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Lassad in the Cie of Ponte Galeria: “In a lager with 41 euros a day”

It was December when in the Rome Ponte Galeria CIE protest suddenly turned to silence. A silence of black and green threads being pulled out of the issued blankets and thrust into flesh. A mute cry stopping any attempt to turn words into chat, forcing you at least to look, to ask yourself why.

In the CIE that day there was also Lassad, a Tunisian citizen who has lived in Italy for 22 years, who refused to turn his eyes away and who has tried to respond and tell what happened. Lassad’s life hasn’t been simple. He had been detained before Ponte Galeria, but if they had told him then that there was a place like this in Italy he wouldn’t have believed them. Lassad has decided to fight to have the Ponte Galeria CIE monitored, and was present on 28 March at the Lazio regional council offices to support a specific motion.

«I’ve been living in Italy for 22 years. Most of my life I’ve lived here. Lots of things have happened to me and I’ve done many things wrong, but I paid for everything. One day I was going back home with the shopping when I was stopped by the police: they asked me for my papers and then took me straight to Ponte Galeria, to that place you call a CIE. I woke up in the morning, it was cold, it was December and I found myself with thirteen men who had their lips sewn up in protest. Something like that leaves a mark, you don’t shake it off very easily. You realise that you are in a kind of concentration camp, a camp that exists because every life has a price. What do they give those who are inside? I think it’s 41 euros. Our lives are worth 41 euros. What is 41 euros, is it its value on the Stock Exchange, the size of a pair of shoes, calculated according to our weight, the space we occupy? I don’t know. Tell me why I can’t find the words to understand it. A price for our suffering. You’ve been inside, you saw first hand the product that is given a price. As for me, nothing surprises me, I feel as though I’m living in the Forties after hearing what they tell me and after what I’ve read. I can feel an icy wind from the right blowing strong and from all directions”.

“I don’t know what to say. The world is beautiful outside, as long as you don’t trample over the rights of the people next to you. I feel like a kind of fish out of water. I haven’t got a country any longer, I’m neither here nor there, where is my home in your opinion? And how can I forget those scenes, those screams… I was open-mouthed. These things I knew happened 70 years ago. And I think of History. It’s supposed to go down in books and be remembered, you have to give a knock and show the world you are there. Today I was at the Underground station of Rebibbia, near the prison, there were fine posters of people going over a wall and the words “All free”. Sure, I agree. And yet I hear so much rubbish being said, I hear people say that slavery has been abolished: I think great people like Abraham Lincoln would turn in their graves. How many centuries more do we have to wait before we don’t have to put a price on a human life? God creates a person and that person is bought and sold, is quoted on the market. Who could have imagined that we would end up like this?”

“It’s my lucky day today. I’m sitting in the chair of the President of the Region, I’ve met a lot of good people, what you are doing gives a sense to my life and yours. Otherwise we are all useless, we end up in a mean, miserable world. It’s thanks to people like you that I manage to sleep at night. You people are replacing Fanon. Do you know what he used to say? He said that in the world there are those who are for and those who are against, and the main cause is called racism. Maybe these are not fascist times yet but we have to be careful. We have to realise that diversity is a resource and we must be able to take advantage of it and listen, not brand it. Distrust is the mother of all the mistakes in the world. Sorry if I’m saying everything all confused, but this way I can say everything that I have inside me. I have escaped so many times in order to live, Ponte Galeria, Trapani, Regina Coeli and then Trapani again, I walked along a railway track for 80 miles in order to get as far away as possible from here. Then they caught me in Rome and that’s when I went off my head”.

“The time would never pass and I had to keep my head busy and so I began to count. The cage we were in had 206 bars, if you walked round the cage the lights made you go crazy, at night you couldn’t make out any colours, everything looked grey. And I went on counting: the length of the cage is 18 steps and a half, the corridor is 128 steps. Isn’t that enough for you? At night I hoped that they would turn off the lights so that I could see the stars, I can read them, I tried to make out The Great Bear and Orsa Minor instead of looking at the surveillance cameras that were everywhere. They tell me that a CIE is not a prison and they called us guests. But I was just a bloody number that they used to call me with every day. Is that what guests are? Why didn’t they just tattoo the number on me instead of talking about values that exist only on paper and that have nothing to do with us. I couldn’t believe it – there I was calmly walking along the street and I find myself in an open-air madhouse”.

“I also owe a lot to journalists, and some of them are here present. I heard that in 2011 the Minister of the Interior had issued a circular to stop you from entering: how come? Didn’t they want you to see what I had lived through? What all the others have lived through? Usually if a civil servant makes such a big mistake you go and check if he has made any other mistakes. Did that happen with this Minister? I don’t think so, because otherwise you could have adjusted the laws, changed them, filled them with values. But we are only objects, goods for business, and in between there is the economy which in my opinion is corrupt. It seems as if in Italy too many people are happy just to leave things as they are, but we are still in time to stop things getting worse, we can prevent further tragedies. Find a solution, you find it, let’s find it together, it’s not my fault that I am a Tunisian and that I was born on the wrong side of the Mediterranean.

It’s obvious that CIEs, these detention centres, don’t work, the doctor who spoke before me was right (Alberto Barbieri, of Medu ed.), he spoke of injustice and waste of money, of an institution that is useless. If others don’t understand that or don’t accept it, that’s not right. We’ll just go on producing more suffering for everybody, for those who are inside, for the relatives of those who are inside – many have wives and children in Italy – for all those who are afraid of being caught and locked up without having done anything wrong.”

“Life for people like me is a continuous Russian roulette that we can’t escape from. Let us lead a normal life, work, let us give you a hand to make this country grow. One day you’ll thank us. But today, let me say this as a last thing: you’ve given me hope. If you keep the Centre continually monitored you’ll be able to help lots of people inside Ponte Galeria and you’ll discover many things that are not right. You’ll discover for example, and it might seem unimportant but inside there is no psychiatrist, while people are going crazy. There’s one in a prison, at times also in army barracks, but why isn’t there one in a place where so many people are so distressed?”

Today Lassad has left the Ponte Galeria CIE thanks to a suspension and he hopes to go back to being a free man. His precious testimony in favour of the motion presented by the regional councillor Marta Bonafoni has been published by the Corriere delle migrazioni.

Ahmed: “From Somalia to Malta, a 16-month long nightmare”

Ahmed, 31 years of age, decided to leave his country, Somalia, because of the violent clashes caused by the Al Shabab militia in the region of Medina. On leaving, Ahmed was just searching for a safe place to live in; he could never have imagined that he was about to go on a journey of 5,000 kilometres and lasting 16 months, nor that he would be risking his life crossing the desert and the sea.

“There were many reasons why I left my country, the ethnic violence, because it wasn’t safe. The nearest place was Kenya, so there I went.

I lived in Nairobi for two months, but without any papers I couldn’t do anything to survive and I was worried that the Kenyan police would arrest me. So I decided to move down towards the border with Uganda and from there towards Kampala, where I stayed for a month, but life was very hard there too and I didn’t know anyone who could help me. One day someone told me to head for Libya because it was easy to get across to Europe from there and I thought it was a good idea.”

It’s already three months since Ahmed left. Getting to Libya from Kampala means having to get to South Sudan and cross it, enter Sudan by going up the Nile on a boat and going on as far as Khartoum. Then, finding a way of crossing the Sahara, which almost always means getting involved with human traffickers. The journey from Khartoum cost 360 dollars. When for Ahmed is time to leave, the group was made up of 80 people, all piled up in 12 big jeeps. The journey in the desert lasted three days and three nights, but didn’t lead to Libya. It stopped in the middle of the desert where a rich-looking man bought the whole group and fixed a new price for their freedom: pay 800 dollars, or be left to die in the Sahara, one day at a time, of heat and thirst.

“I fell ill – says Ahmed – I could feel myself close to death. There were about 200 of us at the beginning, five of us died right there. Thank God a fellow national gave me 200 dollars to make up the sum I needed. We left from there and headed towards Libya but just before reaching Kufra we ran into a group of Libya soldiers who arrested the traffickers in charge of us and left us there in the desert with no water, no food and no shade. They came to pick us up 24 hours later, loaded us up on a truck and took us to Kufra, into prison. There I remained for 4 months, and they beat us up every other day.”

Taking advantage of a moment when the guards weren’t looking, Ahmed and three other detainees managed to escape and hid in the ‘African’ part of the town. Here he found help and managed to contact his family and get them to send him 500 dollars, in order to reach Bengazi and then Tripoli.

“The first time the police stopped me at Tripoli to check my papers I made the mistake of answering in English instead of Arabic. They beat me with their truncheons and their gun-butts, took my money and told me to get the hell out of it. The second time I was thrown into a cell, where I stayed for two months; two months after my release I decided to get a boat for Europe, Libya was just hell, I didn’t want to live there. The others paid the sea traffickers with 400 and 500 dollars for the crossing, but I didn’t have any money. So I made up the story that I knew how to navigate, that I knew how to use a nautical compass and they believed me. Actually I knew no such thing, but I had read something about the GPS system on the Internet.”

The boat that left Tripoli, destination Malta, carried 55 people. Ahmed was handed a satellite navigator and given the direction to follow, but the weather conditions were bad. Soon the boat began to fill up with water and the crew were panic-stricken. They fought against the bad weather for 10 hours, drifting helplessly with the wind, trying to bale out the water as best as they could, hoping for a ship that would rescue them.

“The sea had taken us to within a few miles of Tripoli, towards the coast of Tunisia. The Tunisian patrol that intercepted our boat wanted to know if we were heading for Italy, then they beat us and took us to a detention centre where we remained for three weeks. There were also pregnant women in our group. Some of the guards were sorry for them so they let us go but they told us that if they saw us out at sea they would kill us. I returned to Tripoli and after a month I found another trafficker who had a boat, an inflatable dinghy actually, and we had just biscuits and a little water, which finished after two days at sea. The last day I drank seawater because I was so thirsty, but luckily after 3 days and 3 nights we arrived at Malta, safe at last.”

Today Ahmed lives in Malta, where he has been granted refugee status and where he has a part-time job as an interpreter and translator. His dream, he told them at UNHCR, is to emigrate to the United States and re-start a new life there.

From South Sudan to Uganda, giving light to the little “Fugitive”

Martha Anger, 20 years old, had to run away from the little village in South Sudan to save her life, and the life of the child she bore in her womb. Her daughter, Nyaring, who today is three months old, was born in Uganda, and her name in Dinka means ‘fugitive’.

“Those days have left an indelible mark on my life, what happened to me I wouldn’t have thought possible, and I don’t think I will ever forget it. Some men in military uniform and armed with AK-47 rifles burst into our village, it was evening and they made everyone come out of their homes. There were a dozen of them or maybe more, they began to shoot without first telling us what it was all about, what was the problem. Everyone began running, with the bullets flying all around. My birth pains had just begun but they stopped at once. What I remember was a cold shiver going up my spine while I dropped on my knees repeating to myself: “God have pity on my baby!”.

A few moments later, when Martha reopened her eyes, she realized that her prayers were not going to be answered, those who were still alive were trying to get away, and what a short time before had been a normal road was now a mass of bodies and blood, the noise of shooting interrupted only by cries and groans.

“That was the moment that I decided to try my luck and attempt to get away. I ran and ran, I ran as hard as my legs would carry me, I could hear the bullets whistling around my head but I didn’t stop, not even when I felt the birth pangs coming back. I stopped when I came to a stream, I couldn’t run any further, my heart was beating like crazy and the contractions had started again and getting stronger.”

Martha decided to follow the stream and seek shelter in the forest, where she met other survivors like herself, many injured. This short moment of respite also served to try and get information about the rest of her family, to see what had remained of them, before setting off again.

“I was told that nine of my family had been seriously injured and eleven had died during the raid. Two of the wounded died that night, in the forest. At the first light of dawn we decided to set off for Uganda, my contractions were less frequent now so we started to move. We stayed in the forest, a long way away from the roads for fear of coming across groups of insurgents.”

Martha arrived in Uganda on 3 January and there she gave birth to her baby daughter. Today she lives at the Dzaipi Reception Centre together with her daughter.

“I’m living in Uganda now and I’m a refugee, and the mother of a baby who will never have a father and a grandmother, everything is new for me. Life is very hard in the reception centre, there are problems with clothes, food, water, and I really wish there was a way of helping my country to find peace again, so that I can return home. The world should see and realize what is happening in South Sudan where women, old people and children are suffering so much because of the war. I don’t know if I will ever meet the soldiers who killed our people. If I do I will tell them they have dishonoured South Sudan, but in order to reconstruct our country I’m prepared to pardon them and reconcile myself with them so that I can return to the land that I belong to.”

Martha’s story, broadcast by Irinnews, is a brave appeal for national reconciliation, which unfortunately still seems a long way off.


Fleeing Zimbabwe: “With the refugee status I had my life back”

Chenzira comes from Zimbabwe. In her country she was a teacher. When the charity institute she worked for was declared unwelcome by the regime, Chenzira became a political enemy in her own country and was forced to flee to save her life.

“I set off without even knowing where I was going nor who could help me. I decided to go all the same because the alternative was to wait and be killed. Most of the time I walked, keeping away from the main roads and trying not to use buses if I could help it. When I arrived at a small village next to the frontier I decided to go towards the nearest town, where I had heard it would be possible to join a group that like me was trying to leave Africa. I had to leave the continent, the Zimbabwean government has good relations with many African states and I couldn’t trust any government, any authority.”

As soon as she arrived in the town Chenzira was approached by so-called ‘agents’ who deal with people who like her intend to leave the country illegally. The journey to Europe costs a lot of money and you have to pay ‘blind’ because there is no way of choosing, or knowing even, what the final destination is going to be.

“During the journey you become a victim a second time, the agents can help you but on their conditions. We weren’t asked where we wanted to go, if we wanted to go to France, the UK or Holland, everything was decided by the traffickers depending on what suited them at the time.

I arrived in England, they dropped me off near a bus stop. I didn’t dare to speak to anyone so for two days I stayed there, sleeping under a bridge, without any money, without food. The second day I got to know some people who were going to Tesco, two women shared their food with me, they helped me and took me to a family that took me in for a time.”

Chenzira spent a few weeks in her new provisional home. During that time she was looked after, and given food and clothes, but above all she found the time to regain her confidence and trust in others, because it is not easy to still believe that someone can help you to start a new life, to plan the future all over again.

“At the time I had no idea what political asylum was and I found it difficult to tell the Immigration officers everything about what had happened to me. They kept asking me if I had planned to come to the UK and I tried to explain that I had planned nothing, I had escaped from Africa to save my life. Some of them think that you are trying to take advantage of the asylum system, but I was only asking for help and it offends you that they think you are lying. When I received my refugee status I felt as though they had given me my life back. I’m free, if I need help I know who I can turn to, but my life is in my own hands. I know what I want and I know that I can get it. So now I’m looking forward, I’ve wasted too much time, but I’m not trying to have back what I’ve lost, I want to go forward, my journey isn’t over yet.”

Chenzira obtained political asylum in 2009, and is currently living in the UK where she is studying for the qualification of social assistant. Chenzira decided to tell her story through the Scottish Refugee Council so that it can be of help and inspiration for other refugees who like her have had to leave everything behind and escape.

Faustin, abandoned at 7 with a gangrenous leg

Faustin was only seven when in July 2013 he was abandoned in front of the hospital of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. The child, with obvious signs of malnutrition, was in a critical state of health, especially owing to advanced gangrene in one leg, which the doctors were forced to amputate in order to save his life. The story of Faustin broadcast for days over the local radios did not pass unobserved by UNHCR staff, who immediately took an interest in the child in order to reconstruct his story and help him to take his first steps towards the future.

Faustin was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the tormented province of North Kivu. In 2011 the child’s parents were killed, and the child was taken to Malawi to stay with an uncle who very soon showed his true intentions: a jailer instead of a relative who to turn to for affection and protection. During the time of this ‘imprisonment’, Faustin was denied the possibility of going to school and in the hands of his tormentors became a servant to use as they thought fit. At times he had to go without food, and physical violence was the norm.

Despite the fact that Faustin was only a child, he decided that it was time to try and escape, but he was spotted by neighbours who caught him and handed him back to his family. This last attempt at flight cost him more painful punishment, a metal cable tied tightly round his ankle which very soon damaged his leg irremediably. Perhaps it was his state of health that alarmed his ‘guardians’, who abandoned him in front of Nkhoma Hospital and left the country as quickly as they could for Mozambique.

The months that Faustin spent at Nkhoma Hospital not only relieved his physical sufferings but also helped him to re-establish healthy contact with the world of adults. According to the hospital staff, the child showed great vitality and if it had not been for the obvious signs that he showed all over his body, it would have been difficult to imagine the traumas that he had undergone.

At the end of 2013, there was good news for the future of Faustin: the boy had been inserted in a re-collocation programme in the United States for unaccompanied minors, which would entrust Faustin to a family who would look after him and above all give him love. For Faustin it was like a dream come true. In the long months spent in hospital his most frequent request had been simple and moving: “I want a new house and a new mum”.

A huge crowd accompanied Faustin to the airport the day of his departure. There were members of UNHCR and doctors and nurses who had followed him during all those months before. The hospital director who wished him a brilliant school career didn’t stop to think how different the dreams of a child are: “Are there many toys in America?” Faustin asked the people accompanying him and in that question was the confirmation that despite the harshness that life had reserved for him, the little boy had preserved at least a little corner of his precious childishness.

Today Faustin lives in the United States of America and has found his new mum. Malawi contains around 17,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Most of them come from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Daniel, 20, refugee: “Inside me, an endless tragedy”

Daniel arrived in Europe from West Africa. He was only 16 when a taxi set him down outside the building of the Scottish Refugee Council. At that time Daniel was completely alone in a strange world, he just about knew where he was and he didn’t speak a single word of English.

“I arrived in the UK accompanied by a man. He brought me from Africa to London and then on to Glasgow. At the station he paid for a taxi to take me to the SRC and left. Before leaving Africa I had never seen that man, it had been my uncle who had entrusted me to him, in order to save me. My father was a member of an opposition party and so he got away before the government could have him killed, but government agents came looking for him in our apartment, they arrested me, my mother and my brother and set our house on fire. They locked us up in a prison, then my mother was moved and I never saw her again. I don’t even know what happened to my brother, I managed to escape because my uncle knew one of the guards, but he didn’t manage to get us both free.”

Daniel was assigned to the social services and for eight months lived in a place for the homeless. Then after a few interviews at the Home Office he decided to fill in a questionnaire for those seeking political asylum.

“I didn’t realize how important it was to obtain asylum, ‘asylum’ was a word that confused me. I was a young chap, I was scared and my only thought was that I wanted to return home. Now I have revolutionized my life, I have been through school and I have a professional qualification, but what I’ve been through is always in my thoughts. Even now that things are going a bit better I still carry this endless tragedy inside me.”

Today Daniel is 20, lives in Glasgow and he has been granted political asylum. He decided to share his story through the Scottish Refugee Council, hoping that other people could get some help by reading it. The Red Cross is helping him to find his family.

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