By Akbar Ahmed
November 24, 2018
During fieldwork for my book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity I travelled with a research team across Europe interviewing numerous Muslims about their lives. While many of the Muslim communities we met had been in Europe for generations, such as the Pakistani population of the UK or the Algerians in France, one of the most interesting groups we met were the very recently arrived migrants coming from Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia.
These migrants have instigated a storm in Europeand the Far Right parties in particular have seized on the crisis to argue that European people, culture, and society are under threat from the “Islamichordes.”
But how well do we actually know the migrants themselves, and why they choose to make their perilous journey, given that thousands of migrants have died and continue to die in the Mediterranean? A young migrant we met in Sicily can illustrate the aspirations and motivations of what are too often seen as faceless and voiceless “illegals.”
During a tour of the main mosque in Catania, Sicily we met Ahmedu Jalo. A young migrant from Gambia, Ahmedu had only recently arrived by boat. The mosque’s imam, a welcoming and cheerful North African, was showing the mosque to us. He pulled back a curtain to reveal some mattresses where Syrian families were sleeping.
At the entrance of another room I saw Ahmedu. A mop in his hand, he was standing by himself. Something about him struck me. Beneath his poise, I felt there was an extraordinary story. He was reluctant to talk. Migrants like Ahmedu know that talking to strangers can land them in trouble, but I was determined to hear his account and interview him for our project.
Once he agreed, however, he began to slowly open up. His friend, Bahbuka, another young migrant from Gambia, also joined in the conversation.
Ahmedu, who was seventeen years old, had four siblings. Ahmedu was the eldest son and the pride of his parents. When his mother and father separated, his life changed. He was going to make his fortune in the hope of reuniting his parents and helping his siblings. Bidding his father farewell, Ahmedu set out for Europe, without documents or money, on a journey that would take him over a year and two months across the vast expanse of Africa, through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Libya, and the Mediterranean Sea. Ahmedu recounted the horrors he encountered on the way, of the times he was jailed by corrupt policemen, of the pain he felt in his body because of the hunger in his stomach. When it was possible, he found employment hawking water, helping a barber, or serving food, which gave him enough money to get to his next destination. As he spoke, he repeated the phrase “not easy, not easy.”
Ahmedu also spoke of the fear he felt in Libya with the threat of violence always present, “All the time I hear a distant gun.” A kind Libyan man eventually found Ahmedu a place in a migrant boat bound for Europe, and paid for it.
Ahmedu recounted the climax to the nightmare journey when the desperate passengers were rescued in the Mediterranean by the Italian coast guard. “Thank God,” Ahmedu said, “everyone survived.”
On their arrival in Sicily, Ahmedu and the other migrants were herded into a school hall that served as a migrant centre. His problems were just beginning. Ahmedu, who complained that the authorities did not permit him to phone home, left the migrant center and began to sleep on the cold streets of Catania without warm clothes. He foraged for food in heaps of rubbish and drank as much water as he could in order to stave off his hunger. Ahmedu had no one—from the government or anywhere else—to advise him on his options.
On one occasion an Italian policeman head-butted him for no discernable reason. Shocked, Ahmedu collapsed in tears: “One day I came to the police station. One man . . . I don’t know whether he was a policeman or what. . . . He looked at me like this, he say, ‘Move, move here.’ He hit me two times. . . . I cannot do nothing. I just sit and cry. Yes. I just sit and cry.”
He may have frozen to death on the streets if a kindly Sicilian had not told him about the central mosque that could provide him shelter. Without any documents or money in his pocket, Ahmedu’s only concern was that he had no way to speak to his family. It was on his mind all the time and kept coming up in our conversation.
When we provided him the means to phone home, his face and body language changed. He began to thaw, and a slow transformation took place. Ahmedu’s voice became stronger, his posture straighter and he began to show signs of animation. As he went deeper and deeper into his story, my research team began to show visible signs of emotion. I could see tears glistening in eyes.
I asked Ahmedu what kept him going and he mentioned his faith, but above all it was doing something to help his family and reunite his parents: “I have a faith because always I used to pray and I used to thank Him and if you don’t forget God, God will save you always.”
At the end Ahmedu seemed a changed man, and when, in a good-natured fatherly way, I said I wanted to see him smiling from now on, he replied with a broad grin, “Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Thank you very much. . . . I will never forget you guys, thank you very much” and reached out to embrace an American member of my research team, saying, “You come, join to me, smile together. Smile together.”
Ahmedu’s story raises the fundamental issue of the idea of survival. If you were a spirited healthy young man, conscious of your position as the eldest son of a poverty-stricken family, lived in a nation where over half the population was under the internationally recognized poverty line, and were ruled by a ruler who was known as cruel and tyrannical, you would probably think of seeking your fortunes in another land like Ahmedu did, to prove yourself and help your family. And if you were desperate enough, the biggest obstacles would not stop you, not even crossing the Sahara or the Mediterranean Sea without money or official papers.
For many in the West, Ahmedu represents a threatening and dangerous Muslim “illegal immigrant.” Yet at no point in my conversations with Ahmedu did he ever bring up terms like jihad or Sharia, which many Westerners fear Muslims are trying to impose on them.
There is no doubt that Europe must find a holistic, humane, and long term policy for the thousands upon thousands of migrants that continue to seek new lives for themselves and their families. Yet a crucial first step is to remember that these are human beings, a fact that is often missing from conversations about immigration. Listening to the stories of people like Ahmedu can help us do this.
Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity