- 8 October 2015
- From the section Magazine
In early 2013 the Italian coastguard rescued 113 Africans from a boat in the Mediterranean. Among them was an illiterate 16-year-old boy from rural Gambia. Yahya had no family, no money, no European language. But when he got to Sicily, writes Daniel Silas Adamson, his luck turned.
Yahya didn't know exactly when he'd been born, or how old he was when his father first sent him out with the cows into the arid scrubland of north-eastern Gambia. Four, perhaps. Maybe five.
For the next 10 years, that was all he knew - driving the long-horned cattle out of the village at sunrise, breathing the red dust raised by their hooves, swiping at the flies that plagued the animals across 40km of hard ground. Yahya walked in plastic sandals, carrying a switch in his hand and scanning the ground for snakes.
There was a primary school in the village, but he never went inside. Nor did he go to the mosque. His father and half-brothers were Muslim, but Yahya was the only child of a second wife, a Christian from Sierra Leone. What was the point, his father thought, in sending this boy to school or teaching him to pray? Instead he beat Yahya, and kept him frightened and illiterate.
Sometimes, when no-one was watching, Yahya made the sign of the cross. He wasn't sure what this meant. It was something he'd seen his mum do, something he thought might keep him safe.
It didn't. When he was 13, Yahya's mum died of an unnamed, untreated fever. He hid his grief from his half-brothers, who would laugh and lash out if they saw tears. But when he was alone with his cows, Yahya wept.
A year or so earlier, at a neighbour's compound, he had caught his first glimpse of a different life.
The neighbour had spent years in Spain and had come back with enough money to build a concrete house and buy a television. Together with other boys from the village, Yahya would sit in the man's yard to watch European football. The lights of the Champions League blazed into the rural darkness.
The same man had a mobile phone, and sometimes he would show the boys grainy video clips of everyday life in Spain. What really fascinated Yahya, more than the grand buildings and expensive cars, were the boys and girls walking together in the street, touching, holding hands. He had never seen anything like that in Gambia.
At home there was no TV, no lightness of any kind. Yahya's dad had always been violent. His mind, Yahya says, was "like weather - sometimes change". His mother had given the boy some measure of protection, but now she was gone and Yahya was becoming a man in a village where men were expected to uphold the faith. "My dad told me 'You are not Muslim.' I told him 'Yeah, I am not Muslim, but you never teach me about Muslim'. He told me, 'Maybe I kill you.'"
That was when Yahya began to plan his escape.
He waited until the rains came - rain meant that his father and half-brothers would be sure to sleep late - and fled on foot in the darkness. He took two T-Shirts and a pair of trousers in a plastic bag. In his pocket he had five Gambian dalasi - about 80p or $1.20 - that he had saved from the change when sent on an errand to the village shop.
It was pitch black, but Yahya, now 15, knew every dip and bend in the track. He knew where the fields gave out and the earth turned to shale, where the path dropped into the stony riverbed, where it crossed the road that was rutted by the tyres of 4x4s. By daybreak he had walked across the border into Senegal and reached a tarmac road. The first car stopped. Soaking wet, his sandals slimed in mud, Yahya got in.
Three months later, he stepped off a bus in Agadez, Niger. For centuries, Agadez has been a caravan city on the southern edge of the Sahara. Today, it's the meeting point of smuggling routes that span West Africa and the place from which many of Africa's migrants head north towards Libya and the Mediterranean coast.
To get this far, Yahya had worked as a garden boy in the capital of Mali, Bamako. Now he gave what little he'd saved to the smugglers and set off on a three-day drive in a pickup truck across the desert - but on an empty road just south of the Libyan city of Sabha, the convoy was overtaken by men with guns.
Yahya was taken to Tripoli and locked in the basement of a house with 100 or so men and boys from across sub-Saharan Africa. They were all trying to reach Europe, and many had been carrying enough cash to pay for passage on a boat to Italy.
They had been hoping to make contact with the smuggling gangs that packed Africans into old fishing trawlers and sent them out across the Mediterranean. Now they were captives of the very people they had been looking for. The smugglers, emboldened by their country's collapse, had taken to abducting Africans in the desert to prevent such lucrative customers falling into the hands of their rivals.
There was a hole in the floor for a toilet, but no water. "Smell coming in the prison," Yahya remembers. "Sometimes, you don't sleep."
The Libyans gave their prisoners stale bread and milk twice a day, and beat the Africans with plastic pipes or with the butts of their guns. "Libyan people don't care if you are 16, you are 14, you are 10 years. If you are black, they think, 'This is slave.'" When a boy of about Yahya's age complained, the Libyans shot him through the knee.
"In the prison, I see only death," Yahya remembers. But about a month after he arrived, "I have lucky." He was taken upstairs to the jailers' house, where he washed dishes, took out the rubbish, and kept his mouth shut. He worked there for a year before the gang decided he had done enough to pay for the onward journey and took him to a holding cell on the coast. A few weeks later, around midnight, Yahya walked out in the Mediterranean and hauled himself into an inflatable boat. It was the first time he had seen the sea.
Packed in among 113 people, he watched the lights of Africa recede and vanish. Then there was only darkness, and the sound of the outboard motor labouring through the waves. Some of the men recited the fatiha, the central prayer of Islam. Everyone was sick. By dawn, though, the wind was dying, and on the second night, "the water, they are silent." A full moon rose and flying fish jumped out of the reflected light. "The moon, the sea, night time," remembers Yahya. "It is very beautiful."
On the third day, just before sunrise, someone saw a ship's light on the horizon. An hour later, the Italian coastguard arrived. Yahya was the first to climb the rope ladder. He was given a blanket and fell asleep on deck, and didn't wake up until the boat docked in Sicily.
Yahya was one of about 5,000 unaccompanied migrant and refugee children who arrived in Italy in 2013. The Italian authorities made no special provision for these children. Along with the adults, they were taken directly to reception centres like Priolo, where Yahya, already 16, arrived in the spring of 2013.
It's a grim place encircled by a chain link fence, overlooking the oil refineries of Sicily's eastern coast. Refugees often spend months here, the days merging into one under the numbing glare of the sun while they wait for papers to be processed or relatives to wire money. Those who arrive as minors can be stuck even longer. In theory, children should remain in the custody of the state until they are 18. In practice, many slip away from places like Priolo and into the hands of criminal gangs - traffickers who coerce them into street crime or prostitution, or entrap them as cheap labour in the fields of southern Italy.
Yahya might easily have ended up among the ranks of anonymous and exploited Africans who inhabit the makeshift camps and abandoned buildings at the margins of Italian life. But about four months after he arrived, a lawyer called Carla Trommino, appalled at the conditions in some of Sicily's reception centres, set up a scheme to match unaccompanied migrant and refugee children with Sicilian families willing to help them start a new life.
These volunteers do not have to adopt the children or take them home - although some do. Instead, they sign up to become legal guardians, a status which allows them to take their wards out on day trips, to register them for healthcare, and to guide them through the process of applying for residence or asylum in Italy.
One of those who volunteered was Barbara Sidoti, an academic and human rights activist now based in Syracuse. Sidoti agreed to take responsibility for four teenage boys from Gambia and Senegal. In the spring of 2014 she went to Priolo to meet them. One of the four, mute with shyness but smiling at her from across the director's office, was Yahya.
Yahya had been in the centre almost a year. After the violence he had endured in Libya, Priolo had felt like a sanctuary. For the first time in his life, he had taken a shower every morning and eaten three meals a day. He had played football with the Senegalese boys and picked up their language, Mandinka. Best of all, nobody had beaten him. Now, though, he was starting to wonder if he'd ever get out. When he was introduced to Sidoti, Yahya didn't really know who she was or what to expect. He did understand, though, that she had come "to take care about me".
Over the spring of that year, Sidoti slowly got to know the four boys. Mostly she was helping them with legal bureaucracy, but whenever she had a free afternoon she picked them up in her old Renault and drove them into Catania or Syracuse to show them something of Sicilian life. The boys ate ice cream, gazed at the Sicilian girls, and began to pick up a few words of Italian. Yahya had none of the urban cool that dripped from his Senegalese friends. Everything surprised him - the technology, the shops, the boldness of the women. He was a bumpkin, and the others teased him for it with an cruelty that looked, to Sidoti, like bullying.
Gradually, Sidoti saw that what the boys really wanted to do was buy and cook their own food. There was only one place they could do this, so by the summer she was taking them back to her own home. Yahya was amazed to see that the kitchen was inside the house. In Gambia, the women had cooked on a fire in the yard.
Sidoti, too, was surprised by the experience. The African boys, and one of them in particular, Tambah, could really cook. When they didn't have an ingredient, they made do with something else from the cupboards. This kind of fusion, she realised, was exactly the process by which, over many centuries, Sicilian cuisine had evolved. Greeks, Arabs, French - each new wave of invaders had brought their own recipes across the Mediterranean, adapting them to the produce of the island until new forms emerged. If Sicily was now going to absorb thousands of Africans, then their influence was bound to be felt, sooner or later, in the food.
That same summer, as Sidoti watched the boys creating one spectacular African dish after another, a friend called with a request for help. He ran a theatre in Catania, with a bar and restaurant. The chef who ran the restaurant was moving on. Did she know anyone who might like to take it over?
Four months later, Sidoti had hired a chef, developed a menu, and opened 11Eleven, the first Afro-Sicilian restaurant in Europe. Yahya, whose only experience of work was herding cows, put on chef's whites and began learning the basics of Italian cuisine. And it was here, in the pressure of a commercial kitchen, that the boy's quiet attentiveness began to pay off.
"If you show Yahya something, he gets it immediately," says Salvo Baltico, the restaurant's head chef. "When he arrived here, he was young, scared, and extremely shy. But he really wants to learn, and he's a very intelligent young man. Now, he is a valued partner to me in this kitchen."
Not all the boys who joined the restaurant were as receptive or persistent. One was transferred to a reception centre in mainland Italy. Another, unaccustomed to the constraints of regular employment, drifted away to try his luck on the streets. For Yahya, though, the steadiness of the work and the presence of Sidoti and Baltico have been profoundly reassuring. For the first time since his mother died, he has found adults he can trust. With their protection and encouragement, Yahya has started to build an independent life in Italy.
In the two years since he was rescued from the Mediterranean - a child without family, education, or any European language - he has learned to read and write, to speak English and Italian, and to operate a mobile phone. He is adept on WhatsApp and Facebook, where he posts selfies of his new life and stays in touch with some of the boys he met in Priolo. In August 2015, he moved to a private apartment in Catania, not far from the restaurant. Soon he will make a new application for permission to stay in Italy, and has every reason to think it will be granted.
Finding a girlfriend is one challenge that Yahya has yet to figure out. Not long after the day Sidoti has designated as his 18th birthday, he wrote her a letter, with the help of a friend, asking if she would choose a Sicilian girl for him to marry. There were plenty of beautiful young women in Catania, but it was hard, he said, to know which were good and which were bad. Gently, Sidoti explained why this was never going to work, and how Yahya might begin to approach the girls who caught his eye. He is still looking, and has reluctantly abandoned the Gambian idea that a suitable match might be arranged. "Now," he says, "my system like European system."
He is adamant that he will never go back to Africa. But when the storms break over Sicily and the island smells of rain-dampened earth, Yahya still remembers his cows out in the bush. "Every day," he says, "I think about my mum. If she can see me now, she will not believe it."
Daniel Adamson was reporting from Sicily for UNHCR
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