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Exclusive! Ibrahim: Destiny’s Child

By Award Winning Author and Publisher Melissa Roen

This is the second article, in a two-part series, Lost Boys Found, chronicling young asylum seekers’ journeys through Libya to a new life in Italy.

Ibrahim: Destiny’s Child

A quote from an Italian government official in a recent [2017] New Yorker magazine article, The Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl, sums up Italy’s response to the migrant crisis:

 “In Italy, we’re very good at the process of emergency reception…. They arrive. We give them something to eat. We put them in a reception center. But after that? There is no solution…’’

The first thing that strikes me about Ibrahim is his smile: open and sunny, it lights up his face. Although at eighteen, he is two years younger than his friend Alfred, he has an easy-going self-confidence and maturity about him that belies his age.

His spoken English is excellent. I learn he has a natural linguistic ability: besides the Ghana dialect Twi and Arabic learned in Libya, Ibrahim is quickly mastering Italian. Friendly and outgoing, the interior scars from his two-year-and-eight-month-long ordeal in Libya aren’t as readily apparent as the wicked scars covering his forearms and back, from being beaten with electrical cables in a Libyan prison. Or the jagged scar on his scalp from a knife blade, received during a vicious attack on the streets of Tripoli.

Ibrahim may seem to have recovered from the cruelty he was subjected to in Libya, but the scars, both interior and exterior, will always be a part of him. Tall and wiry, his inner strength brings to mind the resiliency of a stalk of bamboo: “The mightiest tree may fall during a storm. However, the slender bamboo bends before the wind, but never breaks…”

Our first meeting takes place at Delia’s Hobbit Bar in Ventimiglia, Italy. Unlike the majority of establishments in town, Delia welcomes refugees. Down a side street, approximately a hundred meters from the train station, “Delia’s” is where refugees in transit congregate.

We sit across from each other at a scratched wooden table in the backroom of the bar; order coffee and once served, I ask Ibrahim to tell me about his former life.

“I was born in Mali. When I was five, my mother and I moved to Korfidua, Ghana [capital of the Eastern Region in southern Ghana]. I don’t know why. When you’re a kid, no one tells you why you move--you just go. I never knew my father, so maybe there was a problem with her family? We lived in Ghana till I was fourteen.

Then, my mother had a big fight with her best friend. The police were involved. My mom hit her friend, so we had to leave quickly. Another friend, who lived in Libya, said if we came to Tajura [near Tripoli], she’d help my mom find work. It was right before Christmas [2013]. I remember, because every kid’s so excited about Christmas and getting presents. I was sad, because I didn’t want to miss Christmas. But we left for Libya…”

The traditional migrant route for sub-Saharan Africans to Libya is via the Sahara Desert. Clinging to the southern edge of the desert, the ancient trading post of Agadez in Niger has been, for centuries, the departure point to traverse the unforgiving Sahara. Once, camel caravans filled with trade goods and contraband plied the routes controlled by the Tuareg and Toubou tribes to Northern Africa. Although, arms, drugs and food are still smuggled across the desert, today, the most lucrative source of contraband is the trafficking of human beings.

Ibrahim says. “We left Agadez in the late afternoon, and were taken by jeeps out into the desert to meet up with the drivers and their trucks. There were five trucks in our [smuggler’s] group.”

The smugglers’ preferred mode of transport are Toyota pickup trucks. Each truck bed can hold approximately fifteen people, packed closely together, standing up in the back. The passengers, who perch precariously on the outside perimeter of the rear bed, need to hold onto an attached piece of wood so they won’t be thrown out of the vehicle, while en route. Usually, a number of different smugglers’ groups leave Agadez in a large convoy for added protection.

Due to sandstorms and the shifting landscape of dunes, the route is never the same. Only local drivers know which dunes lead across the Sahara and which lead to death. Once lost, trucks run out of fuel, then water. Without water, a human won’t survive for more than three days.

“A few days out in the desert, our drivers noticed a group of hijackers in jeeps [shadowing the convoy]. The trucks in our group drove off from the main convoy, trying to escape through the dunes, before they attacked. One of the drivers lost control in the deep sands. The truck crashed and rolled over. People were crushed: broken arms and legs. Two people died in the crash. It was the first time I’d seen someone die…We still had four [undamaged] trucks, so we had space to take the injured with us.”

Along the smuggling routes, corpses and discarded belongings are tangible proof of how merciless and deadly the Sahara can be. Some say crossing this ocean of sand is more dangerous than taking to sea in flimsy, rubber dinghies to try to reach Italy. On the Mediterranean, one only has to deal with fierce storms, unseaworthy craft and potential drowning. In the Sahara, the danger comes from the treachery of one’s fellow man. Rival smugglers, jihadis, or thieves looking to steal cars prey upon vulnerable convoys, abandoning the previous drivers and their human cargo, who if not rescued, to an agonizing death amongst the dunes.

It’s a 2793-kilometer trek from Agadez to Tripoli, with stops at outposts along the way. In most places, a bribe needs to be paid at police checkpoints so that the smugglers can proceed.

The worst part of the journey may happen when the migrants arrive in Libya. Most passengers are dropped off in Qatroun, the first major town over the border in Libya, or in Sabha (further to the north) to negotiate with local Libyan smugglers their ongoing passage to Tripoli. Often times, truckloads of migrants are sold to a new smuggling gang at this point. Even though they’ve already paid their passage in full to the initial smuggling crew, they’re held in traffickers’ compounds and tortured for ransom. Until, their families can pay for their release and the additional fee to travel to the capital.

Fortunately, Ibrahim and his mother had sufficient funds and were spared such a fate. Once in the Tripoli region, Ibrahim’s mother found work as a maid for a Libyan family in Tajura, where she was allowed to have her son live with her in the servant quarter.

“After eight months, my mother started to feel sick and tired all the time. One night, the owner of the villa took her to the hospital. The next morning, he said my mother had died during the night. It was her heart. Everything happened so fast. I couldn’t believe it—it didn’t seem possible--she was gone. The owner said, because my mother was dead, I couldn’t live any longer in his house. I was crying and asking him: where should I go, what should I do…But he didn’t care. He threw me out of his house. I left with only the clothes I was wearing. No money. No food.

I couldn’t stop crying, but I knew it was too dangerous to be on the streets at night. Before dark, I found a place to hide in some bushes. All that first night, I couldn’t think of anything but my mother was dead. I didn’t know what to do to take care of myself. During the next couple of days, I walked the streets: not seeing where I was going; not knowing what to do. Or I sat for hours on the street, crying. I hadn’t eaten the morning I was thrown out of the villa. By then, I’d been three days without food. I searched through garbage or picked up anything I found, even in the gutters, looking for something I could eat. I was starving and desperate. I didn’t care if it was rotten or made me sick. I licked drops of water from a faucet. Every night, I found a place to hide and slept in the bushes. Every morning when I woke up, the only thing I thought about was food and how to find something to eat...”

Born on July 18, 1998, under the sun sign of Leo, Ibrahim knew he would die if he didn’t find a better way to survive…

No matter what the situation: A lion does not eat grass.” --African proverb

"Lion sketch by Ibrahim Mohammed"

“After about a week, whenever I walked around the city, if I saw Africans working on a building, I would ask if they needed help. If they said yes, I would work with them for a few days: carrying things or painting—whatever they needed me to do. In exchange, they would give me food. I still hid at night and slept in the bushes. Every day, I told myself, no matter what the situation, I wouldn’t give up…”

Slowly, Ibrahim learned the rules of the street; what to do in a confrontation with Libyans. The itinerant jobs—usually, for a few days duration—assured that he wouldn’t sleep hungry those nights.

A future was not something he could conceive. Seeking a new life in Italy wasn’t on his radar, yet. At fifteen years old, having never known his father, orphaned by his mother’s death and no home or family in Ghana to return to, the past was a door closed to him. Or something that haunted his dreams at night.

His reality was worse than any nightmare: a day to day struggle for survival in one of the most violent countries on the planet. Constant strife was the norm as civil war raged, between rival governments, for control of Tripoli. It almost seems as though cruelty is the default response of most Libyan towards African migrants. Whether in the form of forced labor, kidnapping for ransom or roadside holdups, the exploitation and inhuman treatment of Africans knows no bounds. Even though, many left their own homelands because of civil war, genocide, famine or grinding poverty, it isn’t hyperbole to say Libya is hell on earth for any black person from Africa.

Most likely, it was Ibrahim’s quick wits, linguistic ability and fierce will to survive that allowed him to adapt to life on the street. Like a chameleon, his lighter skin and more Arabic features, from his mixed Malian heritage, played a role in helping him to blend in.

Meanwhile, the short-term construction work took Ibrahim all over northern Libya: Zaouia, Janzur, Garabulli, Khoms, Gagaresh, Ashan (and other towns, whose names he can’t remember.) The jobs would last one week or two, rarely longer. But once the job finished…

“The first time I left Tajura [with a work crew for a job in another town in Libya], I thought I had found people—new friends--who could help me: feed me in exchange for work—take care of me. But once the painting job finished, they thanked me for my help and said goodbye. They were leaving to go to a new job in another town and didn’t need my help. I didn’t understand why they were leaving me alone in a strange place. I asked what I should do. They said, I had to find my own way; figure it out for myself…”

This may seem a heartless act. However, Libya is a twisted Darwinian dystopia. A world that follows the natural laws of Tennyson’s jungle of red tooth and claw; predator and prey, where only the strongest and fittest survive.

Whether fifteen years old, or fifty, every refugee is in the same desperate strait: navigating a pitiless world where their lives have little value. Every day fraught with danger and the constant fear: Would you live to see the sunrise of a new day?

It’s a hard lesson to learn that companionship and a sense of safety are fleeting in hell. That self-pity is a luxury. Anyone who survives Libya needs to grow up fast. After that first experience, Ibrahim found himself, once again, alone on the street in a hostile world. No family or friends, and desperate to find a way to feed himself. “So, I started walking to the next town. Whenever I saw Africans working on a construction site, I’d asked if I could help them…”

In 2015, Ibrahim found himself in the town of Garabulli, in northwestern Libya. Sleeping on the streets at night, wherever he could find a modicum of shelter. One fateful night, he bedded down in a warren of dank alleys, which, unbeknownst to him, was a notorious ghetto for drug-dealers. A few houses away, from the doorway where he slept, Nigerian dealers plied their trade in a rundown squat. Roused from a deep sleep--in the wrong place, at the wrong time--Ibrahim was swept up in a police raid and incarcerated along with the dealers.

In Libya, there’s only one criteria used to measure an African’s value: how much money can be squeezed out of him (or her.) It’s business—pure and simple. Drug dealers are preferred targets for the police, as they have cash on hand to secure their immediate release from jail. It didn’t matter if Ibrahim wasn’t part of the gang, innocent of any criminal activity, or didn’t have the means for a get-out-of-jail-card. No problem: the jailers of Garabulii Prison know more than one way to extract a pound of flesh.

The guards start with beatings--using fists, feet and truncheons--to convince an inmate to call family to pay for his release. If, like Ibrahim, the detainee claims he has no one to call for the ransom…The next step would be to hose him down with water, to reduce the electrical resistance of his skin and to increase the effect of the shocks. Once drenched, an electrical prod--whose voltage can be controlled by the torturer to deliver maximum pain, without inducing cardiac arrest—is applied to various body parts. In Ibrahim’s case, the electrical prod was wielded along his forearms and back.

Alternating electroshock, with being whipped by electrical cables, no human can long withstand such excruciating pain. Add to that: meager rations of a piece of stale bread per day, and a few mouthfuls of water--so brackish and contaminated that severe gastro-intestinal illnesses, like dysentery, are guaranteed--even the most courageous prisoner capitulates to the torturer’s demands.

Except in Ibrahim’s case: “I told the guards over and over I had no one I could call. Even if they kill me… it wouldn’t change anything. I had no one to call.” He adds, “Many of the guards don’t care if you live or die there. But some guards, still, have something human left inside them and stop [before torture results in death].”

For inmates who survive the initial round of torture and don’t succumb to the filthy conditions and starvation rations, but still can’t ransom their release, another fate awaits them: the slave block. In detention camps and prisons all over Libya, African migrants are sold as slave labor to Libyan citizens. In Garabulli, the price is 1000 dinars (approximately 655 euros) for a prisoner’s release.

During the two months Ibrahim spent incarcerated in Garabulli Prison, he struck up a friendship with a fellow inmate from Ghana, Kuwuku, who did plaster work by trade. A Libyan policeman needed plaster work done on his home and paid for Kuwuku’s release. Kuwuku convinced the policeman that he needed Ibrahim’s help to do the work. Two months after being swept up in the drug raid, Ibrahim left the horror of Garabulli Prison behind. The scars on his forearms and back, forever, a reminder of the torture he endured.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the countryside jihadists and ISIS were making inroads…

Later in the same year [2015], Ibrahim was captured, along with another boy, Kofi, in a small town near Zintan [140 kilometers southeast of Tripoli], by Islamic State terrorists.

Ibrahim’s linguistic skills in Arabic, and being of the Moslem faith, saved his life. “We’d left work for the day and were on our way to buy food, when they [ISIS] caught us. They made Kofi and me kneel on the ground, our hands tied behind our backs—an Islamic State soldier on either side—as they interrogated us.” His voice breaks with sorrow as he describes the ordeal: “Kofi was Christian and didn’t understand Arabic. He only spoke English and his local Ghanaian dialect. If only they would have asked me first, maybe, Kofi would have known how to answer. But they asked him a question in Arabic about the Shahada…”

The Shahada is a phrase in the Quran that a Moslem, who accepts Allah as God and Mohamed as Allah’s messenger, recites to proclaim his faith. The first pillar of Islam and one of the five basic acts of Islam, it’s considered mandatory by believers and the foundation of Moslem life.

“When Kofi didn’t understand what they were asking, they knew he wasn’t Moslem… Before I could tell him what to say, or answer in his place, one of the terrorists reached down and cut his throat with a knife. Kofi’s body fell to the ground beside me. I was shaking, because I was so frightened and sick to my stomach as I answered. They asked me again and again--five times—trying to catch me in a mistake or a lie. While Kofi bled to death, right before my eyes.

Then, they put me in the back of a pickup truck [with other hostages they’d rounded up] and paraded around the town, flying black ISIS flags. They took us to a house and locked us inside. There were about twenty of us captured that day.”

Once more, destiny smiled on this child, when they didn’t post a guard on the house. “Once the terrorists left, some of the men tried the door. The lock wasn’t strong and they were able to force the door open. All the hostages escaped and hid that night…”

What would have happened if the lock had been stout? Would Ibrahim, and the other prisoners, have become forced recruits into ISIS’s ranks?

Meanwhile, towards the end of 2015, Ibrahim had a fortuitous encounter with another Ghanaian migrant, Razak. Ibrahim told him of his past, his mother’s death and the subsequent hardships he’d endured, alone in Libya. Twenty-seven years old, Razak felt compassion for the lonely youth and extended his friendship. Overtime, he became like the big brother that Ibrahim never had before in his life. It was Razak who first spoke to Ibrahim about Italy. And of a new life of peace and freedom, far from the constant violence and danger of Libya. He promised to take Ibrahim with him to Italy.

Though, raising enough money to pay for passage to Italy, is easier said than done. There’s work in abundance for Africans in Libya. To be actually paid for their labor is a much more difficult proposition. They need to employ all their ingenuity to receive even a fraction of the pay due them. One way, is to ask for money for additional supplies during the actual work. However, they’re always at the mercy of the whims and ill-treatment of their Libyan employers.

And that is what happened on their next job site, when they approached the Libyan owner about receiving a portion of their pay. Since the work was near completion, the Libyan angrily ordered the migrant crew off the site-- rather than part with his money.

Before departing the site, Ibrahim scaled the outside ladder to retrieve their belongings, which they’d left on the third floor of the building. However, in his fury at the crew’s “temerity” in asking for their pay, the Libyan deliberately knocked over the ladder as Ibrahim clung to it, three stories above ground. He fell the distance, severely injuring his knee as he landed.

Ibrahim needed immediate medical attention for his shattered knee, but it was too dangerous to take him to a hospital. Because he was African, he could risk imprisonment for ransom if he sought treatment…Instead, Razak took Ibrahim to a trusted Libyan contact, Sherif who owned a sheep farm nearby and had connections to Libyan boat smugglers.

Sherif got medical supplies and a large syringe from a pharmacy, which he used to extract the fluid from Ibrahim’s grotesquely swollen knee. Then, did his best to reset and bind his kneecap. Razak was able to work out an agreement with Sherif for Ibrahim to remain at his farm, while recovering from his injury. Razak left to find work to raise the needed funds for their escape from Libya.

It took Razak almost four months to earn the fare for their passage to freedom, while Ibrahim’s knee slowly healed. Periodically, he returned to Sherif’s farm to check on Ibrahim. Once the funds for their escape in hand, Sherif arranged through his smuggling contacts for their transport to Sbratha on the coast.

They arrived in April 2016: the beginning of the season, when desperate refugees attempt the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean. Instead of leaving immediately by sea, Ibrahim and Razak were interned in a smugglers’ detention camp near Zawiya, to await passage to Italy.

Situated on a hill in the desert, enclosed by barbed-wire fences, Zawiya camp overlooked a river. Armed guards patrolled the camp, keeping the refugees imprisoned within. From there, one could see the coast, and beach where the smugglers’ boats launched. Thousands of fellow refugees were held at the camp, awaiting clement weather, calm seas and their turn to depart.

One week stretched into two. Then a month, and still, they waited: living in wretched conditions and subjected to daily mistreatment--the route to freedom tantalizingly close. It was the third week of May 2016, when Ibrahim and Razak were transferred to the river below, to prepare for departure.

“I remember when I first saw our boat—a piece of rubber crap. I was sure that it couldn’t float with all the people aboard and I would die if I left in it. But in Libya there was no life, no future for me—for any of us--just death. So, I said to myself as I waded through the water to the dingy, “If I die in this boat, I die. If I live through the sea voyage, I live--and have a chance for a new life. Nothing can be worse than staying here…””

It was full dark, when the over-crowded rubber dingy, holding Ibrahim, Razak and more than a hundred fellow refugees left the shore of Libya. Their only navigational tool: a compass and heading for Italy. And a satellite phone, with the number of Maritime Rescue Coordination Service in Rome to call once they reached international waters. The sea was calm. The night passed without mishap. Approximately ten hours later, on the morning of May 25, 2016, they spied a large ship--a rescue vessel—up ahead.

“We’d prayed all night. So, everyone was crying and thanking God, when they saw the ship. After all that Razak and I’d been through to come here, we were saved…”

Once aboard ship, they were given food, water and blankets. The injured received emergency treatment. Then Ibrahim, Razak and their fellow refugees were photographed and registered according to age and country of origin.

However, it was at their first port of entry, Palermo, Sicily, where refugees were assigned to a reception center, that fate intervened.

“Because I wouldn’t be eighteen for two more months—my birthday is July 18-- they [immigration officials] couldn’t decide if I should be sent to a camp for unaccompanied minors, or one for adults. They held me aside, but sent Razak ahead, because he was twenty-seven, already an adult. By the time, they decided to send me to a camp for adults, Razak’d already been assigned a camp, boarded a bus and was gone…Two days later, I was sent to the Seminario di Bordighera in northern Italy.”

This is one of the most heart-breaking aspects of the crisis for refugees everywhere: with closed borders and their movements restricted in a host country, the difficulty of being re-united with lost family and friends can become insurmountable.

Fortunately for Ibrahim, he has made new friends: like Alfred, who he met on the rescue ship and lives at the Seminario di Bordighera, also. But a true friend is never forgotten: “I’ve tried to find Razak: contacting other centers; searching for him on Facebook; asked every refugee from Ghana, whom I meet, if they know him…but he’s disappeared. If it wasn’t for his friendship and help, I would never have escaped Libya. I don’t know where he is, or how to find him, but I still keep looking for Razak…”

It’s been a year, since Ibrahim’s rescue at sea. His asylum application and permanent Italian residency should be finalized in 2017. However, his future in Italy--indeed, any refugee’s future--is far from assured. The Italy government allocates per day, 35 euros for each adult refugee; 45 euros for an unaccompanied minor, to be housed, clothed and fed in government-contracted refugee centers.

Conditions vary greatly, depending on the organisations running the centers. Unfortunately, in certain centers, the government-allocated funds are diverted for personal gain.

The government-contracted refugee center, where Ibrahim (and Alfred) are housed in Bordighera is considered one of the better ones. Even though, conditions are spartan: Alfred shares a room with eight other refugees; Ibrahim’s room sleeps five. Altogether, there are twenty-two refugees who live on the seminary’s grounds. They each receive 2,50 euros a day as a personal allowance. Plus 100 euros per day is allotted to feed the twenty-two refugees in residence. They cook their own meals. They receive weekly Italian lessons. Administrative help with their asylum applications is available. All refugees do unpaid voluntary work in the community. For the past six months, Ibrahim and Alfred volunteer, five mornings a week at the Caritas refugee distribution center. In the afternoons, at Sant’Antonio church in Ventimiglia.

However, once he receives his permanent Italian residency, Ibrahim will no longer receive government assistance and must vacate the Seminario di Bordighera within 48 hours…

Ibrahim recently found a job with a gardening crew: Monday through Friday. He works in a restaurant on Sunday. He’s not afraid to work hard to create a future for himself. Compared to what he’s endured in Libya—this is a walk in the park. But, for every Ibrahim who may be able to adapt and integrate into the existing system, there are tens and tens of thousands who are woefully unprepared.

However, their inner strength and resiliency in the face of adversity--which every refugee who has passed through the hell of Libya has learned--ultimately, may help them overcome many obstacles to building a new life in Europe:

The mightiest tree may fall during the storm. However, the slender bamboo stalk bends before the wind, but never breaks.

Indeed, each and every one of them--most definitely--has already survived the most hellish of storms…


Melissa Roen has published two novels and in two languages, her native English and also in French: 'Last Call for Caviar' and 'Maya Rising'.

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Thursday, 1 June 2017    Section: General Articles
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