Stricken family returns to City Beach to honour drowned surf hero Shaun Oliver

Flanked by her husband and three of her six children, Islam Hammad threw a rose into the ocean off Wollongong, in memory of a much-revered stranger.

Ms Hammad was watching from almost this same City Beach spot when a strong rip pulled four of her children out to sea on September 10.

A Victorian man, Shaun Oliver, 32, was among those who came to the family’s aid. The children made it ashore, but Mr Oliver got into trouble and could not be revived. 

On Thursday the Hammads returned to City Beach for a vigil led by rugby league legend Hazem El Masri and supported by a strong contingent from the wider Islamic community.

The 1pm memorial was timed to coincide with a funeral service in Melbourne, where Mr Oliver was farewelled by his wife and three young children. 

“This is just a little thing, to say I’m sorry,” Mrs Hammad said, of the Wollongong vigil. 

“Things go by. Time. But you can’t forget something like this. 

“Because I’m a mum, I know what a dad or a mum [means] to children. He was my age. I’m nearly 32. If my husband is late for a little bit, all my children say ‘where’s dad? When’s he going to come [home]?’. Shaun Oliver is never going to come [home].”

The tragedy has stirred complicated emotions for the Hammads, who have been criticised for allowing their children into the water outside of patrol season, during heavy seas.

Contrary to reports, Mrs Hammad said the children were not swimming but were paddling their feet in the water when they were swept away. 

“There were a few people there but none of them moved from their place when they saw the kids, but this one [Mr Oliver], he jumped straight in the water straight away.

“He died before he reached my other son. I rang police and I was screaming for them to come and save him. 

“He gave his life to save my son. He’s more than a hero.”

The Hammad family arrived in Australia from Palestine 13 years ago and lived in Sydney before making the move to the Illawarra almost two years ago, settling in Lake Heights.

Earlier this week, members of their extended family organised a memorial service for Mr Oliver in Palestine, stringing a large banner bearing his photograph up at the Unknown Soldier Square in Gaza. 

The family plans to approach Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to grant Mr Oliver the Palestinian Bravery Award, and is pursuing local authorities to name a street or roundabout in his name.

Hazem El Masri said the tragedy had struck a chord with the Islamic community. 

“To see someone just jump to the [Hammads’] aid - not even thinking about where they’re from, what colour they are - is something that will resonate with them for as long as they live,” he said. 

“Our hearts and thoughts all go out to Shaun and his family, and his kids in particular.” 

Palestinian-Australian author Arwa Abousamra, Mr El Masri’s wife, said members of the Islamic community “had a gnawing need to honour somebody who did something so selflessly”. 

“It might seem like he died alone on a beach, far away from his family, but there is an entire community here that’s going to keep on remembering his heroic actions for many years to come. He’ll never be forgotten. We want them to know that we feel that he’s part of our extended family now, as a result of his heroic actions.” 

Thursday’s vigil was a simple service, marked by the laying down of flowers and addresses from Mr El Masri and Punchbowl Mosque’s Zachariah Matthews. 

It was joined by a large group of Illawarra surfers, including surf instructor Ruby Furney-Goodwin. 

“It [the service] was beautiful,” she said. 

“There’s no separation between different cultures or different people and it really showed the connectedness.” 

Illawarra-based mental health social worker Nina Azam said the service had had a unifying effect. 

“Although we are strangers we are linked by a loss – a shared loss in humanity,” she said. 

“It’s a great act of kindness that he’s done. As far as we’re concerned, that’s actually an act of martyrdom. We will pray for him, and we will hope that he actually does go to heaven, because we believe that that’s where he belongs.” 

Fundraising to support Mr Oliver’s family – wife Carla and children Breana, Nate and Darcy – continues. Visit the page to contribute. 

This story Stricken family returns to City Beach to honour drowned surf saviour first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.