Migrant dreams and European reality

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Migrant dreams and European reality

People who risk their lives migrating to Europe should know what life there is like, Mamadou Dia tells David Hewitt.


Senagalese in Lavapies. @ondasderuido under a Creative Commons Licence

Lavapies, a working-class area of Madrid, is less than 10 minutes on foot from Plaza Mayor or Puerta Del Sol. But it feels a million miles away. It is becoming a new cool area, and is still clearly an area of immigrants. Many South Americans, Bangladeshis and Senegalese live there.

Mamadou Dia moved back to Senegal, where he was born, 2 years ago. But he visits Europe often. He comes back to Lavapies. This is the place that gave him a home in 2006, after he came by a dangerous boat journey along the west coast of Africa looking for a better life. He’s not looking for work now. Now, Mamadou comes to Spain to help people understand what makes people risk everything to make the very dangerous trip from across Africa to Europe.

His book 3052: Pursuing a Dream is a best-seller in Spain. With this book and by appearing in the media, Mamadou is trying to stop people believing the many myths about migration from Africa to Europe. His NGO Hahatay prepares people for the truth about what migrants can expect in Europe.

Mamadou is giving talks at some universities in Madrid. We meet in the Dakar Café in Lavapies, a popular meeting place for the Senegalese community.

You left Senegal for Europe in 2006. Why did you decide to leave your home, and was it a difficult decision?

My family was never poor. We were middle-class. We had several boats and made a living from the sea. We got enough fish from the sea for a comfortable life.

At the end of the 1990s things started to change. European fishing boats arrived off the west coast of Africa. Most boats had permits from our government allowing them to enter our waters. But many times, they used very wide nets. In a few years our waters had no fish and there was no way for us to make a living.

So, with 83 people, including 2 of my brothers, we decided to take one of our boats and try and get to Europe. We believed we would be able to find jobs and work long enough to return and start a new business – not fishing. It was a hard choice. In Senegal, like most of Africa, we are very close to our families, our communities, so it was difficult to leave. But we had no choice.

Was your journey how we imagine a typical migrant journey from Africa to Europe?

Yes. Most of us were used to the sea. But this journey was much longer. I remember we left on 11 May and finally arrived on European land on 18 May. On the ocean, it’s difficult to go straight, so the journey was longer than we expected. But nobody died on our crossing.

But I have something to make clear. In Europe, they always say, ‘the mafia take them. People pay to go across the sea.’ For us, this was just not true. We were all fisherfolk with good backgrounds but we had to do something after we had no way to make money at the end of the 1990s. This wasn’t trafficking, we decided to work together to try and improve our futures.

When you arrived, how did the Spanish people receive you?

At the beginning the Spanish people welcomed us! This may be difficult to believe now, but this was before the crisis in Spain and the rest of Europe. They needed lots of workers to work on construction sites. This was the kind of job Spanish people don’t want to do. ‘This is the kind of job for immigrants,’ they said. So they were happy for us to take the boats and come and live poor lives here in Europe. Also, the government helped us. They gave us free healthcare and even helped us start a social life here in our new country.

Now they have the economic crisis. They say ‘this has happened because we have so many immigrants! Now it’s time to keep them out!’ They blame us for everything that has gone bad, not just in Spain but in lots of other places. This means that life in Europe for immigrants is now much more difficult. When they needed us, there were social programmes and health projects. Now there is nothing for immigrants. Before, if we worked hard and stayed out of trouble, there were no problems. Now, there is a lot of police harassment.

This summer, hundreds of people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. When you see the news, what do you think?

This is, of course, very sad. Tragic. And people always ask me: ‘is it worth the risk?’ You have to remember that things are not as good as they used to be in Europe, but at least there is hope. Europe doesn’t have war! People are not dying of hunger!

In many parts of Africa, people are dying every single day, so why should they be afraid of crossing the water? Many are just not afraid to die, so if the economy gets bad in Europe, if the authorities try to stop them, and the journey is risky, people will still try. Why would they be afraid of prison? That is not very scary for people who are escaping violence or poverty. If things don’t change in Africa, Europe will carry on seeing African people try to enter Spain, or Italy; it’s only a question of how people treat them when they arrive.

Through my NGO, I say: ‘My brothers will continue to be cut by the barbed wire of the border fences. They will continue to be food for the sharks of the Atlantic and the vultures of the desert while we do not have our dignity.’

Through your NGO, Hahatay, you work closely with people who are thinking about risking everything to travel to Europe. How does your own experience influence this work?

I want people who are going to risk their lives to get to Europe, to have a good idea of what life is really like here. I have lived in Africa and Europe and I know that the media in both places shows the other one wrongly. In Europe, people only read bad news about Africa and only see pictures and films of poverty, hunger and war – this is not true in many places. And the young people in Senegal and many other places grow up believing Europe to be a golden land - this is also not true.

When I came to Spain, I thought everyone was happy, with a good job, house and car. In our schools, they tell us how wonderful France and Europe is. They teach us the language and show us pictures of happy people, grand buildings and monuments and comfortable lives. Then I come here; I learn there is so much stress. I saw in Spain that not many people have real freedom. The system traps many people - they need to work to pay for their car, and the big banks own their home. In Africa, people die from violence and disease; in Europe, stress and suicide is much higher.

So, I’m not trying to tell people they shouldn’t travel to Europe, but only make sure that they have an accurate idea of where they are going and what they will find. I want to show that might be better to stay and work to improve things. In Senegal we have peace, good infrastructure and, increasingly, good broadband internet, so there are more and more opportunities here.

Now you’re back in Senegal, why do you come back to Spain so often?

I have seen how wrong our views of different cultures and places are. So, I like to work with Senegalese people to show them that what they think about Europe isn’t always true. I want our people to talk to the Spanish to change the negative way the media shows many Africans (migrants and the ones who stay). I read from my book and try and explain what makes people leave their homes looking for a better life, and I try my best to show that. Just like the fish I used to catch, the developed world has been taking, taking, taking from Africa for many decades. So is it really so surprising many people migrate to try and support themselves and their families?

Also, through Hahatay, we bring Spanish students and workers to our part of Senegal so that they can see that what they watch on the TV or read in their newspapers is not the reality. We can show that very few people would try to migrate to Europe if there is peace and stability and we have the chance to make a living here without people coming and taking our resources or our fish.

It’s a very Western idea that we’re all migrating to make more money or get free benefits. Community is so important to most Africans (I can’t even eat alone!) and so it’s desperation that forces people to take that very big dangerous step.

Hopefully, with the media and bringing European and African people together, people will understand each other better and have more compassion.

More information about Hahatay: hahatay.org.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2015/07/22/migrant-dreams-clash-with-european-reality/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).