Lama is 16 years old and comes from Gambia. At the time he told this story (November 2016) he lived in Syracuse, Sicily, Italy.
I was a carpenter from fourteen years old. I have never been to school. I lived in a big town with my grandmother. My father is alive but not my mother. She died when I was five. I have only one sister. My father sent me to my grandmother because he had three wives, my mother was the third wife and after she died the others did not want to look after me. That’s why I did not go to school. He had too many children. The family was fighting all the time.
My father was a taxi driver when I was little, now he does not work. He did visit us every couple of weeks. My grandmother bought potatoes and fish and she sold it. Sometimes I helped or I played football with my friends. I wanted to go to school. My friends went and they taught me English. I did go to the Arabic religious school, every day for around three hours. I learnt about the Koran and religion and they tried to teach me to read but I couldn’t. They taught us how to be good, how to be a better man. But a lot of my friends are Christian, we can pray together, its not a problem.
My grandmother loved to take care of me. She was always on my side, sometimes there were arguments and misunderstandings but no one ever beat me. If anyone tried to hurt me she would fight them. I did have fun sometimes, like if there was a ceremony and someone had a child. There would be a party. I have never celebrated my birthday. Not ever, never. In our country, poor people like us don’t have time. All we think about is: how can we survive?
When I was fourteen I got a job as a carpenter. My grandmother found the carpenter. There were nine or ten of us, we worked from 7 am to 6 pm. He was a good boss, I liked him, he taught me about furniture. He did not pay but he gave us breakfast and lunch. He was a good man. I worked there for about two years. I left because the job could not allow me to survive and take care of my sister and grandmother. My grandmother was always telling me:
… Now you have to plan for a good future and have something which will make a better life.
I saw some people were going to Italy and right now in Gambia they are doing fine. They built a big house and have big cars. Some people opened a big carpenter shop, or they bought a car which transports people.
Also I need peace. In Gambia there are no rights because the government is too nasty. I am Madinka. The President is Jola and Jola and Madinkas don’t have a good relationship. So it’s difficult for Madinkas to have a job in Gambia. So that is why I say I need peace and a means to feed my family.
I wanted to come to Italy to learn at school and have a better life and earn money to feed my sister and grandmother. I heard people saying only kids are traveling in that bad way and people are dying. But I don’t think about that. I always think about God. I know he gives life and takes life, so whatever happens happens.
I had a little money from making furniture, about 1000-2000 Dalasi. It’s not far to Mali, so I got a bus to Bamako. I didn’t tell my grandmother because if I told her she would not allow me to go. The same for my sister. I slept in the bus station there for two weeks. I met some Ghanaian boys there. After this I got a little job with a man from Senegal, pushing a wheelbarrow with bricks. I did that for two weeks and got a little more money. Then I got a bus to Gao. But Gao is a dangerous place. It is in Mali but they want their own independence.
I phoned my grandmother from Gao. She started crying. She was very worried and pleased to hear from me. She told me to come back, but I said no because I have started the journey. She said she would pray for me.
I got a job with some Arab, the same as before and I stayed three weeks. One Arab man saw me praying at the Mosque on Friday and he asked me: Where are you from?
I said: Gambia.
… Where are you going?
… Algeria, but I don’t have the money to move, so I am working to move.
… I have a car going to Algeria tomorrow.
… But I don’t have money.
And he says: sleep here, come. I don’t believe him but I pack my bags and go to the Arab man’s home and he says: sleep there until morning. But you know Arabs are dangerous for black people and I don’t trust this man. But I stay because what will happen will happen. I just think of God. In the morning he wakes me and takes me to the car. He was not lying. He takes me to a guy and says:
… Take this boy to Algeria and you will give him breakfast, lunch and dinner and when you get to Algeria, give him 2000 dinars.
He was a good man. I thought he was bad but he was good. So we got to Algeria and the driver gave me 2000 dinars. I worked in Tamanrasset one month and one week. I worked as a carpenter and the man paid me every three weeks, 3000 dinars. But I could not stay in Algeria. They are Arabs, they treat us badly, although they never treated me badly.
Then I moved to the border, and stayed there around three weeks, taking time to learn how to get into Libya. Then I got information on how to get to Tripoli. We walked in the desert. It is one day and one night. You pay around 10,000 dinars. There are around thirty people, so it’s a good business.
Tripoli was bad for me. I was there in a camp made by those who prepared the boats. They don’t want police to know. It is just a house, many people are there sleeping on the floor. I stayed there a month. I worked outside at the Pepsi factory, assisting the drivers at the gates. We got a little money that way, sometimes they paid 10 dinars sometimes 15, but it’s not enough to eat. We just saved this money for the boat. And we shared, I had some friends there. It took a month to earn enough money, some people paid 800, or 900 dinars. African and Arabs worked together on the boats and I begged the African. I said: this is the money I have, and he said: if you have 500 I will help. But my money didn’t reach 500, it was just 250, but he still helped me.
Some people are forced on the boats. People who have been kidnapped. If they have been in that situation, they are forced. Even me I did not want to get on the boat, because when I was in Gambia I heard that a lot of people are dying, so that day when I see the boat and I see the Sea I start crying. I was very scared. There was more than 100 on the boat and I was in the middle sitting down. I cannot swim and I didn’t have a life jacket. I am just a young boy. All I have is a sister and a grandmother and if I died they would not know about me and I prayed and prayed. It was just one day, eleven hours, from 1 am at night until noon and then the Italian boat picked us up. I was crying when I saw that boat.
In Italy they put all the young people together, there were about twenty of us. Then they put us in a camp with more than 100. The police were there. We were one month in that rescue camp. They gave us food three times a day and we slept in bunks. We got fingerprinted and they gave us a paper so we could go out. After a month they moved me to the community. I have been there five months. It’s fine. There are four Gambians and some Bangladeshi’s. Every month they give us 40 Euros. We buy our own clothes and shoes. They did give me this jacket. We have school two times a week to learn Italian. I like playing Bar Footie, and I want to learn boxing. We go out sometimes and I chat with my friends and hang out. There was a lovely day when there was some celebration and we all danced. I was very happy. I like it here. I want to go back to Gambia. That is my home. But first I want to learn! I want to learn more, I want to be a carpenter. I want to stay here. I phone my grandmother every week. She is very happy and so is my sister.