“I am from Jarrah, a rural area in the lower river region of The Gambia, in the middle of the country. When I was 15, I moved to the capital, Banjul, to live with my brother and attend high school. However, I graduated Didn’t, because we couldn’t pay the fees.
About five years ago, when I was in my early 20s, my friends encouraged me to leave The Gambia. It’s not a wealthy country, and we’ve heard people go away, and become successful in Europe, sending money back to their families.
I wanted to go to Italy, because I thought it was the easiest European country. I knew that many people had died trying to get to Europe, but I thought I could do it.
The first step was neighboring Senegal, and from there we got a bus to Mauritania. I lived there with my sister’s husband for five months, doing construction work, and doing whatever I could to earn money for the next leg of the journey.
From Mauritania I went to Mali. It was a very long bus journey, and took about 12 hours to reach the capital Bamako. There were also several other Gambians on the bus. Then we went to Agadez in central Niger via Burkina Faso. At each stage, we had to pay to be allowed to continue. We sensed danger, but by that time it was too late to turn back.
About 25 of us were in an open pickup truck, with no shade, driving through the desert. It was very hot and uncomfortable. We drove for three days, sleeping in the desert. At night, it was very cold, and we had to buy blankets and big jackets to keep warm.
‘I was afraid they would shoot us’
Sometimes the drivers were nice people, but others were very rude, and they would beat us. When we arrived in Libya, we were beaten up, and all our money was taken from us. Luckily I had hidden some food in the bus. The people who beat us had guns and I was very scared that they would shoot us.
The next leg of the trip was to a meeting in central Libya. Because I had no money, I had to stay in the Sabha for four months, looking for work to pay for my rent in Tripoli.
When you travel from Sabha to Tripoli, you have to smuggle. If you are seen, people can kill you, so I had to hide in a dark room with no light for three days. This was during the Civil War, and there was great danger.
‘They shot up the boat’
I had to wait over a year in Tripoli before I could reach the coast and take a boat to Italy. One of my brothers found money to get me a place on the boat. Before we left, there was some shooting and we soon realized that our boat was taking on water.
There were armed men who didn’t want us to go to Europe, so they shot up the boat, not caring if any of us died in the water. Our only option was to turn back towards the Libyan coast and when the boat had taken on too much water, we swam to shore.
When we reached the shore, we were taken to a detention centre. The soldiers who asked us to give money beat us, but I have nothing left. I had to live there for two months in these harsh, unsanitary conditions. Our phones were taken from us, so we could not contact our families; Many of them though that we were dead.
starting from zero again
Eventually, the UN men came to the centre. They gave us clothes and some food and offered us a voluntary flight back to The Gambia.
I was very sad: I had lost everything and would have to start again from scratch. I didn’t want to return home, but I had no choice.
When I arrived in The Gambia, the UN Migration Agency (iom) offered to help me start the business. He asked me what I wanted to do and because of my experience working in construction I told him I could sell cement.
They provided me tailored help as a cement business, but, unfortunately, the place I found to store the cement sacks was not weather-proof: it was the rainy season, and the water had reached all the cement. It was ruined.
I went back to the UN to ask for more help, and they offered me skills training. It was very helpful, and I was able to get a certificate and go back to working with aluminum. I found work in a friend’s shop in Banjul that sells aluminum window frames.
In future, once I raise the money, I plan to open my own shop. I am married now and have two children. I want to be successful here now, and I will never try to make that trip to Europe again. It’s very risky. If you don’t succeed, you lose everything.”