Tina Rothkamm fell in love with a local man eleven years ago while on holiday in Tunisia. The two had a daughter together, but the storybook romance did not last long. There was a bitter divorce, a protracted custody battle, and then on Monday, a daring and dangerous escape across the Mediterranean on an overcrowded boat that could have ended in tragedy for Rothkamm and her nine-year-old daughter.
But the 39-year-old teacher from Düsseldorf told public broadcaster ARD that she had to take that chance to finally get her daughter Amira Jasmine out of the clutches of her ex-husband and to a new life in Germany.
“When I saw the spotlights of the Italian coast guard, I cried with happiness,” she said during an impromptu press conference held on Monday night at a hotel on Lampedusa, the Italian island that is often the first stop for refugees from North Africa.
Rothkamm had long been trying to get her daughter out of Tunisia using more traditional means, to no avail. Her ex-husband, who had good connections to the government, did all he could to keep her daughter in Tunisia, despite the fact that Rothkamm and his divorce had been finalized, and one year ago she was given sole custody of their child.
She said every time she tried to leave the country with her daughter, she was turned back at the border, since her husband had pressured customs officials and police to block any departure. At one point, her daughter's passport was confiscated, she told ARD.
Rothkamm had considered escaping through Libya, but as the situation there become more unstable, she felt it was too dangerous. Her lawyers told her there was no other legal way to leave the country.
On Saturday night, Rothkamm found herself on the beach on Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia, where she paid €2,000 for two spots on a boat going to Lampedusa.
At one point during the the early morning hours on Sunday, organizers suddenly said it was time to leave. More than 100 people were packed onto a fishing boat, and Rothkamm and her daughter began waiting out the cold, 20-hour journey on a vessel with no toilets and hardly any food.
“But you do what you have to do,” she told ARD, adding that she'd just hoped the weather didn't turn bad.
She was relieved that her boat was in relatively good condition - two others that also sailed that night reportedly did not fare as well.
Once on dry land again, Rothkamm showed authorities valid German passports for both her and her daughter, and the two were taken to a hotel before beginning their final, and more comfortable, journey via Rome back to Düsseldorf, where Rothkamm's new husband and one-year-old son are waiting.
She insisted she will not return to Tunisia, saying the country is corrupt and she never wants to go back to a place from which you have to flee by boat. But she added that when Amira Jasmine gets older, she can decide if she wants to see her father.
According to daily Die Welt an Italian reporter asked Rothkamm if she was afraid that the sea journey was simply too risky to make with her daughter.
“I had to think for a long time about whether I dared make this dangerous crossing,” she answered. “But there was no other solution in sight.”
“Now I am so happy,” she added. “We are starting on the road of a new life where I have much hope for the future.”