JEDDAH: Grief and heroism are often inseparable — as is the case for a courageous Saudi college duo who drowned while trying to save two children fighting to stay afloat in the Chicopee River in Massachusetts.
Cousins Theeb Al-Yami, 27, and Jaser Al-Rakah, 25, were taking a road trip in the US last Friday when they found the frantic mother and rushed to the scene to help rescue her two children.
Other onlookers also tried to help, but strong currents prevented them from securing the children.
In a desperate bid to reach the pair, the two Saudi students leapt into the river, but were swept away. Both children were able to swim to shore.
A police search found one student’s body last Saturday. The body of the other student was retrieved on Monday. The two students’ names were released on Tuesday.
Al-Yami was an engineering student in his fourth year at Hartford University, while Al-Rakah enrolled in the University of New England last fall to study civil engineering.
Both were believed to be a month away from graduating.
Al-Yami’s brother Shabbab told the local newspaper Sabq that he spoke to his sibling only last week when he was in Makkah. “He asked me to pray for him and my cousin, as they were in the midst of working on their graduation projects. He also spoke to me about their plans for the future and their aspirations, but death was upon them,” Shabbab said.
The students’ families say they have been overwhelmed by the reaction and sympathy of other families, saying that it has helped ease their suffering and loss. They praised the work of Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in the US, to ensure the return of their sons’ bodies, which is expected on Saturday.
The tragic event has left the nation with a sense of pride — and heartbreak.
Several official figures took to social media platforms to express their grief at the loss of the students.
Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Education, Dr. Ahmed bin Mohammad Al-Issa, tweeted: “I offer my sincerest condolences to the scholarship students, Theeb Al-Yami and Jaser Al-Rakah, who drowned as a result of heroic act in the US.”
The Saudi Arabia embassy in Washington tweeted: “The embassy ... is following up the incident of the deaths of students Jaser Al-Rakah and Theeb Al-Yami who drowned in Massachusetts. All necessary measures will be taken to determine the circumstances of the incident and the return of the bodies to the Kingdom. Our deepest condolences to those who are missed, may Allah grant them His mercy.”
The Saudi press has also highlighted the duo’s sacrifice, describing them as examples of heroism, and a source of pride for their families and country.
Jaser’s father, Daham, told MBC TV: “We received the news on Tuesday afternoon — we have been constantly in touch with them since they’ve left us three years ago. They’ve made us proud, they’ve made their tribe and country proud.”
He said the family had been consoled by encouraging words from Najran’s governor, the education minister, US universities and Americans who had reached out to pay their respects.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert commended their courage, saying: “The deaths of the two young men who bravely tried to save two children from drowning is a perfect example of international students from outside the US who enrich communities across the US.
“Theeb and Jaser were among Saudi students studying in the US and have reflected a greater international understanding and diverse perspectives on campus and in American communities as well as in their own country.”
Western New England University tweeted: “Jaser was an engineering student at Western New England University. As a campus community, our thoughts are with his family during this difficult time.”
Replying to Nauert’s letter, @JoySing64458036 said: “So sad. God bless their families. This act shows that we are all humans and that dividing people and sowing of separation is an evil act. These two students proved that, and we can never ever say thank you properly to them. So utterly sad for all of us.”
The universities where the two Saudi students studied issued letters of condolences. University of Hartford President Greg Woodward said: “It is with an extremely heavy heart that I write to tell you of a tragic loss. University of Hartford student Theeb Al-Yami passed away in an accidental drowning in Massachusetts on Friday. A contributing member of our vibrant community, he was attending UHart after earning sponsorship of his educational experience by the Cultural Mission of Saudi Arabia. We will mourn this terrible loss together.”
Western New England University, where Al-Rakah studied, said: “The entire Western New England University community joins with Jaser’s family and friends in mourning his tragic loss. By all accounts, he died coming to the aid of others. The university is working with the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to support Jaser’s family during this difficult time.”
Locals flooded Twitter with messages of appreciation. @han3e3n said: “Proud of these heroes that’s how Saudis provide the help no matter what happens to them.”
@mshokl said: “Brave two Saudi students Theeb Al-Yami and Jaser Al-Rakah lost their lives helping drowning children. Rest in peace my friends. #RIPSaudisKidsRescuers #RIP #Heros #humanity.”