Tuesday 27 September 2016

Mediterranean crisis: 'I came to Europe in a packed, leaky boat ... I wish I could go home'

Published 11/07/2015 | 02:30

Goalstime who is a migrant at the red cross centre in Alcam, Sicily
Goalstime who is a migrant at the red cross centre in Alcam, Sicily
Migrant boats in Pozzallo harbour, Sicily
Omar from Senegal who is a migrant at the red cross centre in Alcam, Sicily
Alieu Badjie from Senegal at the red cross migrant centre in Alcam, Sicily. Photo: Mark Condren
Red cross staff member Annamaria Ginestra gets a kiss from a migrant at the red cross centre in Alcam, Sicily. Photo: Mark Condren

Omar was packed on a dilapidated fiberglass and wood boat with more than 100 other migrants. Some of the boards were cracked and they were using their hands to throw the water over the side of the vessel.

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This went on for almost three days until a container ship in the Mediterranean scooped them up to safety - and a new life in the refugee reception centres of southern Italy.

It was August 2013, just two months before the world's attention was drawn to the migrant crisis when around 360 people drowned near the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Omar, now 25, had already been on the road since early 2012 when he fled a conflict-hit region of his native Senegal.

Along the way he would be imprisoned, beaten and break out, in a story that sounds like the film 'The Great Escape'. And that's before he got on the leaky boat.

"I didn't pack any bags, I stepped up like that. I had some money with me and I went through Mali," he explained.

He had worked as a clothes-maker in his home country, and did the same for three months in Mali before he had enough cash for the next stage of his journey.

By bus he travelled through Burkina Faso to neighbouring Niger, where he stayed for two months.

"I worked, so I got some money and then I went to Libya. I travelled through the desert in a car."

He found work in Tripoli but the authorities caught up with him and he was imprisoned in a centre for immigrants for the last three months of his time in the chaotic north-African country.

"They arrested me. Prison, it was so hard, so hard.

"They beat you without doing anything. The food they gave was sometimes not good and it was very little to satisfy. And when you take the food, they are beating you again.

"When they say you've got to follow the line and you waste time to get to the line, they might kick you. I was hit by a gun and stuff like that. It was on my eye. Thank God I was not badly hurt.

"Some have been killed for wasting time or talking against them [the guards]," he said.

Omar and other prisoners began to plot an escape.

They began digging the sand at the fence when the guards weren't around.

Omar said they broke out at night when there was less guards.

"Almost half of us escaped. Some were killed, but some were recaptured. Some really escaped like myself," he said.

Three days later, he was making that dangerous journey to Europe by boat.

"There were too many people in the boat. You cannot move because if you move, someone will take your place.

"There were women but not children. There were teenagers and old men.

"The water got in and we threw the water away."

He said that he feared the boat would soon sink when a commercial ship spotted them and they were hauled to safety.

Omar, who can speak several languages, now lives in a Red Cross-run centre in Alcamo, northern Sicily, where he has taken on a role as a mediator in the centre.

The complaints among migrants echo those of the criticisms of direct provision in Ireland. The asylum process takes too long and people feel trapped in the system.

There are complaints among the centre's 60 occupants about the food, not being able to cook for themselves and the €1.50 a day they get from the state.

The centre is run by a mixture of volunteers - like local Red Cross president Davide Bambina, who is a lawyer, and management like Ezia Maria Mistrita.

All of them are dedicated to their work.

As for Omar, he says he doesn't want to stay in Italy.

His dream is that the circumstances that caused him to flee his home country are resolved.

"I hope that I can go back safely - because as they say there is no place like home."

Irish Independent

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