Lost And Found Across The Atlantic From Barcelona through Brussels and London, to New York, Washington D.C. and beyond Tokunbo Awoshakin tells the stories of real people in real-life situations. He paints a portrait of how Africans from different backgrounds arrive, struggle, fail or succeed in the cities and suburbs of Europe and America.
Life and living outside of Africa is a biter-sweet experience. The experience differs from one city to the next, from one country to the other, from one circumstance to the next and from one individual to another. Yet, the experience of attempting to and/or actually making a living in any white man’s land is similar in hundreds of other ways.
Unlike the first generations of Africans that traveled abroad mainly to study and return to good jobs and easy middle class lives back home, only a few of the present generation of Africans travel abroad with the plan to simply study and return. Fewer yet are the numbers of those that are able to realize their dreams in the fashion of Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo.
The contemporary pattern of African migration across the Atlantic can be classified as voluntary and forced. The first category will include the poor and unemployed as well as the technicians and professionals. The second will include those forced to seek another life outside Africa as a result of violent conflicts or natural disasters. Every one of several thousands of Africans outside the continent of Africa has a unique story to tell. Some of these stories are true, several are false and many others are mixtures of truth and false hood. Whether true, false or exaggerations of several truths, these stories are as real as can be. These stories are the experiences of Africans in another man’s land.
Some Africans, especially those that have managed to achieve some success, tell their stories eagerly, with smiles dancing on their faces. These are the stories of struggles and triumph. It comes a lot slower and more painfully for others who belong to the category of the wise, fearful and lonely. The stories of other Africans living abroad you have to gather from not only what they have told you but what is left unsaid, the stories that tells itself from the reality of their lives.
For several others their stories or versions of it are told on the street, in bars, in hospital wards or in a prison warden’s office. These are the foolish, the weak and the broken. Yet there are others who cannot tell their stories because they are dumb. These ones are dumb because they are dead and because the dead don’t talk. These ones are the lost and perhaps forgotten.
Three Doors Of Hope And Illusion
That many Africans who travel abroad today do so in search of greener pastures is not fresh. An operational definition of greener pasture will include getting a good job and/or career, getting some education, if possible but definitely making enough money to be able to live well, send money home regularly and return or visit, depending on the circumstances, as a successful son or daughter.
Greener pastures however comes at a high cost. The very first of these is the cost of successfully arriving in the destination where images in movies and the visits of those that have gone before and had returned in flying colors, have convinced many.
One of the most difficult things to achieve with those striving to come and graze and make good in the greener pastures across the Atlantic is trying to convince them to do a rethink. Anybody who attempts to do this will quickly be labeled as an enemy of progress. If you say it is not that easy, the very bold one will tell you that if that is true why have you not returned. For such people, nothing can be truer than the maxim that “seeing is believing”.
Thousands are today seeking ways to come and see. Several hundreds have found ways to come. They have seen and are unable to believe. For some, the image of a greener pasture disappeared on the trek to Europe. For others this gleam of wealth waiting to be made faded months, perhaps years after arrival and for several it has become like an “abiku” coming and going with the seasons and new hustles.
Given the continued disillusionment with life and living in Africa, especially for the younger generation, travelling abroad is still a popular dream for many. Investigations for this article reveal that people make their ways out of Africa in a variety of ways. These ways can however be basically grouped into three categories.
The word on the street in Europe and America is that you either come through the front door, the side door or through the back door. Each of these doors has its advantages and disadvantages yet, they are doors of hope to a better life. Whether that hope will translate into a reality of a worthwhile and desirable life that you dreamed of is another thing. You want to come, then come first!
The front door as the name suggests is the legal way. Of course there are times when the law is bent but not broken for people to still come in through that door. Essentially, coming through the front door is by getting a valid visa from the embassy of the country of destination. Given the different categories of visa available, the process is supposed to be easy. The reality however is that it is easier for men, women and their children, who have already found greener pastures at home than for those who are still seeking it.
Even then, many still come in through this door, even if it is partly opened or if they have to pick the lock. As long as you get a valid visa, you can come through that door. The big advantage of coming through this door according to checks is that as long as you do not attempt to come with illegal items, you are almost guaranteed of a smooth entry with a legitimate status. What happens when you have entered depends on your luck, your guts and your talents.
Little wonder that millions of Africans constantly besiege foreign embassies in search of a visa. It is also not surprising that the American visa lottery has a patronage that cuts across all ages and backgrounds.
This door may also be legal but it is somewhat trickier to enter through. Those that have come in through this door will include those that have managed to travel without a valid visa of country of destination. It will also include those that have traveled with only transit visas only to destroy these fake or inadequate travel documents at the port of entry and ask for asylum. The asylum program is a legal side door to Europe and America because of the No Refoulement provision in International humanitarian law. This law, which is also known as article 30, prohibits the repatriation of anybody who has asked for asylum or refugee status without first hearing the person’s case.
Usually, those that enter through the side door would have prepared evidence to show that owing to well founded fears of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, or membership of particular groups, they have to live in another country other than their country of nationality. With well prepared evidence, those coming through this door, by seeking refugee status are eventually provided with valid documents to live and work in the country of destination, even though they had arrived with fake documents.
Some, who are unable to prove their cases, are deported. However, with the introduction of the prima facie refugee clause in international humanitarian law, some category of Africans have also come in through the side door and obtained legitimate status without any screening because at first instance, they are perceived as refugees fleeing from war, disasters or persecution.
Yet another side door is the amnesty program. It is perfectly legal. This door is however more useful for those that are in already but without a valid status. It simply grants authorized migrant status to perhaps those that came in through the front door but whose visas have long expired or even those who came in through the back door.
The back door is the illegal way. Those that come in through the back door are the illegal or undocumented immigrants. They are also known as the irregular immigrants. The ways to these doors are many but all are dangerous. Apart from using forged and altered passports of citizens of destination country or one with valid visas, there is the trail across the Sahara dessert through the Mediterranean Sea to Spain and Europe. On this trail it is mostly death and fear of death.
For those going with human traffickers, either in cargo ships or fishing trawlers the story is not different. It is usually a case of loss of life or loss of liberty. Many come at a great cost. They first want to see. For those coming from West and East Africa, the journey takes not less than eight months to arrive in North Africa, especially Morocco and Western Sahara.
From these shores where you can see the Entallada lighthouse, they begin the final but most dangerous part of the journey which involves crossing the turbulent Mediterranean Sea into Fuerteventura, the nearest of Spain’s Canary Island in the African coast. Many are never able to successfully cross. They are caught by Spanish police and deported or worse still, caught by the treacherous sea and buried in the deep. For those that could cross and get thus far, it is not only welcome to Spain but by courtesy of the Shengen and E.U. accords, it is welcome to Europe.
Checks show that Africans use the back door mostly to get into Europe as it almost impossible to use it to enter America. Some however give it a shot. These desperadoes travel as far as Mexico, Costa Rica or El Salvador before attempting the final cross to the United States. For those that have come through the back door, whether to Europe or America the costs have been high. These Africans have come, they have seen but many are still yet to fully comprehend. Several are simply lost.
Getting Lost In Europe
Anybody can get lost in Europe but not everybody does. Those that come in through the back doors are however more vulnerable to those illusory temptations that have made many Africans forget why they left their home country in the first instance. It is not uncommon to see many people who came in through the best of the front doors stray off the straight and narrow way and become like the biblical prodigal son.
Once one is able to successfully land in a European city, it does not matter through which door you came. The first most important thing, which may go a long way to determine what line one is probably going to follow, is the setting into which one “lands”. Now, setting will consist of the place you are going to live, the people you are going to live with, the preoccupation and leisure activities of these people and the kinds of friends they keep.
Setting can have a profound effect on a “Johnny Just Drop” or JJD. It is a big step that one has been able to cross the Sahara desert and the Atlantic Ocean to arrive. It is mainly possible for those that are strong. Yet many strong people who arrive in Europe have been lured away from their dreams and aspirations simply because the landed in the wrong setting.
The setting is vital to a JJD because in a foreign land where one does not have a family as the back up system, like it obtains in Africa, the people one lands with will give the first impression and immediate orientations. So here we have our JJD. His only knowledge of life in Europe has been gleaned from movies, magazines and stories from those that have come before. If the poor guy is not dazed by the intensity of twenty four hours neon-light that hits him on arrival at the airport or the first European city, he would definitely have noticed that here, everything is done differently.
Once that realization hits our JJD, he may be left at the mercy of the people that constitute the setting he has landed. Now it does not matter whether the people in this setting are strangers, friends or relation. The truth of life in Europe is that one cannot really know whom to listen to and what to believe. There are lots of lies and deceptive behaviors and it is almost difficult to tell what is true.
The problem with setting is that most JJD are often led to follow the same line of their hosts, hostesses and friends. It is not uncommon for those that arrive in the setting of those doing plastic business, otherwise known as credit card fraud, to just fall in line. Those in the “powder” transportation and merchandising, (street name for drug business) as well as female racketeers in Amsterdam and Brussels probably got initiated by those in the settings they landed. Many cab drivers in London are doing that business because that was probably the first exposure and orientation they got. Same for many people who are doing construction work in Germany and those working in the orange fields in Spain.
All these people were probably made to believe that the line of work or vocation is the easiest way to making money in Europe. The truth is that while these may have worked for some people and they may actually have made good in the line of business the JJD gets initiated into, they may be total disasters for our guy. Another thing is that those in the setting our JJD arrives do not often show the guy the flip side of the coin.
Not a few people who arrive in Europe with genuine aspirations and glowing dreams to succeed and breakthrough, have had their dreams terminated mainly because they have been given false impressions of the realities of the line of “hustle” to follow. Hustle in Europe or America, it should be said, does not mean anything negative. As a matter of fact, life and living outside Africa is one big hustle.
The problem is that the people in the setting they first arrive do not usually give new arrivals full information. Sometimes, this is because these people still want to impress, at other times it is essentially because they do not themselves have the genuine information, but most of the time, it is because they want to exploit the poor guy from Africa.
That will explain why some people who do not even have the aptitude for studies, will arrive in Europe and will be seeking for ways to gain admissions into any sort of higher institutions. The reasons they do this is because they have been led to believe that it is one way of regulating immigration status and also by the fact that the people in that setting are going to school. The danger in this is that getting student status is not as easy in Europe as in America and the poor JJD may not even be cut out for school. So from right there, his Israelites’ journey starts.
To be continued…