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"He traded his life for my son; Lower Swatara woman remembers husband who drowned

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 9/8/17

Hany Mohamed always told his wife, Jennifer, that in Islam, everyone has “their minute” in life.

Jennifer says that when Mohamed’s minute came, he used it to sacrifice himself and to …

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"He traded his life for my son; Lower Swatara woman remembers husband who drowned

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Hany Mohamed always told his wife, Jennifer, that in Islam, everyone has “their minute” in life. 

Jennifer says that when Mohamed’s minute came, he used it to sacrifice himself and to save their 9-year old son Quamari from drowning in the ocean in Wildwood, New Jersey, on Sunday, Sept. 3.

Mohamed, 35, who lived in Lower Swatara Township with Jennifer and their three children, had gone into the water to bring back Quamari and his 9-year old brother, Anyis. Jennifer was worried that the two boys had ventured too far out into the ocean.

Anyis came back on his own, but not Quamari. At this point, lifeguards had gone out to try and rescue the boys.

“One of the last visions I have of my husband is out on the water on his back, with my son on top of him trying to kick toward the shore,” Jennifer told the Press & Journal. “They were both floating but they kept going further and further out because the current was pulling.”

Mohamed had turned himself and Quamari toward the shore. When Mohamed saw a man coming to rescue them, Mohamed lifted the boy up and launched him out of the water toward the man.

Jennifer could see the man bringing Quamari back in, but there was no sign of her husband.

By then the lifeguards had been joined by beach patrol, followed by Wildwood police and the Coast Guard. Shortly afterward a helicopter and a small airplane were part of the search.

The beach was packed full of people doing everything they could to find Hany. But it was Labor Day weekend and the beach was crowded with tourists.

The lifeguards and other rescuers couldn’t keep people from getting back into the water, which was making it harder to find Hany, Jennifer said. He was hard to see in the water to begin with, because of his dark complexion and the black T-shirt he was wearing.

After two and a half hours — roughly 2:30 p.m. — surfers found Mohamed unresponsive in the waters of Wildcrest Crest south of where he had gone in. He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The first media accounts Jennifer saw of what happened upset her and others close to her and Hany. Nobody was getting the full story of why Hany was in the water that day, or what he did.

“I want them to know that my son would not be here if it wasn’t for him. That he traded his life for my son,” Jennifer said.

A match overseas

Jennifer grew up in western Maryland near Frederick. She later moved to Lower Paxton Township. Five years ago, Jennifer had become a single mom after separating from her ex-husband. 

The couple had three children, boys Anyis and Quamari, the same age but adopted from foster care at different times, and Makenzie, Jennifer’s biological daughter.

To help cope with her new situation, Jennifer would go into Internet chat rooms at night and dialogue with total strangers.

One was a 30-year-old man living in Alexandria, Egypt, with time on his hands because he was off work on medical leave, awaiting surgery to correct an intestinal condition he had had since birth.

“I figured I would talk to him for two or three days like any other person,” then it would end and they’d never see or hear of each other ever again, Jennifer said.

Only Hany Mohamed was different. He had taught himself English and liked to practice using the language by going into the chat rooms.

He asked all sorts of questions and seemed to have an endless curiosity about America.

“He loved American culture and the history. He was just enthralled by it,” Jennifer said.

Along the way, the two developed a relationship to where they felt they had to meet each other.

It would be much harder for Hany to get a visa to leave Egypt as a tourist, so Jennifer decided to do something she would have considered incredible just a short time ago.

She would go to Hany. If their feelings for each other turned out to be genuine in person, they would get married right then and there, in Egypt in front of Hany’s family. If not, they’d at least have a vacation to remember as friends.

The answer didn’t take long.

“I flew blind halfway around the world, where I can’t speak the language by myself, and I met him in the airport,” Jennifer said. “We just looked at each other and from that moment, it was like we knew each other forever.”

They had known each other nine months, but met for the first time on Feb. 1, 2013. On Feb. 5, they married.

Hany Mohamed was different from any other man Jennifer had ever met, for other reasons.

“He had never even held a woman’s hand before,” she said. “He was like a grown man and a teenager all in one. I would touch him and he would look at me like he was going to faint. He was so polite and so proper and so well-mannered.”

Jennifer flew back and returned to her life in the United States. The couple thought it would take Hany nine months to get through U.S. immigration so he could come here, but it took a year and a half — until October 2014 — for him to get his visa.

During their long separation the couple used technology to be together virtually as often as possible, even if they couldn’t be together physically.

“I never had a smart phone before. I got one and I would put it in my pocket. If we were in the car, he (Hany) was on the dashboard” part of what was going on, Jennifer said. “If we were at dinner at a restaurant he was on the table. If we went to my parents he was there. He would talk to the kids and play games with them, from halfway around the world.”

Hany was right there when Jennifer took the kids to Kipona, for the fireworks, and to see everyone opening presents Christmas morning.

Hany told Jennifer he never had a birthday cake, so Jennifer sent him a box with one Little Debbie hostess cake and a birthday candle inside. 

“He opened it and put the candle in and we sang to him through the computer. It was like some crazy fairy tale from hell, sort of, because of all the waiting,” Jennifer said.

12/13/14

Hany set foot on American soil the first time on a date the couple would never forget — Dec. 13, 2014, or “12/13/14” as Jennifer recalls it. It was the day before her birthday.

Jennifer had to keep working, but pulled Makenzie out of day care so Hany wouldn’t be home alone in his new country all day.

Four years old at the time, Makenzie instantly bonded with her new father. 

She taught him how to use the microwave, where to find the mailboxes in the apartment complex where they lived, even how to cross the street. Hany didn’t have crosswalks where he lived in Egypt. People get to the other side by walking through a tunnel.

Makenzie would ask Hany to read her stories. Hany didn’t think his English was good enough, so he’d say “‘I’ll tell you stories from my brain,’” Jennifer said. “Nobody here would ever call it that, but it was adorable.”

Hany was interested in health care, and Jennifer’s mom got him a job at a school for people with disabilities. Eventually, Hany was working full-time at a hospital, and started going to school full-time to become a registered nurse.

Hany’s father died in 2009 and his mother died in 2016. She had diabetes. Hany wanted to become a nurse to help people, but also to honor his mother and to make her proud, Jennifer said.

When Hany came to the United States the couple first lived in Swatara Township.

The family moved to Lower Swatara about a year ago because they wanted their kids to be in a different school district, Jennifer said.

Jennifer grew up a Christian but converted to Islam through her relationship with Hany.

Hany struggled with being a Muslim in the United States. He didn’t want people to hold it against him.

Working in the hospital he would turn his badge around, as if by accident, but really because he was worried patients would see his last name and refuse to be treated by him, Jennifer said.

“He was always scared that people would judge him for that, because it’s such a harsh kind of climate for that these days,” she said. “He would say ‘I want people to like me, I don’t want your parents to think I came here for the green card, I don’t know how to prove to people that I’m good — I’m not bad.’”

“He felt so horrible that you’ve got a few crazy whack jobs out there who do nutsy stuff and blow things up and ruin it for the millions of people. He used to say every time somebody does something bad, it’s all over the news but when they do something good, you never see it.”

Word spreads

Jennifer had made many Muslim friends through her job as director of a day care in Harrisburg.

By coincidence, Jennifer’s boss, a Palestinian woman, was vacationing in Wildwood Crest the same time that Jennifer, Hany, and their children were at Wildwood.

When Jennifer had to call Hany’s family in Egypt to tell them Hany had drowned, her boss was there to do it because she is fluent in Arabic.

With help from Jennifer’s boss, word of Hany’s death spread so fast throughout the midstate Muslim community  that the mosque Hany attended, Al Sabereen on South Cameron Street in Harrisburg, had already raised all the money that would be needed for his burial, before Jennifer and her children had even returned home from New Jersey.

“Everybody all donated money. They had so much left over that they are covering the headstone and the plaque for on the ground,” Jennifer said. “They are paying all of it and still have money left over to donate to charity.”

The members of Al Sabereen didn’t even really know Hany. He went to the mosque to pray but could never stay long, because he was so busy with work and school.

“I can’t even wrap my mind around it,” Jennifer says of the generosity of the people from the mosque. “There’s not one shred of anything that I have had to pay for.”

As she recalls her short life with Hany, spread out on the table in front of Jennifer are scrapbooks and photos of their time together. 

Many memories

Combing through insurance policies and the other legal documents associated with looking after a loved one who has died, Jennifer keeps running into other things — flash drives, movie tickets, bus passes, boarding passes and countless other pieces of memorabilia.

Hany, it turns out, was something of a hoarder. He never threw anything away, making him the opposite of Jennifer, who liked things neat and organized.

When Jennifer flew to Egypt, she gave Hany the peanuts and pretzels from the flight because she didn’t like them. Hany ate the snacks, and insisted on saving the wrappers and putting them in a scrapbook.

He kept the bus pass from when he left Alexandria for  Cairo to get on the plane to come to the United States.

Hany, who was buried last Wednesday, was a virtual packrat as well as a physical one. He saved the pictures from when he landed in Russia on the way to the United States. He saved the video he made the first time he was in Harrisburg.

He had preserved their conversations in the chat room, and stored snapshots of hundreds of videos of their moments together by uploading them to the cloud on his phone.

“I always used to tease him that he was like the girl in our relationship, because he was always saving every little scrap of everything,” Jennifer said. 

He kept the flash drives and other items in a drawer in a filing cabinet that he defended zealously.

“He would say, ’It’s my drawer, they are my memories, don’t touch them,’” she said. “I would say, ‘You have your memories in your head, you don’t need all that stuff.’ In my life, I never believed that the reason he ended up saving it would be for me — if he had listened to me, I wouldn’t have any of it.”

‘Mosque on wheels’

As for today and beyond, “we are just going one day at a time,” Jennifer said. There’s a list a mile long of required tasks; the process made more complicated by the involvement of immigration officials and the embassy.

She has to do something with Hany’s car, a dark blue Chevy Cruze that Jennifer said she can’t drive because she is too short to comfortably reach the pedals.

“He loved that car,” Jennifer said. Hany installed a flash drive so when he turned the key in the ignition, the Koran started playing through the speakers. He never listened to the radio. His prayer rug is still in the back seat.

Hany’s “mosque on wheels,” Jennifer used to tell him.

She has no plans to move from the area, especially with Hany buried close by. 

She has an associate’s degree in child development, and plans to finish getting her bachelor’s degree in human services.

“I was always looking at being a family advocate. Both of my kids came out of foster care. At this point, it just sort of feels right.”

She’s getting a lot of support from her own family. Her sister is spending a lot of time here, and Jennifer’s mom lives right down the street.

Her grandparents are Florida snowbirds over the winter and were on their way back down from New York when Hany drowned. They couldn’t go back anyway because of Hurricane Irma, so they are staying here longer to help Jennifer pick up the pieces.

She talks with Hany’s family “quite a bit” and plans to visit them in Egypt this winter. She’ll compile and take over a bunch of those CDs and flash drives that Hany had preserved.

She wants them to know of the happy memories Hany had from his life here, and she won’t trust it to the mail.

“It’s really important to me that I maintain a connection to them,” Jennifer said of Hany’s family. “I am their only connection to where he is, and they are my only connection left with him. I will make it a point to stay in contact with them.”

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