Thursday June 15, 2017
'It's just too much': Syrian refugee escaped civil war only to die in London highrise fire
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- June 15, 2017 episode transcript
- Full Episode
After surviving the Syrian uprising, the crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad, a bombing campaign by ISIS and the dangerous passage across the Mediterranean Sea, Mohammad Al-Haj Ali died scared and alone in a burning London apartment tower.
The 23-year-old Syrian refugee was the first victim to be identified after a massive fire engulfed the Grenfell Tower public housing highrise in the U.K. capital on Wednesday.
"It's just unbelievable. This man, he fled Syria seeking safety, seeking a better future, and look at his end. So tragic. Unbelievable," his friend Abdulaziz Almashi told As It Happens host Carol Off. "I just, I can't take it. Literally, I can't even believe he passed away in such a horrific way."
- AS IT HAPPENS: Witness describes 'wall of fire' engulfing tower
- Criminal charges possible in London fire
Ali, a civil engineering student at the University of the West London, was on the 14th floor of the building with his brother Omar when the fire broke out early Wednesday morning.
"Ultimately he told them, 'Look, the fire is here, I'm going to die, I'm going to die. Goodbye, and tell my mom and my dad I love them.' And that was the last message." - Abdulaziz Almashi
The two of them attempted to escape down the building's only stairwell.
"But it was too dark and the smoke was so thick, so they lost each other on the stairs," Almashi said. "They were shouting, but they couldn't reach each other because it was too dark."
Omar made it to safety, but Mohammed became overcome by the smoke and returned to the apartment. He tried to call his parents in Damascus, but he couldn't get through. So he phoned his friend in Syria on Skype.
"I spoke to that guy in Syria and he told me that. He told me the whole conversation. He said they stayed on the line with him for two hours trying to tell him: 'You will be fine. Don't worry. The firefighters are there. You are in London, you are not in Syria. Don't worry, the rescue team will reach you,'" he said.
"Can you imagine someone in Syria trying to make it easy for someone in London?"
Almashi later learned that firefighters were able to rescue people all the way up to the 13th floor. Mohammed was on the 14th.
"Ultimately he told them, 'Look, the fire is here, I'm going to die, I'm going to die. Goodbye, and tell my mom and my dad I love them.' And that was the last message," Almashi said.
Almashi, who met the Ali brothers through the Syria Solidarity Campaign, said they fled the city of Daraa — the birthplace of the Syrian uprising against Assad — in 2014, and were given asylum in Britain.
He remembers telling Mohammed he should study computer engineering because it would be easier to find a job in London.
"He said, 'I don't want to work in London. I want to [be] a civil engineer so when the war is over I can go back to Syria and I can rebuild Syria with the people,'" Almashi said.
"That's why I feel he was a loss not only for me, for our community, but even for Syria."
Political pressure is increasing following the inferno that killed at least 30 people at Grenfell Tower. Residents say their fears about fire safety had been ignored for years by local government authorities.
"Within a half an hour, the whole building was engulfed by fire, which is unacceptable in 2017 in London," Almashi said.
Police have launched a criminal investigation into the blaze and Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered a full public inquiry.
Rescuers are still searching for an unknown number of missing people after the fire, and Almashi fears the final death toll will be in the hundreds.
The Syria Solidarity Campaign has informed Mohammed's parents about his death, and they are now raising money to send his body back home.
When Off offered her condolences to Almashi for his friend's death, he replied: "If I tell you we're used to it as Syrians, would you believe that? I lost 14 members of my family back home in Syria.
"Syrians die today in Syria. If they flee, they might die in the sea. If they reach safety, they might get killed.
"It's just too much."
With files from Associated Press