“I come from Jarra, a rural area in the Lower River Region of The Gambia, in the middle of the country. I moved to the capital Banjul when I was 15 to live with my brother and attend high school. However, I didn’t graduate because we couldn’t afford the fees.
About five years ago, when I was about 20, my friends encouraged me to leave The Gambia. This is not a rich country, and we heard that people had left and become successful in Europe and sent money back to their families.
I wanted to go to Italy, because I thought this was the easiest European country to get to. I knew many people had died trying to get to Europe, but I thought I would make it.
The first step was neighboring Senegal, and from there we took a bus to Mauritania. I stayed there, with my sister’s husband, for five months, doing construction work, and anything I could, to earn money for the next leg of the journey.
From Mauritania I went to Mali. This was a very long bus ride and it took about 12 hours to get to the capital, Bamako. There were many other Gambians on the bus. Then we went to Agadez, in central Niger, via Burkina Faso. At each stage we had to pay to continue. We felt in danger but at that stage it was too late to go back.
There were about 25 of us in an open pickup, driving through the desert, with no shade. It was very hot and uncomfortable. We drove for three days and slept 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 harsh and they beat us. When we entered Libya we were beaten and all our money was taken from us. Luckily I had hidden some food in the bus. Those who beat us had weapons, and I was very afraid that they would shoot us.
The next leg of the journey was to Sabhā, in central Libya. As I had no money, I had to stay in Sabhā for four months and find work to pay my ticket to Tripoli.
When you travel from Sabhā to Tripoli, you have to be smuggled in. 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 much danger.
“They shot the boat”
I had to wait over a year in Tripoli before I could get to the coast and take a boat to Italy. One of my brothers found the money for me to fit on the boat. Before we set off there was firing and we soon realized that our boat was taking on water:.
There were gunmen who didn’t want us to go to Europe, so they just shot 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 ashore.
When we got to land we were taken to a prison camp. We were beaten by soldiers who told us to give them money, but I had nothing left. I had to stay there for two months in these difficult, dirty conditions. Our phones were taken from us so we couldn’t contact our families; many of them but that we were dead.
Starting over from scratch
Eventually, people from the United Nations came to the center. They gave us clothes and some food and offered us a voluntary flight back to Gambia.
I was very sad: I had lost everything and would have to start from scratch. I didn’t want to return home, but I had no choice.
When I arrived in The Gambia, the United Nations Migration Agency (IOM) offered to help me start a business. They asked me what I wanted to do and because of my experience in the construction industry I told them I could sell cement.
They gave me tailored in-kind support in the form of a cement store, but unfortunately the place I found to store the cement bags was not protected from the weather: it was the rainy season and the water reached all over the cement. It was ruined.
I went back to the UN to ask for more help, and they offered me skills training. This was very useful and I was able to get a certificate and go back to working with aluminium. I got a job in a friend’s shop in Banjul that sells aluminum window frames.
In the future, when I can raise the money, I plan to open my own shop. I am married now and have two children. I want to succeed here now, and I wouldn’t try to repeat that trip to Europe. It’s too risky. If you fail, you lose everything.”