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