Exclusive! Alfred’s Story: A Most Unfortunate Son
By Award Winning Author and Publisher Melissa Roen
In March, Melissa was asked by a volunteer at Caritas Ventimiglia if she would transcribe young asylum seekers’ stories, whose motives for seeking refuge in Europe are, often times, misunderstood. The hope is that insight into each unique story will help to change public perception. Instead, of looking at these young refugees as an abstract statistic of a global humanitarian tragedy, or something to fear as an invading mass, hearing their stories will help to see them as flesh and blood human beings, who share the same emotions, motivations and dreams as you or I.
The following story is the first, in a two-part series, of first-hand accounts of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Italy.
Alfred’s Story: A Most Unfortunate Son
Alfred’s exile began when a decree was issued for the sacrifice of a beloved son…
It may be difficult to imagine in the twenty-first century that sacrificial murder continues to be practiced, but in remote parts of the African continent the roots of ancient rituals run deep. Shrouded in secrecy and wrapped in superstition, there are villages in West Africa where human sacrifice--performed during Vodun ceremonies--holds sway to this day.
Alfred’s father was a prosperous farmer and landowner in a small village (Kemile) near Axim, in the Western region of Ghana.. He was next in line to become the village’s chieftain, though the designation Alfred uses is “king.” In Kemile, centuries-old tradition demands the sacrifice of the future chieftain’s first-born son for the prosperity of the village under the new chief’s reign.
The year was 2013. Alfred was sixteen, at school in the larger town of Takoradi, when he received a summons, supposedly from his father, to return home for the festival of Kundum. Unbeknownst to Alfred, the message was a lure. Upon arrival, his parents weren’t present to greet him. Instead, by order of tribal elders, he was seized and imprisoned in a fortified building in the village. Alfred was his father’s first-born son…
In the dead of night, he heard tapping on the walls of his prison and his name called. He recognized the voice as the door to his cell shattered…His father, with a handful of loyal friends, had come to engineer Alfred’s escape.
Although a devout Christian, Alfred’s father could neither protect his son from the practitioners of occult murder, nor overturn the order handed down by the village elders. Alfred might escape death on this night, but it would only be a matter of time until he’d be recaptured and sacrificed. The only option to save his son’s life was to spirit him far away from Kemile.
Time was of the essence. Hasty instructions and money were given. Also, the phone number of a contact, Mr. Kujo, who could shelter Alfred in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region. Setting out alone, Alfred walked all night to the nearest town, where friends hid him. The next day, they helped him get to another town, where he caught a bus to Kumasi.
So, started Alfred’s flight, which four years later would culminate in our first meeting in the courtyard of the Caritas refugee center in Ventimiglia. Five mornings a week, Alfred works as a Caritas volunteer helping fellow refugees.
It’s a sunny morning in March (2017) when I meet Alfred: a slender young man of twenty—though, he could easily pass for sixteen--sporting a trendy twist-with-a-fade-haircut, worn by football and basketball players the world over. His clothes have been culled from donations given to the center. I can’t help note the meticulous care he takes in his appearance: from the scarf wound around his neck and his stud earrings, down to the impeccably white tennis shoes on his feet.
Alfred’s from the “digitally-connected generation,” for whom the internet influences their world view, and social media platforms such as Facebook are extensions of their personalities. In his sartorial choices, Alfred looks and dresses like teenagers on the streets of any big city such as L.A., Paris, Milan or Dubai. In other words, Alfred’s got ‘swag’—style. This my first clue that there’s more to this boy than meets the eye.
We perch on a low stone wall in a sunny corner of the courtyard. Even though there’s the bustle of human activity going on all around us, as Alfred begins to speak, the poignancy of the moment makes it feel as though we’re alone on an island.
Alfred stares straight ahead; searching his memory for where to begin. I need to lean in closer to catch his words. His soft, lilting voice breaks from the conflicting emotion churning within: “Y-y-you have to u-u-understand, I-i-i was so y-y-young…j-j-just a k-k-kid.” He stumbles over his first words. Stops speaking, collects himself, then begins again: “I didn’t think about things. Or understand what was going on. T-t-there’s a lot I can’t r-r-remember very w-w-well.”
His face in profile, I sense his reticence and realize that speaking of his past must feel like reliving his traumatic experiences in real time. The memories seem to be so deeply embedded inside his core, it’s almost as though he needs to rip each one from its fleshy hold to spit, still bleeding, past his lips.
“Just tell me what you want to share. If you feel too upset at any moment to continue, just say so and we’ll stop.” He nods in agreement. His shoulders relax, so I prompt, “What part of Africa are you from?”
“Ghana,” he replies. I ask about his family and former home; if he has any hobbies. He tells me he likes to draw, and shows me some of his work on his phone. His talent is apparent in the originality and boldness of his strokes. Many pieces have been inspired by his forced exile and subsequent voyage.
Finally, I ask, “What was the reason you left Ghana?”
“Yeah that.” Alfred snorts in laughter. Though, there’s little amusement present. It’s a laugh that I will come to know well: a distillation of irony, derision and disbelief. Condensed into the perfect guttural note, his laugh speaks volumes, in spite of its lack of verbal eloquence. An expression of world-weariness comes over his face. Suddenly, he looks much older than his years as he takes a deep breath and begins his tale of a father who would be king.
I listen to his story of black magic and murder. His midnight escape and fleeing by bus to find Mr. Kujo. Sleeping at the train station in Kumasi, while he waited for a stranger to collect him, with whom Alfred must place his complete trust. Fearful and distraught—knowing he could never go back home—a homesick schoolboy had been forced to start his long journey to become a man.
Mr. Kujo finally showed up the second morning and took Alfred to his home. His savior worked in construction, so Alfred became part of his work gang. Alfred received no salary for his labor, but in return, Mr. Kujo gave him a roof over his head, food and bought any clothes or personal items a boy might need. The workload for a slight youth was grueling: he didn’t have the stature or muscles to carry heavy loads of building material. In spite of the long days of back-breaking labor, with Mr. Kujo he felt safe. Until a year later, the building contracts dried up in Kumasi and Mr. Kujo decided to go to Niger in search of better opportunities for work.
Alfred never questioned Mr. Kujo’s decisions, whom he refers to as his ‘master’. Ill-prepared to survive on his own; a death sentence awaiting him if he tried to return to his village, Mr. Kujo was a known constant for a boy wrenched from family and home. Whether Mr. Kujo was genuinely concerned for his welfare, or it was good business to keep a member of his work crew in reasonable health--that is more difficult to discern.
One thing I sense after an hour in Alfred’s company, is that he’s retained a purity of spirit. Which is astonishing in of itself as I learn more of the journey he’s survived. Intrigued, I can only imagine the gentle and obedient boy who, without protest, followed Mr. Kujo to Niger.
Niger will always remain engraved on Alfred’s psyche with profound grief. For it was there that they received news from Kemile that both of Alfred’s parents died. The consequence of his father’s defiance of the elders didn’t end with Alfred’s disappearance. There came the inevitable confrontation between opposing village factions. Alfred’s mother tried to intervene between antagonists. She was pushed, fell and hit her head on a large rock. The blow was fatal. The confrontation degenerated into a brawl. Alfred’s father was injured in the fight, also. He died shortly thereafter… Though, the details surrounding his death remain murky.
Meanwhile, Mr. Kujo found that the situation in Niger no better than in Ghana. Large construction jobs were scarce. After months of looking for new work to little avail, Mr. Kujo decided they needed to head further north.
It was once proclaimed that, “all roads lead to Rome.” However, for the poor of sub-Saharan Africa, all roads lead to the oil riches of Libya. During Gaddafi’s reign, Libya provided steady, good-paying work. Today, Libya still draws the downtrodden of Africa, like the mirage of an oasis lures a man dying of thirst towards his doom in the desert. But Libya in the midst of a civil war--Tripoli is being fought over by two rival governments and a host of militias--has become a cruel and lawless land.
However, before passing through the gates of hell into Libya, a vast ocean of sand lay before Alfred and Mr. Kujo.
The ancient trading post of Agadez in Niger, a maze of sandy streets and mudbrick houses, is the jumping off point to smuggle people, guns, drugs and contraband across the Sahara Desert to Libya and points elsewhere in North Africa. Whether refugees from Somali, Sudan, Eritrea, or sub-Saharan Africa, all must pass through the Sahara to reach Libya. Many of the migrants arrive hungry and penniless, having sold all their belongings to finance the journey across the desert.
In spite of the dangers on the desert migrant routes--hijacking by armed bandits, the risk of dying of thirst after being abandoned by smugglers--Mr. Kujo and Alfred left the ancient trading town in a caravan of old trucks.
Compared to the horrors that many experience crossing the Sahara, their journey was relatively uneventful. Excepting, the usual vehicle breakdowns and grueling miles walked through the desert till the next outpost of civilization. Or the broken promise of direct transit to Tripoli as the smugglers renegotiated terms, which included forced labor to pay for the additional price of their passage.
As Alfred says with a snort of disdain: “When an Arab in Libya sees a black [African] they only think money.” Meaning: they’ll beat and torture him for cash; hold him hostage for ransom if family back home might pay for his release. If not, the only real currency Africans have to trade for their lives is the strength of their backs and the labor of their hands. Very often this forced labor means working nearly to death, with the minimal amount of food and water to survive. Modern day slavery, of the worst kind, is the law of the land in Libya.
“It’s a wicked wicked place,” Alfred states emphatically. “I’ve seen things in Libya I won’t ever talk about…”
With his fluency in Arabic, Mr. Kujo was able to find work around Tripoli. After several months, he found a bigger contract for a villa under construction, a few hours away in the desert. Alfred doesn’t remember the name of the town as his lack of Arabic kept him isolated and dependent on his master.
Although Alfred would turn eighteen in a few months, he was particularly vulnerable, with his slight frame and the fact he looked young for his age. There were the daily harassments and brutal beatings at the hands of Libyans, which anyone with black skin in Libya knows only too well. The constant risk of kidnapping for ransom on the streets by armed gangs. Or even worse, being thrown in prison, where the ransom game is raised to even higher stakes: beaten and tortured, the only way out of jail alive is to pay. If not, with little food or water, there is only one other outcome—to die.
The first words of Arabic that Alfred learned were thanks to the ubiquitous demand at every roadside shakedown: “Gibu fuluss! Give your money!” A gun pointed at your head is an effective teaching tool.
However, Mr. Kujo still wasn’t paying Alfred a salary, even after almost two years of labor. As Alfred explains, “My master took care of everything for me. I was a kid, so he said I didn’t need money.”
Meanwhile, Mudir, the Libyan owner of the villa, gave them lodgings in a house half a kilometer away from the construction site. Unlike most of his countrymen, he treated them decently, providing food and shelter. Though, they wouldn’t be paid until the work was completed.
Months passed, until one evening when they left the job site, later than usual, to head home. They needed to walk part of the way along the highway to reach their dwelling—always a risky venture for any African at night--when suddenly, the road was blocked by two carloads of armed Libyans. Alfred hung back about fifteen meters as the bandits accosted Mr. Kujo. He heard the inevitable demand of “Gibu fuluss.” But this night, events took a more sinister turn: the men struck Mr. Kujo with their weapons, while he pleaded he hadn’t been paid.
The thugs’ attention fixed on Alfred cowering at a distance. They screamed at him, “Tahell! Tahell! Come here!” Alfred backed away from the roadblock. A gunshot rang out in warning as they ordered him to halt. Alfred decided to run back to the owner’s quarters at the construction site for help. He roused Mudir from bed. Using hand gestures and pantomime, Alfred explained the urgent situation. Still in his pajamas, Mudir grabbed his gun and they hurried to where Mr. Kujo was being beaten on the highway. They could hear gunshots being fired in the distance and the squeal of tires as vehicles sped away.
“We found Mr. Kujo by the road: a huge hole in his chest. There was blood everywhere: on his clothes and around his body. We were too late… there was nothing we could do for him.”
Mudir took Alfred back to his villa that night. The next day they buried Mr. Kujo. The villa’s owner took pity on Alfred and allowed him to stay for a week, even though Alfred was too distraught to be of help on the construction site. Then one day, another group of Libyans showed up with an enclosed van. Through gestures and the few the words of language that they shared in common, Mudir made it clear that Alfred was to leave with these strangers.
I ask, “Did you know where they were taking you?”
“No, but Mudir kept saying it was “okay” to go with them. I was scared to leave with strangers, but I didn’t have a choice, so I got in the van. We drove for hours. I couldn’t see anything, because there were no windows in the back.
We stopped late in the day. When the van door opened, I saw this huge wall in front of me. There was a door in the wall. They shoved me through it. Inside, there were thousands of blacks sitting in rows on the ground. They looked sick and afraid. I knew that this was a very bad place.”
Alfred was right about the “bad place.” It was a prison camp in the desert, run by human traffickers. A way station for the fortunate few, who had friends or family who could pay for the voyage to Italy. Or a giant, open-air slave market for the unfortunate to work off their passage by forced labor.
A sea of bodies, crammed together in the most unsanitary conditions: no medical care for the sick; wounds festered in the heat. Every detainees’ body was soon covered with bites and open sores from the infestation of insects, which lived in the sands and feasted on human flesh, day and night. Malnutrition was rampant: the prisoners were given a bowl of couscous per day, to be shared among ten other inmates. A few mouthfuls of water. Beatings, torture, sexual assault on men and women alike were common.
One month passed there. Then two. More people arrived. Each day, names were called. They left by the door in the wall: to freedom or forced labor? Or even worse? No one knew.
One night Alfred’s name was called. Outside there were armed men, who screamed at him. Shoved him towards a car.
“I didn’t know where they were taking me. I fell to my knees and couldn’t move. With my hands clasped together, I begged them to let me live. But they began beating my head, screaming in Arabic. I didn’t understand anything they said. They dragged me towards a car and forced me into the trunk. I yelled and kicked the inside of the trunk as we drove away. They stopped the car and hit me some more to be quiet. I thought they were going to kill me…”
Hours later the car stopped and the trunk opened. Alfred could smell the sea. It was early morning. He noticed hundreds and hundreds of migrants sitting in rows on the beach. Patrolling the beach were gangs of armed guards. They were near Sabratha on the northern Libyan coast: the launching point of refugee boats into international waters.
Alfred was directed to take his place in a row. With no shelter or water, hours passed as they sweltered in the brutal heat. They were not allowed to move from their assigned row: even to relieve themselves. Dissent was silenced with clubs. The sun rose higher in the sky and, still, more refugees arrived.
Towards evening, there was a stir through the crowd as a line of Africans, under the Libyan smugglers’ supervision, carried huge blocks of black rubber to the water’s edge: to be inflated into flimsy, rubber craft, with a small outboard motor attached. Each boat held a maximum capacity of sixty. The smugglers intended to cram more than double that number into each boat.
The first dingy was launched from the beach and towed through the shallows. The armed guards moved down the rows, ordering men to take off their shoes and shirts; strip to their shorts or underwear. The women and young children were allowed to remain clothed, but shoes and heavy clothing were jettisoned. A murmur of fear rippled through the refugees as they realized these unseaworthy rubber boats were their transportation to freedom.
Alfred explains, “Many Africans don’t know how to swim and were afraid to leave in rubber boats. People started crying and praying to God to save them…they didn’t want to board. The Arab guards started beating people, yelling and shoving them into the water. They said we had to go. They had guns…How could we fight back?”
I think of the stories I’ve read of refugees executed on the sands of Sabratha, for refusing to board these floating death traps, as Alfred continues: “In Libya we are already dead while alive. God sees everything. If he brought me this far, it was for a reason…so I walked into the water. It was up to my chest when I reached the boat.”
To pack the boats to double their capacity, once boarded, no one can move during the hours--even days--at sea. Packed body to body: if someone needs to urinate, defecate or vomit, they and their neighbors sit in their own waste. Intoxicated by the fumes, the feet and legs of those seated in the bottom of the dinghies are burned from leaking fuel sloshing around with seawater. Those seated along the outward edge risk being thrown overboard in rough seas…
The migrants are given no water or food for their journey. No crew accompanies them. Their only navigational tool: a compass, with a heading to steer towards. Plus, a satellite phone and the number of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome, which sends real-time alerts to ships in the Mediterranean.
It was May 2016 at approximately 9 p.m., when Alfred’s boat left the shore of Libya. A refugee, who claimed to be a fisherman, navigated the craft. With no running lights, and only their belief that God would guide them, they forged blindly ahead into the immense blackness of sea and sky.
God must have been listening….
“It was early morning when we saw a huge boat up ahead. Everyone was crying and thanking God. We were saved. Once on board the rescue ship, they gave us food, water and foil blankets [used in emergency rescue situations].”
Then the refugees were photographed and registered according to age and country of origin. He found a group who spoke his Ghanaian dialect, Twi. There was one friendly youth, named Ibrahim, who spoke the dialect fluently. Though, Alfred mistrusted his claim to be from Ghana.
“I looked at his face and thought he looks like an Arab, not a black from Ghana,’ Alfred says with a smile and a shake of his head, before continuing: “After what happened to me in Libya, I didn’t trust any Arabs. But Ibrahim told me that he left Mali to move to Ghana when he was five years old. His mother took him to Libya when he was fourteen. She died there, so he spent two years living on the streets alone. We were both orphans, and didn’t know anyone else, so we decided to stay together. Now, he’s my brother, my family.”
They debarked in Palermo, Sicily. Together, Alfred and Ibrahim were sent to another refugee center in Italy, near a military base. Two days later, they left by bus to Northern Italy. They’ve since been living at the government-contracted reception center at the Seminario di Bordighera, while they wait for their asylum demands to be finalized, and permanent Italian residency granted.
I ask, “What do you want in the future? Do you want to stay in Italy, or move elsewhere in Europe?”
“I don’t know anyone in Europe, so why would I keep looking for somewhere else to go? I just want to live somewhere peaceful. Where I can be free. I don’t want trouble with the police or to break any laws. One day I want to have family and children. But to have a wife and children, first I need a job…”
And that’s the crux of the problem. Alfred is trapped in real life Catch-22, while his asylum application works its way through the system. Other than three Italian classes per week, neither he, nor any other refugee in the care of the Seminario di Bordighera are enrolled in vocational training programs to help them find work, or given resources to better integrate into Italian society.
Once he’s been granted Italian residency, at twenty years old, he will no longer be allowed to live at the government-contracted refugee center. Woefully unprepared, within forty-eight hours he must vacate the premises of the Seminario di Bordighera. There will be no further government aid. Unless a private organization or an individual offers a refugee work, or pays for enrollment in vocational training, Alfred, like any other refugee in the same circumstance, has no resources to pay rent for an apartment or food.
With no family or community to help him, his only option may be to join the roving bands of migrants in illegal camps, such as those who live under the bridge or sleep rough on the beach in Ventimiglia…
One detail nags at me by its omission: “Who paid for your release from the traffickers’ camp in the desert, and passage to Italy?”
Alfred reflects for a second, then answers, “I’m not sure, but I think it was the owner of the villa where Mr. Kujo and I worked…Mudir never paid us before Mr. Kujo died. There was no one else to help me, so it might have been him.”
Alfred says, “God watches over us all.” He may be right. Because someone, in the hell on earth of Libya, helped a lost boy to freedom and a new life. Surely, without his unknown benefactor’s help in escaping, Alfred would have died…
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