On Christmas Day, Mohsen Alwais decided to take a road trip to Amsterdam with a group of friends.
Their plan was to walk around, see the city, and enjoy the Christmas lights and celebration.
But that never happened. As soon as the six friends drove into the city, they stopped at a red light and saw a man standing on a bridge and shouting for help.
Mohsen thought maybe a child had fallen into one of Amsterdam’s famous canals. So he and his friends put the hazards on, left their car at the light, and piled out to see what was wrong.
“I looked down,” Mohsen said, “and I saw a Dutch guy, about 55, 60 years old, drowning in the water.”
About 20 people had gathered on the bridge. Most of them were videotaping the floundering man with their mobile phones. But nobody was doing anything.
“He’s drowning, he’s drowning!” shouted Mohsen’s friend, Hala.
Mohsen took off his hat and jacket. A Dutch bystander grabbed him by the shoulder. “Don’t jump in,” he said. “He’ll pull you under and you’ll both drown.”
Mohsen looked down. The man’s head kept slipping below the freezing water. He thought about how the man’s children would feel when their father didn’t come home that night. He imagined them asking, “Where is Daddy?”
“Mohsen had a brave heart, more than me, and he went down quickly,” his friend Nibaal said. “And if Mohsen hadn’t done it, I would have.”
Last year, more than a million refugees crossed into Europe. More than 3 in 4 of them were from the war-torn countries of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Most of them want what people everywhere want: education, a job, and a home that isn’t being bombed to smithereens. But Europe’s far-right politicians are accusing them of everything from being “testosterone bombs” to trying to establish an Islamic caliphate.
Mohsen is one of those refugees.
In June 2014, he fled the war in Syria. He took a flimsy rubber raft packed with refugees to the Greek island of Samos. In Athens, a smuggler locked him inside a truck crammed with people, and seven horrible days later, he was in the Netherlands. Today he lives in Leiden, about 25 miles southwest of Amsterdam.
Like Mohsen, two of his friends almost drowned on the dangerous journey to reach Europe.
Hala took a raft from Libya to Italy — the deadly Mediterranean passage where 3,771 people drowned last year. Nibaal almost went down between Turkey and Greece.
“As Arabic people, we can’t stand to see a person drowning,” said Nibaal, who is from Damascus. “We can’t ignore it.”
When Mohsen reached the drowning man, he grabbed his right hand and squeezed it to see if he was still alive.
“You’re OK,” he kept saying to the man. “You’re OK.”
“Bravo, habiby, bravo!” Nibaal shouted from the bridge.
Mohsen dragged the man to the stone base of the bridge. Nibaal threw down a rope. Mohsen held the rope with one hand and the man with the other, trying to keep their heads above the freezing water. “He was really heavy,” said Mohsen, “but God gave me strength.”
After about five minutes, two police boats roared up. First they picked up Mohsen and the man he’d just saved. Nibaal followed in a second boat. As he got into the boat, Nibaal looked up. By then, around 200 people were standing on the bridge. As they sped away in the boats, everyone clapped. “It was like a movie,” he said.
Mohsen’s split-second decision probably saved the man’s life.
He got there “just in time,” Dutch police said later. “Otherwise it could have ended differently.” Two weeks later, Mohsen got a big bouquet of Dutch flowers and a letter from Henri Lenferink, the mayor of Leiden.
“As the mayor of the city of Leiden, I am proud that you are a citizen of Leiden!” Lenferink wrote in the letter. “You are a great example for others, both refugees and Dutch citizens.”
But Mohsen says there’s nothing remarkable about what he did.
“These days, many medias and many people are pointing at Muslim people, saying: ‘They are terrorists. It’s the religion of bad actions and killing,’” he said. “And I would just like to say no … I am a Muslim, and I could help a non-Muslim guy. That’s what my religion asks me to do.”
Mohsen’s dream is to keep helping people by designing prosthetic hands that work with neural impulses from the brain.
He’s a trained biomedical engineer, and last year he started a charity to provide support to other Syrian refugees and hopefully take some pressure off the Dutch government.
“European countries are giving a lot of things to refugees,” says Mohsen. “They give us all kinds of support.”
Saving the drowning man was something anyone would have done, he says, but for him it was also “something to return, some small thing to do for Dutch people.”