By Karin Völkner
“The rescuers were so kind and gentle. They looked after the women and children first. They told us how to step out of the boat; they said that the people from the middle of the boat should start so that it doesn’t capsize,” Jamil tells me. He has few good memories of their escape, but this is one. Jamil and John (names changed) are two childhood friends from the Gambia, and they are telling me about their voyage from Libya to Europe.
“It was so hard in Libya,” they both say. They were 16 years old when, after their harrowing journey through the Sahara, they arrived in Libya. Soon after, they both got kidnapped in the street and were only released when they handed over their savings for their voyage across the sea. They had to return to labour as daily workers, 10 hours every day, often with no payment at the end of the day. But they managed to save enough money again to pay the people traffickers for two places on a boat.
“We were in Tripolis,” John tells me. “We were supposed to go to the connection house in a car. Many people wanted to go. So many that Jamil didn’t get a seat in the car. It was then that we got separated.”
What is a connection house, I ask. They tell me that it is a place where refugees are gathered for the impending voyage on the refugee boats. Most times the refugees only stay there for one or two days. No food is provided because the traffickers want the refugees to lose weight, so that they can cram even more people onto the boats.
John continues, “The connection house was far away from the city, out by the river. We paid for the voyage, I gave the man 1,000 US dollars. We waited and waited in the connection house, for two days, but the man did not come back. A woman gave birth there, she had a little girl. We had no food; we were desperate. After two days the police came. We ran in a panic from the house, in all directions, but they caught us and threw us into prison. My money was lost.”
“I stayed in the prison for one month,” he says. “They put you there just like that, for illegal entry into the country, for not having a passport, anything. It was not a real prison, although the police took us there. You know, some prisons are only for ‘business’, meaning blackmail. The government knew nothing about the prison I was in. You pay a ransom, 500-600 dinars, and you get out. They give you only empty rice to eat, it is terrible.
How did you get out? I ask. I shudder to think that this is reality and so many people are living it.
“I was lucky to get out after one month. There was an Arab man who worked with a Gambian. The families of the Gambian prisoners would send the ransom money to this man, and he would come and buy out the prisoner. The Arab man called out the names. There was someone with a similar name to mine, and I said, that’s me. The Arab man did not know that it wasn’t true, but when the Gambian man saw me he said I was not the right guy. I had to wait there for another three weeks. During that time I was working with the Gambian man to earn the money to be freed.”
I ask Jamil what he did in the meantime, surely he was very worried about his friend? “Yes, I was very worried. I did not know where he was. But I had to leave when I was told to go, it was not my choice. I left three weeks after we got separated. They put me on a very small boat. We were 93 people.” Did you know that you couldn’t possibly reach Europe on such a boat? I ask. “No,” he says, ”I only understood that when I was on the Italian rescue ship and saw that it took such a big ship 24 hours to reach Italy. Then I knew that we hadn’t had a chance. The Libyans told us the boats can easily reach Italy and we all believed it.”
After his release from prison, John stayed in Tripolis for another six months. “I had a problem getting the money,” he says, “but then the Arab man said I should give him half the price, 600 US dollars, and I would have a place on a boat. I had to sleep in the connection house for three weeks before I could go. Only once a day did I get a little bit of food.”
Then he was also put on a boat, 115 refugees crammed closely together. Another 115 people who did not know that they were putting themselves in mortal danger. Jamil and John say that they were both rescued by the Italian navy after a full night and a full day on their boats. Thanks to the rescuers, everyone on their boats survived.
John was taken to Sicily. “After the medical check, people were separated,” he reports. “Some people that I came with I never saw again.” But although under-age, he was not separated from the adults. “It was not good for me,” he says. “And I got a bad infection on my legs, but no treatment at all. I couldn’t stay.” After a few months he left for Switzerland, where he got some medical attention. “But it didn’t get better. So when they asked me whether I wanted to apply for asylum, I said no, because I was not getting the treatment I needed. I wanted to go to Germany. Some Gambians in Italy had told me that it was better here.”
How long did you stay in Italy? I ask Jamil. “Seven months,” he tells me. “We were taken to a place where we were the first Africans ever. Every night boys from the nearby town came to attack our accommodation with stones and weapons. They injured one of our guys with a weapon. It was very hard. There was also no proper food and no proper heating. I arrived in the winter, it was very cold, but the heating was electrical and putting it on, the whole circuit would crash. It often took two months to get any pocket money. We had to walk for five kilometres to the nearest shop. No one ever mentioned education. I never went to school there during all that time. There was nothing for me there. I had to leave.”
How did you two find each other again? I ask. “Facebook”, they say. “I got the idea to go to Germany from John,” Jamil says. “During my trip there I saw that many refugees in Italy have no roof over their heads and live in the streets.”
John and Jamil went through the different stages for under-age refugees in Germany. Camp accommodation, under-age care, life in a protected environment with other young refugees. They go to school now and are doing well. They are hoping for an opportunity to get into professional trainings. John’s eyes are shining when he tells me about his short internship with a plumbing company. “The boss said that he needs motivated people like me!” Jamil, too, has done a short internship and is hoping to become an electrician. “The job seems very complicated,” he says, “but I really want to do it.” Their asylum applications have not yet been accepted, and I fervently hope that their dreams will come true. Could anything better happen to a society than to receive in its midst people with so much dedication, courage and stamina?