PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC – Africans call their home “the Motherland.” Its wild, unfettered nature is rich with wildlife and music and colors, its cities with tradition and history. But despite the strength of African pride, natural disasters, economic hardship, and wars have oppressed the people. So Mama Africa nurses her babies on tales of the Western Utopia where money is free and life is easy.
From the lap, little boys grow up hearing that to be a good son and “make something of yourself,” they must set out from home, get to the shores of Europe, become successful, make money to send home, and change the future of the family. Proof that it’s possible comes from social media posts of others who brag of their success. It seems easy. I joined a group of photographers, documentarians, and videographers to follow the African’s journey from the Mediterranean to Malta, to the shores of Sicily, through Rome, and to the French border. What we found were men and women who had believed the hype and risked it all to find out that Europe wasn’t what they thought—men and women living in the shadows of beauty, but with all beauty stripped from their lives.
These sojourners lived in cramped shelters or tents, unable to find work. They are resented by the locals, malnourished, lonely, and terribly disillusioned. For them, the Mediterranean isn’t a sparkly place to play, but a dark, churning grave that has claimed many thousands of their brothers. The amazing food and gelato on every street corner doesn’t offer a smorgasbord of calories and decadence but a meal they can’t afford to enjoy. The ruins aren’t a beautiful historical site but a marketplace to sell kitschy knick knacks to tourists. Each sale is one more Euro to put toward a meal or a place to sleep.
In the Baobab refugee camp, an unofficial haven for migrants and refugees in Rome run by volunteers, migrants gather from all over Africa. Though their skins are different shades of brown and black and their accents reveal various backgrounds, their stories are the same. They left home thinking that Europe would welcome them and that they would be heroes and legends in their hometowns. They had no idea what lay ahead.
The Impossible Journey
The Sahara Desert, or the Great Desert as it’s known in Africa, stretches all over North Africa—from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Sub-Saharan Africans dreaming of a better life in Europe must first accomplish the daunting task of crossing this dry, arid expanse the size of the continental US.
The journey means thousands of miles of desert where exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and death are daily threats. Sojourners travel with the ever-constant fear of traffickers who roam the desert like pirates on the high seas, looking to imprison, rob, kill, or extort.
Those who make it to Libya are greeted with violence, prison time, and medieval conditions. One woman we met described being in an underground prison for a year—no light, no privacy, no choice.
When these men and women finally make it to the Mediterranean, they are faced with another vast expanse that wants to eat them alive. Crammed onto inflatable dinghies, or rickety wooden boats, they set out on a temperamental sea with no guide and no supplies. These boats are packed past capacity, the dinghies deflated to fit the larger number. This leg of the journey claimed more and 1,500 lives in 2018 alone. When migrants reach the shores of Europe, they find closed borders. Africans who have already traveled hundreds of miles have no food, no money, no place to live, no visas or passports. The only thing given is ugly sneers from locals who don’t want them.
These migrants said if they had it to do over again, they’d never come. This isn’t their dream come true; it is a nightmare.
The Migrants’ Message
Mumuni*, a Ghanaian, lives at the Baobab refugee camp. He has small rations of food provided by volunteers and a place to pitch a tent, but nothing else. He has accomplished little in his two years away from home. He can’t work legally and is forced to beg and steal until he can manage to get documents. “I think if I come to Europe, I will go to school, get a job. I’m coming here to have good situation. But instead, I’m in the streets suffering. The situation here is crazy. I didn’t think I would have this kind of life,” he said.
Mumuni’s journey was from Ghana to Libya, where he and a thousand others paid more than $700 USD for passage across the sea. As his overcrowded boat made it to deep waters, it sank. He swam back to shore and was immediately put in prison. He had to start over, paying again for another attempt to cross the sea. Today his message to people back home is that the journey is not worth it. “They should not go the Libya way. It’s the desert and the sea. You can achieve nothing. Ghana is better than Italy,” he said.
A Nigerian man at Baobab also went through Libya to make it to the dreamland of Europe. He left home with a group of twenty-eight people, and only eight survived the trip. The other twenty died in the desert, in prison in Libya, or in the Mediterranean. He also warned other countrymen of believing the social media distortions. “Don’t come; it’s not easy. If you come to Europe, you are going to suffer. There is no job in Europe. You get what you don’t expect,” he said.
Their stories reminded me of our own American heroes who risked it all to “settle” the West. They weren’t satisfied with the life they’d known and were willing to take a chance. But our heroes didn’t have to qualify or get permission to pursue their dreams. If they had the courage to try and the luck to survive, the world was their oyster. For many Africans, their brave, new world is already occupied, so there isn’t freedom to settle just anywhere. Passports and papers are needed to open up the oyster. Migrants often find that fact surprising—thinking if they just make the journey, the dream will come true.
Even for those who have refugee status, life isn’t much better. There are a few provisions given, but without documentation, refugees aren’t allowed to work, or profit, or emigrate. They are left living in a camp—in a world of limbo and broken dreams. They miss their home, their family, their Mama.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Baobab refugee camp in Rome was shut down by Italian government officials in November 2018, three months after the author of this article and her media team visited the camp. Continue to pray for the refugees affected by the shutdown.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen Pearce is a writer for IMB living in Prague. She has dedicated much of the past three years to researching and writing about the global refugee situation.