In the two weeks we have been volunteering here, I’ve had a good chance to listen to the many stories of the men who live in the center. For the most part, they are the same: fleeing West Africa from joblessness and harsh governments. Most of them have made perilous journeys across the Sahara and into war-torn Libya, hoping to find passage across the sea to any European Union state that will take them. Along the way, their statelessness and desperation make them the perfect targets for exploitation.
One man I spoke with had fled Gambia, because he was a wanted man by the Jammeh regime after his village had protested against unchecked government excavation of their land. Several of their small children had drowned in the massive holes the excavation had left behind. His forehead still bears a formidable scar to remind him of his current status with Gambian police.
Another man from Nigeria had left under similar circumstances. After he was accused of smuggling contraband in a government vehicle, he was incarcerated and administered beatings daily. After he was released, his family decided that he no longer had a life in Lagos.
Based on the conversations with many of the men, it seems there is little to no redemption for those who fall on the wrong side of the powerful. Becoming an enemy of the state essentially means that you are now living on borrowed time.
The Nigerian man struck out through Mali and made his way with two truck-loads of others across the vast desert of the western Sahara. The conditions were pitiful, and as dehydration and sickness claimed the lives of several, the only choice was an unceremonious burial in the hot sands of the desert.
As their small convoy neared population centers, highwaymen would speed alongside them, demanding money for safe passage. If they did not have the money, a quick burst of Kalashnikov fire would be shot into their vehicle as punishment. After reaching Libya, the Nigerian man was imprisoned by Arabs and beaten three times daily, often on the bottom of his feet. When asked why he believed he was imprisoned, the man could not offer an explanation. Like the Gambian man, his head was covered in scars. “I never used to wear my hair long for my entire life,” he tells me, “but the scars are too embarrassing to show. They are a way of taking your manhood.”
For the most part the refugee center feels like a purgatory. Although the staff do all they can to care for their “guests,” the uncertainty of successful asylum for the 90 men seeking refuge within the building means that little fanfare echoes about the hallways. Instead, most of the men are quiet and reserved, reflecting a feeling that they carry as many scars within as their bear without.
- Tucker Strom