“If I catch the Bonga fish, I make money, you know, and my family can eat you know,” M. said smiling, two decayed teeth marring an otherwise perfect set. “But if I don’t catch the Bonga fish, then I have a problem you know, and my family cannot eat. It is a big problem.”
M. looked at me earnestly, and I nodded.
“That’s why I come here, you know, so my family can eat. I come because I want to hustle and make some money to send to my family, you know? So they can have food to eat, for my mother and my father, you know? So I need to find some work to hustle to make some money.”
He stopped talking and his face darkened in concern. His words sounded rehearsed, like they’d been drilled into his brain since he rode across the Sahara or sat wretchedly in a Libyan prison. He’d been on the road for three years, he told me, but Libya was the hardest part.
“Blacks cannot walk free in Libya. If they see you on the street they will take you.”
He said he was regularly beaten and jailed for a year until his captors realized he couldn’t pay ransom and let him go. He lifted up his pant legs to show me his bloodied shins, one from his Maghrebi captors and the other from gasoline burns suffered during the sea-crossing.
Now that he was in Italy though, he was staying with nice people, he said.
M. and I met in front of a supermarket in Palermo where newly arrived migrants hang out. Since he’d only been in town a few days, I offered to show him around the city, and we walked to the migrant-heavy neighborhood of Ballarò where I figured he might find some English speakers and fellow countrymen. M. commented on the richness of the street markets as we strolled past stalls of sparkling seafood and olives.
We sat down on some plastic chairs outside to share an ice tea, and I soon realized he was completely ignorant of the challenges that awaited him. He did not know what an asylum request was, nor of residency or work permits, nor of the long wait for documents. His English was passable but he didn’t speak any Italian, had only done four years of school, and didn’t know how to read or write. But he was happy to be here and eager to work.
My heart sank.
There wasn’t much work here, I told him, and in any case, they weren’t handing out work permits anymore. His best shot was to apply for asylum, but with his story he was unlikely to receive it. I advised him to make something up about persecution or violence and not to tell customs officers what he had told me: that Gambia was a very nice place with friendly people that I should visit if I got the chance.
This troubled him and he replied that he was thinking about going to Germany. So I told him that the borders in the north were blocked and that the Germans were looking for people like him and that even if he did manage to cross the border it would be difficult to find work. He nodded and thanked me for the information, but I wondered how much he believed me.
We kept chatting about his life in Gambia, about how he made a living catching Bonga fish with his father, and how when his father’s eyesight deteriorated he decided to come to Europe. He missed his family, he said. The last time he had spoken to them was before boarding the boat to Italy, and they did not know if he had survived. I asked him if he wanted to use my phone.
“Ok man, no problem,” he said, barely concealing his excitement.
I brought up Skype, found Gambia’s country code, and within seconds he was talking to his father in Mandinka, his native tongue. When he put down the phone he was beaming, obviously relieved. He smiled and thanked me profusely.
Before parting ways I took him to a Jesuit charity that offers language classes, second-hand clothes and medical check-ups hoping he might learn Italian, see a doctor about his legs and get out of his boat clothes. Then we walked back to the supermarket, I gave him my number, and I wished him luck.
M. struck me as a goodhearted guy and it hurt me that his future seemed so bleak. Sicily has a youth unemployment rate of 56%, Italy’s is around 35%. Migrants race to the bottom competing for illegal, low wage work. So what is a 20-year old, illiterate, uneducated, unskilled Gambian man going to find in Italy when Italians themselves are on the ropes? I suppose it doesn’t really matter so long as it’s worth more than a Bonga fish.