An incredibly stark contrast waits on the southern side of the US/Mexico boarder. From wide freeways and empty grassy hillsides to an immediate urban onslaught. Zaydee and I dipped into Tijuana for the day to meet with some Honduran Migrants. As we rolled over the boarder I lost cell service on my phone and promptly missed the exit we were suppose to take that would lead us to the Sports Park where the Migrant Caravan had decided to stop after their approximately 1500 mile journey north from Honduras.
It started as just a group of a few hundred people wanting to make their way out of their home country of Honduras to the US. Migrants of all creed make this journey almost daily and they usually go in small groups or alone using a “Coyote" to guide them through Mexico and into the US over the open stretch of the boarder around Arizona or New Mexico. However over the last year migrants have been grouping together in “caravans” of a 2 or 300 to make the journey more safely and without the $7000 price tag. In September, Facebook post in central America amplified the awareness of these “caravans” which lead to a swell of people joining the group headed north. By the time they reached Mexico City they numbered almost 6,000. They gained international notoriety during the US midterm elections when Tump implied that the democrats wanted to let the migrant Caravan come into the country, saying there are "Many gang members and some very bad people."
We turned down Cinco De Mayo street and headed north. As I looked up the street I could see a large gathering of people and a police barricade at the entrance to the last block of the street just before it dead ends at the boarder wall. Beyond that were tents lining the sidewalks on either side of the street - very similar to LA’s skid row.
We parked the Jeep about a block away and headed in. Past the police, it felt a little like a street fair or a farmers market. People meandered down the road, some migrants, and many like Zaydee and I, documenting. Generally it was chaotic with everything going on all at once. There were heaps of blankets, clothes, and other debris in the street, vendors selling food or water, and there were kids… kids everywhere. Some chasing each other, ridding on skateboards, playing with simple toys, blowing bubbles, or kicking around deflated footballs.
We turned to enter the Sports Arena where most of the migrants had spent the night only to find that it had been cleared out. There were belongings everywhere. Abandoned tents, bags, clothes, shoes, toys just piled up or dropped as the families hastily left.
We talked with a few young men we found rummaging through the leftovers. They said that they were looking for toys that they could sell, which would give them a little money for food. When we asked where everyone was they told us that the day before they were instructed to pack up and that buses would be coming to take them to a new facility. An old jail about 30 minutes south. Living in the dirt was causing sickness and even lice to spread as the rains swept through so having a concrete floor and a solid roof sounds like an improvement. But all my life I’d been warned that Mexican prisons were not somewhere you wanted to end up.
We stepped back out onto the street and almost had our toes run over by kids riding skateboards or little plastic trikes made for toddlers half their age. There were children poking their heads out of tents and kids eating donuts that their parents had bought for them from one of the many vendors.
It was humbling taking it all in. Sitting just feet from the wall watching kids play in the street as if it was just a normal Saturday. Helicopters buzzed overhead tracing the border as the sunset. The light made the post rain clouds puff up in pink and the hillsides just over the wall lit up golden yellow. From the tents on the street you could see the US. Families that traveled more than a thousand miles with their kids for over a month laid at the feet of a nation not willing to let them in. How humbling it was to put myself in that place. I wondered if I had made that journey would I feel hopeless or hopeful having spent so much time dreaming only to now be right there literally feet from fulfillment.
The sun set and a bus took 40 more migrants to the new facility 10 miles south. Others opted to stay on the streets in their tents. The kids quieted down and Zaydee and I headed back for the US border. We waited in traffic at the checkpoint for 3 hours talking about what we had just seen. Five minutes before we got to the agents window we scrambled to find out passports and ID’s. Zaydee (first generation Mexican/American) had brought her Drivers License, Expired Passport, social security card, and her birth certificate; she assured me that they would let her through (although they might take her inside and question her for a few minutes.) When we reached the agent we handed him our info and he joked with us and asked about my trip to Barcelona, called me a VIP (because I had “Pre-check”) and didn’t even notice that her passport was expired. He sent us on our way and a few minutes later we were in the US cruising on an empty freeway quietly contemplating all we had experienced.
I met Ahmed last summer when I spoke with his mother about their terrible journey to Italy from Guinea. He sat on the couch downstairs watching cartoons while his mom and I talked. She told me about the violence she experienced in Guinea and how when she left in the middle of the night she didn’t know where her and her 4 year old son would go. She told me about the men who she paid to take her to Niger. And how she was tortured and separated from her son in the prisons in Libya. How she was forced on a boat and rescued in the Mediterranean.
I came back to Sardinia 6 months later to see her again but this time I spent more time with Ahmed. We sat together by the computer and looked at a map. Samantha, the project’s coordinator in Italy, told Ahmed, “Scott took a long journey, too.” She pointed at LA. “He came from here and went all the way over to here”, pointing at Sardinia. She asked Ahmed if he knew where he came from. He pointed to Africa, but not to Guenea. And when she asked where he was now, he pointed right at Sardinia. Ahmed was barley 4 when he left. He’s now 5.
He took us on a tour of his home. We played some games in the living room. We met the baby Mohamed who is the son of another young lady in the facility where Ahmed and his mother live. Ahmed took us into his room and showed us the view out his window. He introduced us to his fish, Hugo. We all sat around while he talked about this little gold fish that he takes care of. He feeds him and he plays with him. Sometimes, he says, "I just talk to Hugo." And he really likes that because Hugo "just listens."
In Guinea, the common language is French, which is what Ahmed’s mother speaks and it’s how she communicates with him. But Ahmed speaks perfect Italian, especially for a 5 year old. He goes to school everyday with other Italian boys and is even learning and speaking Sardo, the local dialect traditionally spoken in Sardinia. So as we sit and talk he’s speaking to his little fish in Italian. Asking him what he thinks of all of us coming to film. Ahmed listens for a moment and we ask him what the fish says. “Nothing” Ahmed tells us with a smile.
As we started to warp up the interview, Ahmed began to draw and asked that we would join him. So Samantha, Mattia (the photographer), and I sat around the table and drew. First Ahmed drew a red robot from an old tv show that he watches. As he looked around he began drawing something else. He reached for the peach colored crayon and drew a little person. Then he grabbed a brown pen and drew another person. When we asked who they were he pointed at Samantha and said “tu” then pointed at himself and said “io”. You and me.
Ahmed’s new community is different than where he came from. He is different than where he came from. The longer he stays the more he changes. This is his home now. His mother and himself are protected until he turns 18, at which point she could be sent back to Guinea. They both face an uphill battle that will likely last years to secure documents that will allow him to work and eventually travel outside of Italy. According to Italian law Ahmed may never be an Italian citizen. Even his children born in Sardinia could have a hard time gaining the right to citizenship. But to Ahmed, I don’t think there is any doubt in his mind that he is Italian.
Back at the map of the world - Samantha told Ahmed that I would be flying back to Los Angeles soon, back where I come from. And she showed him how I would likely fly over Europe and across the ocean and over the American continent then land right on the edge in California. He looked at her with a questioning look, then to me and asked “perché?” To Ahmed, there is no going back. This is his life now.
I walked through the gates of an apartment building that was being used as a facility for young boys who had migrated from all over Africa. Just 3 or 4 blocks from the water in Portoscuso, on the island of Sardinia, the late afternoon sun was reflecting on the water and a light breeze was starting up. It really was a picturesque little Italian town.
On the third floor I could hear the sounds of African voices shouting and laughing with one another. We had come to interview some of the boys about their journies from West Africa and find out how they ended up in Itlay. There were about 10 boys in this particular home, but I was specifically here for Musa.
Musa grew up in the west African country of Gambia and always dreamed of being a famous football player. “I want to be a footballer…that is what I want”, he said after we sat down in a back room of the building, just below a window that let in a nice, soft, natural glow. He played every day at a local felid with his friends. He’s very confident, almost cocky, about how good he is. “My team always wins” he told me proudly. He never knew his father, but he says, “It was like I don’t need to know my father because my mother gave me everything I want.” (You might be able to see where that cockiness comes from.) However, that all took a hit when he turned 17. Within a week he watched his mother go from completely healthy to dying of an unknown disease.
“My mother has done so much for me. I could not even pay her back for one little thing. I wanted so much for my mother… I wanted to make her a queen. But not all that you wish is granted to you”.
As I listened to Musa talk about losing his mother, I couldn’t help but think about mine. I lost my mother to cancer a little over a year ago and instantly related with Musa. Although my mother fought with cancer for 3 years, no one in my family ever really thought for a second that she wouldn’t win. So when we lost her, it was sudden and it was shocking. I could feel the pain I heard in Musa’s voice and saw in his eyes when he spoke of his mom. Psychologist will tell you that when you lose a parent you are confronted with your own mortality on a new and very real level. It’s a little voice in the back of your head telling you, you could be next, any moment now. I could see Musa was in that very same boat.
After his mother died, he told me “I stopped playing football, I stopped socializing with my friends.” On top of that he had no one. No family to take care of him and he was presented with a choice: A few boys around his age had decided to leave Gambia to find work in a neighboring country or possibly follow the route to Libya that they had all heard about. A route that promised work and possibly escape to Europe. Musa didn’t have family, didn’t have a job and a girl that Musa dated in school had moved away to Montana, USA with her family. All he had left was his dream to become a “footballer”. So he made the choice to not give up. He took what money he had and left.
The general story that is told in West Africa about this route, is that after a couple car rides to the beach a big European boat will ferry you over to Italy, where they hand you EU citizenship and a job. In a very general sense, that’s correct. Specifically, its so much worse than that.
“If I had a route back home, I would have just taken the route and gone…But when you reach Libya, there is no way back home…It is hell, actually”. When speaking about his time in the deserts of Mali, Algeria, and the camps in war-torn Libya, Musa speaks very soft. He’s honest, but solemn. He spent months moving from camp to camp using different “people smugglers’ to shuttle him around. Many threatened to kill him, all extorted him, and at least one human trafficker beat him with the butt of an AK-47. He tried making friends in the camps, but after playing a game of chess with one boy, from Senegal, “A boy like me”, he says, one of the guards came into the camp and opened fire into the crowd. One of the bullets hit the boy in the chest and he died right there at Musa’s feet.
It’s amazing to me, the kind of strength some people have. To go through things like this, to cross jungles, deserts and a sea. To experience real loss, to see death before them. To land on a foreign shore and still find room for joy. Moments after telling me his whole story, we walked out into the courtyard and immediately began to play on a foosball table with some of the other boys who all had gone through almost the exact same thing. Each with their own scars, stories, reasons for leaving, and reasons for continuing in this different place. They’re learning Italian, and attending local schools, filling out their own refugee forms and forging a new path for themselves in this place and together all the boys are finding a new home and a new family with one another. Making their own tribes.
When we started to talk about his crossing of The Mediterranean and loading 50 people onto an inflatable raft that would shuttle them 300 miles across to Italy, Musa said, “people were fighting on the boat. Yelling and screaming, because intolerance is everywhere…even Gambians and Nigerians don’t get along.” But here we were in an unheard of town in Italy, with boys from Gambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Senegal, surrounded by Italians, and a couple Americans sharing laugher over a game of Foosball; There’s hope.
After warming up on the foosball table they all put on their favorite football jerseys (Musa changed his 3 times to make sure he end up with the right one for my camera) We walked to the local field to play a quick game. As these African boys walked through the narrow Italian streets dogs barked and people looked. “When I go out, people look at me differently. I don’t know…Maybe it’s normal because I am different”, he tells me as the other boys sing Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier quietly in the background: “Stolen from Africa, brought to America. Fighting on arrival…Fighting for survival.” Maybe the words weren’t perfect (could have been changed to brought to Italy) but I felt like it was a fitting sound track, either way.
On the field, you could see who Musa really is. That is his element. The sun was setting and the field was more of a dirt-patch than grass so as the boys ran around the dust kicked up from the ground creating a kind of light haze through which the sun beams shone. It felt like we were back in Africa. I could see the pain and sorrow melting off of their backs with each kick and disappearing as the dust blew away and settled.
When I left him that day, he wasn’t sure if he had made the right decision. He said, “My future is dark”. He thought he could come to Europe and become a famous football player, but after the journey and some time in Italy, he realized it was still going to be a daily struggle. He confided, “I could have stayed in Gambia, and maybe been able to get on a team there, then the team could take me here, to Europe.” I can relate. I think we all can. Each of us can look back at the paths we’ve taken and where we are today and wonder. Could we have done something differently?
Today, about 6 months after meeting him, Musa has been accepted to a local team in Sardinia. A far cry from the famous international spotlight of his dreams. But he continues to step forward. His dream is still alive. He may never be famous and he may never be able to make his mother a queen, but he will continue on his route and he’ll continue to dream.
“They call us, like, economic migrants. People don’t define my reality. I’m not an economic migrant. I’m a dream chaser” - Musa