROTTI: And he did that. He made friends, got himself a job, and even started coaching basketball.  

MOUDI: And slowly you know, I started like now fighting for experiences, you know. Learning something new every time or going to different places asking for work. In the beginning I was like thinking that I will never find a job. It was not like that at all. I just had to step out, a little bit outside and talk to people. And all the places I said I want to go and eat and try, I did it. So, haha, now I’m good. I am not a window shopper anymore. Only at the end of the month. 

RACHAEL CERROTTI: The first time I met Moudi, our conversation went back and forth with ease. He told me his story and I told him mine. I told him all about my grandmother and how she fled Czechoslovakia when she was just 14. I retold the details of her escape as if I was there, lingering on the night she was lost on the Baltic Sea. 

In spite of the darkness that lived in each of these narratives, each was redemptive in its own way. But, this isn’t the case for so many war stories. 

BENT MELCHIOR: It is the survivors that tell history. It is also the survivors that tell about war and say the World War wasn’t so bad because they survived. But if it was one of those who didn’t come back, it would be a different story. 
RACHAEL CERROTTI: This is Bent again, the rabbi who as a young boy was on the same refugee boat as my grandmother. 

BENT MELCHIOR: You can not compare one catastrophe with another. Stories are not going to repeat themselves exactly the same. The story of the rescue operation will not come in the same way again, but it is a symbol. It is a teaching.

For some reason, people often ask me, have you not been afraid sitting there in the sea and not knowing whether  you would drown or whether you would reach land and which land you would reach. 

MOUDI: And it was so scary to look down and there is like a sea that is so crazy and the waves are high… 

BENT MELCHIOR: Were you not afraid, you were in war and their were those to the right of you and to the left of you were hit by bullets. 

MOUDI: It started to be like bombs everywhere and anywhere. 

BENT MELCHIOR: I have been threatened in my lifetime over the phone and by letters in the most crazy ways. 

MOUDI: Saying that you shouldn’t come otherwise you will be killed.

BENT MELCHIOR: Are you not afraid? 

And honestly, life is dangerous from the moment you were born. People today are afraid of terror. And of course terror is terrible, but terror is not killing. Terror is fear. Terror means you make people afraid. And if you are afraid, then they won.

[[ SCENE : Sitting in Bent’s living room in Copenhagen ]]

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Remember when I came here with Sergio, when you met him, a couple years ago.

BENT MELCHIOR: Yeah

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Or more than a couple now. But umm, and we were talking about this idea of being scared and we were talking about the Jewish song. Maybe you could sing a little bit of it for us. 

BENT MELCHIOR: The Jewish song?

RACHAEL CERROTTI: Yeah. The world is a very narrow bridge. 

BENT MELCHIOR: Well, one of the Chassidic rabbis formulated the sentence, ‘All The World Is Like A Narrow Bridge.’ The major thing is thing is never to become afraid. 

Bent singing Kol Ha’Olam Kulo (in Hebrew)

[[ Recording of a Children’s Choir (Children Beyond) joins him in song)

BENT MELCHIOR: I have a firm belief in a world without war. I was once asked, what is happiness? Happiness is not to be afraid. A world where nobody is afraid.

--

OUTRO (Rachael Cerrotti): We Share The Same Sky is produced by Erika Lantz and me. You can find the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play and other podcast apps. Please subscribe and leave a review. We’re also on Instagram and Facebook at Share The Same Sky. 

Every episode comes with photographs, videos, and a curriculum that you can use in the classroom! Learn more at sharethesamesky.com.

Thank you to USC Shoah Foundation for making this podcast possible. My grandmother’s story is one of nearly 55,000 testimonies in their archive from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. This podcast is also supported by Echoes & Reflections, a program for Holocaust education throughout the United States.

I’m Rachael Cerrotti. Thanks for listening.


*This episode includes music by Lee Rosevere and Blue Dot Sessions*