FALMOUTH — Mohammed Al-Ammar had barely made a toehold in his new life in the United States before he drowned in a kayaking accident Thursday.

It was a tragic end to a first-time teenage adventure just seven months after Al-Ammar came to Maine, and yet another terrible loss for a family that has been seeking peace and safety since it fled Iraq 10 years ago.

“I ran from Baghdad for my son,” Qassim Al-Ammar, the boy’s grief-stricken father, said through an interpreter. “I didn’t want him to suffer. I wanted a brighter future for him, away from the sectarian violence.”

Divers pulled the body of the 14-year-old Portland boy from the Presumpscot River at 9:20 a.m. Friday, more than 12 hours after the tandem kayak he and a friend were paddling Thursday evening overturned. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket, though his companion in the kayak was, said Sgt. Tom Hale of the Maine Marine Patrol.

Al-Ammar, who was a student at Deering High School, had never been in a kayak before and he didn’t know how to swim, his father said, but he was an organ donor. Qassim Al-Ammar made sure rescue workers knew that his boy had wanted to help others, that he was a giving, God-loving soul.

“My son was a believer with good ethics and many people knew he was a good boy,” Qassim Al-Ammar said Friday night, surrounded by more than a dozen male friends in the living room of an apartment in the Riverton public housing complex in Portland.


Al-Ammar and his family arrived as refugees in the United States in November, according to Judy Katzel, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities Maine. The agency aided the family’s resettlement in Portland, where they quickly made friends in a growing Iraqi community and Al-Ammar embraced being a student at Deering High.

“He was just an all-around great kid,” said Connie Daigle, who taught Al-Ammar in a class for English language learners. “He had so much promise.”

Emergency responders were first called Thursday evening to the popular boating and fishing spot near the Allen Avenue bridge between Portland and Falmouth. Al-Ammar and two friends had driven from Portland to enjoy the river, Falmouth police said. One of the three remained on shore as Al-Ammar and a friend paddled. All three boys were Iraqi, his father said.

The two were paddling beneath the concrete span when the kayak capsized around 6:30 p.m. Al-Ammar was last seen struggling against the current before his head disappeared below the surface, said Saad Al-Zefiri, a family friend.

The search was called off at 10:30 p.m. Thursday and a recovery effort resumed at daylight Friday.

As the boy’s father watched from the bridge, Al-Ammar’s body was found in about 16 feet of water slightly downstream from the bridge. Authorities first located him with the aid of a small yellow remote-controlled robot.


Qassim Al-Ammar broke down and wailed as a diver brought his son’s body to the surface and guided it toward a police boat.

At one point, a Maine Marine Patrol officer had to pull Qassim Al-Ammar away from the bridge railing. He was led away by two friends, each clasping an arm. Authorities said they didn’t know who owned the kayak.

Daigle, Al-Ammar’s teacher at Deering High, said he was a happy student who was very interested in learning and participated a lot in class.

“He always had something to say,” she said with a smile.

Although he didn’t know any English when he started school in December, Al-Ammar was picking it up quickly and would help explain the lessons to other Arabic speakers in class, Daigle said.

She got the news of her student’s death Friday morning, just before his class began. Once the students arrived, she told them the news, and they all went down to the library to be near counselors and see other students.


“The students are not taking it very well,” she said after the students returned. “Some were sitting quietly, others crying. A group of his friends left to go to his house.”

Portland schools Superintendent Jeanne Crocker said counselors were being made available to students at Deering High.

“Deering is setting up support opportunities for students in order to help them deal with this news and their grief,” Crocker said Friday morning in a statement. “Our hearts go out to Mohammed’s family and friends and the entire Deering High School community.”

Al-Ammar’s death is also a painful blow to the 4,000 to 5,000 Iraqi immigrants living in Maine, said Badr Al-Zefiri, a family friend.

“It feels bad for all of us,” Al-Zefiri said. “We are all sad.”

While Qassim Al-Ammar gathered with male friends Friday night, his wife, Fadhilah Al-Nadawi, gathered with female friends at another Portland home. The couple also have a 23-year-old daughter, but no other family in Maine.


The family fled Baghdad in 2006, spending seven years in Syria, then two years in Turkey, where they waited for refugee status so they could legally immigrate to the United States, the father said. He was a government worker in Iraq and hopes to eventually find work here.

Sitting on a room-size Oriental carpet, Qassim Al-Ammar, 54, said he was grateful for the support of friends. The community will begin a three-day mourning period Saturday from 4 to 8 p.m. at a Portland mosque.

“Thank God they are here to help me,” he said. “This will affect all of our lives as a family.”

Al-Ammar said his son had been doing well in school and dreamed of being an engineer. The men sitting around him painted a heartfelt picture of his son, describing him as spirited and lovable and caring.

Al-Ammar said he has faith that his family will be able to carry on, but whether they will ever find peace remains to be seen.

“God knows,” Al-Ammar said.

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