Jordan's King Abdullah leads a nation’s grief

Civil defense members work to find survivors after rain storms unleashed flash floods near the Dead Sea in Jordan on Friday. Inset top: The Jordanian flag flies half-mast as a mark of respect for those killed. (Reuters)
Updated 26 October 2018
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Jordan's King Abdullah leads a nation’s grief

  • For many families there was no end to the grief, but they continued to live in hope that their loved ones would be found alive, as the search continued

AMMAN: Laughing, chattering, happy and excited, the children from Victoria College in Amman piled onto their school bus, ready for the outing they had been looking forward to all week. The plan was for a trip to Wadi Zarqa Maein, a heritage site of rock formations and thermal springs next to the Dead Sea, about 40km southwest of the Jordanian capital.
The children, seventh and eighth graders aged from about 11 to 14, spoke of the lunchtime picnic they would enjoy on Thursday among the rock pools and the reed beds. Instead, a freak rainstorm created a flash flood in the wadi and at least 21 children and teachers were swept to their deaths.
Twenty-four hours later, Jordan was still in a state of shock — combined with widespread anger and frustration that such a tragedy could have been allowed to occur.
“My grief and pain is beyond description, and it is only equal to my anger at those who failed to take measures that could have prevented this painful incident,” King Abdullah said.
“I offer condolences to myself and to Jordan for the loss of my Jordanian family. The suffering of every father, mother and family caused by this incident is my suffering.”
The Royal Hashemite Court ordered the lowering of the Jordanian flag to half-mast as a mark of respect for those who lost their lives.
Among the families of the children caught up in the flood, the grief was palpable. Ali Rahoumi, an Iraqi resident, broke down in tears when he was told that his only son was among those missing. Rahoumi lost his wife a month ago, he told Prime Minister Omar Razzaz, who was trying to comfort him.
For many families there was no end to the grief, but they continued to live in hope that their loved ones would be found alive, as the search continued.
Mystery surrounds why the school trip went ahead at all, at a time of year when the weather in Jordan can be dangerous and unpredictable. Over the past week, the Jordan Meteorological Department’s daily weather forecasts warned of poor conditions, including heavy rain and dust that was expected to blanket most of the country, and urged people to take precautions. Thursday’s tragedy suggests that no one was paying attention.
In the immediate aftermath of the flood, the Jordanian government attempted to apportion blame for the tragedy to the school, for planning a trip to a non-approved destination.

Ill-fated trip
The school had approval for a trip to Al-Azraq, an eco-tourism destination in Jordan’s eastern desert, not to the Dead Sea, Minister of State for Media Affairs Jumana Ghunaimat said. “It is clear that there is a violation; the school that organized the trip did not abide by public-safety regulations which stipulate that students must not swim and must be kept away from waterways,” she said.
However, a document made available to Arab News showed that the permission issued by the relevant ministry indicated that the school had adhered to the approved route.
Nevertheless, Minister of State for Legal Affairs Mubarak Abu Yamin said the government would hold the school accountable, administratively and criminally.
“We have already started our internal investigation, in coordination and cooperation with the attorney general’s office, to determine the responsibility and to identify causes and reasons that lead to this catastrophe,” he said. “We will make sure the rule of the law is observed and implemented.”
The Ministry of Education has launched a full-scale investigation into the incident, spokesman Walid Al-Jallad said, and the ministry was keen to cooperate fully with all concerned parties.
Civil engineer Maysarah Malas told Arab News on Friday that the school had to shoulder the responsibility for organizing a school trip despite a weather warning notice issued by the Jordan Meteorological Department.
However, he said: “Blaming the school management does not relieve the ministry or the minister himself from responsibility. The weather had started to deteriorate in the early hours of the day. The minister should have issued instructions to all schools to cancel any plans for school trips, but he did not.”


Mardini — refugee from Syria rising fast after fleeing war

Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, the Olypmpia swimmer, escaped conflict in her homeland. A year later she famously competed at the Rio Olympics. (Photo/UNHCR)
Updated 14 min 46 sec ago
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Mardini — refugee from Syria rising fast after fleeing war

  • The 21-year-old girl almost drowned at sea fleeing her war-torn country four years ago

GWANGJU/SOUTH KOREA: Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, who almost drowned at sea fleeing her war-torn country four years ago, heaved a deep sigh after failing to set a personal best at the world swimming championships on Sunday.

Representing FINA’s independent athletes team, the 21-year-old looked up at the giant scoreboard and winced at her time of 1 minute 8.79 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly heats in South Korea.
“I’m not very happy actually,” Mardini told AFP.
“I had some problems with my shoulder but I’m back in training. I still have the 100m freestyle and I’m looking forward to that.”
Mardini’s time was more than 12 seconds slower than that of reigning champion Sarah Sjostrom and 47th overall, but she has come a long way since risking her life crossing from Izmir in Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in the summer of 2015.
Refugee swimmer Mardini knows what she is talking about when it comes to family separation for asylum seekers.
In 2015, she and her sister Sarah had escaped conflict in their homeland when the boat they were aboard with other refugees began sinking. They jumped out and swam part of the journey from Turkey to Greece.
They then embarked on an overland trip from Greece to Germany, evading local authorities in countries with immigration policies that barred them from legal entry. Along the way the sisters slept in train stations or wherever they could find shelter.
Mardini empathizes with families currently separated along the US southern border.
“This is the most terrible thing anyone can have — to live without a mom or to live without a family,” she said on Sunday at the world swimming championships where she’s competing as an independent athlete.
“I arrived in Greece in only jeans and a T-shirt,” said Mardini, who also swims in the 100m freestyle later this week. “Even my shoes were gone.”
“In the beginning I refused to be in a refugee team because I was afraid people would think I got the chance because of my story,” said Mardini, who now lives with her family in Berlin.
“I wanted to earn it. But then I realized I had a big opportunity to represent those people — so I took the chance and I never regretted it,” she added.
Mardini was 17 at the time. She is now a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She famously competed at the Rio Olympics a year later under the refugee flag.

FASTFACT

• In 2015, she and her sister had escaped conflict in their homeland when the boat they were aboard with other refugees began sinking. They jumped out and swam part of the journey from Turkey to Greece.

• Mardini was 17 at the time. She is now a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Rio was amazing. It was really exciting to see the reaction of people to the team. Now I’m representing millions of displaced people around the world and it really makes me proud.”
It is a far cry from life back in Syria, where rocket strikes would often shake the pool she trained at in Damascus.
“There were bomb attacks sometimes that would crack the windows around the pool,” said Mardini, who has addressed the UN General Assembly and whose story is set to be told in a Hollywood movie.
“I know people who lost their moms on the way or in the water — that got drowned — and I feel this is terrible,” she said.
Mardini said that from the time she left Syria she lived without her mother for six months. Eventually, they were reunited in Germany, where they now live in Berlin. “I felt so alone,” she said. “So lonely.”
The experience has prompted her to stand up for fellow asylum seekers in similar situations.
“Someone has to do something about it,” Mardini said. “The least we can do is talk about it, not just ignore it like everything else happening in the world.”
Mardini finished 47th out of 52 swimmers in the 100-meter butterfly heats on Sunday. Her other event in Gwangju is the 100 freestyle on Thursday.
She is attempting to again qualify for the Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team.
“My goal now is just to swim a new personal best,” she said. “And my next goal will be Tokyo 2020.”
Fellow Syrian Ayman Kelzieh was also forced to flee the country before competing at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.
Returning to Korea five years later, the 26-year-old now owns a fistful of national swim records, including the 50m, 100m and 200m butterfly.
“When the war started I had just moved to Damascus and I couldn’t get back home to Aleppo,” said Kelzieh, who now lives on the Thai island of Phuket.
“But even in Damascus bombs sometimes even went off at the swimming pool we trained at,” he added after taking a poolside selfie with his idol, South African star Chad le Clos.
“There were even attacks at the hotel I stayed in — I was lucky.”