Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

photo: Khaled El-Fiqi

The road to Rome

Their dream, they believe, can only be fulfilled on the other side of the Mediterranean -- and they will go through hell and high water to get there. Amira Howeidy hears a story of failure

Front Page
"I'm a young man, and I want to have a life too. It's my right to want to live," exclaims 26-year old Hossam El-Sawaleh, banging his fist on the wooden table.

Although it's been several months since he was deported to Egypt, following his failed attempt to migrate illegally to Italy, he's still reeling from the event.

He's also a very angry man.

"A lot of people I know emigrated to Italy, made fortunes and are leading wonderful lives. So I decided to go too."

Not so long ago, El-Sawaleh was squeezed in a nine-metre-long boat with 55 others who shared the same dream. They were trying to cross the Mediterranean and reach Italy; but they ended up in a Libyan prison cell instead.

Today, he sits in a blue-painted room in his Sharqiya home, 150km northeast of Cairo, and glances out the only window, in the centre of the wall he is facing.

He's been "through hell," lost his life savings, been imprisoned and almost drowned in several failed attempts to get to Europe. He looks again at the bars on the window of his house, and smiles cynically. "I'd go through it again."

He is, after all, one of the many thousands who believe in the "West" they see on TV and decide they want to be part of it.

Although no official figures are available on the exact number of Egyptians who immigrate illegally to Europe -- or fail in the attempt -- the steady increase in the influx alarmed officials so much that the Foreign Ministry set up a Travel Guidance Unit in 1997. "Besides monitoring illegal migration attempts, we provide information and advice for those who wish to emigrate," Assem Megahed, the foreign minister's assistant on consulate and migrant affairs, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We also try to make ourselves heard in the media and on TV so as to spread awareness amongst those who might want to emigrate illegally."

The unit receives 30 to 50 calls of "inquiry" every day.

But do the callers listen? "Responses are limited, if not absent," Megahed replies. There's a "gap" between "personal dreams" and the very real difficulty of "getting out of the vicious circle of problems that young men face." More importantly, he admits, "they don't trust us."

Indeed, from an unemployed person's point of view, the government has been sending mixed signals for the past two decades on the availability of job opportunities. Officials like Megahed argue that illegal migration will only cease if "young men graduate knowing that they will find employment."

On the other hand, official figures show that 8.3 per cent of Egypt's 17 million-strong work force are unemployed, while independent sources put the figure at about 12.5 per cent. Approximately half the country's population of 64 million lives below the poverty line. The government's decade-old bid to improve economic performance and raise the standard of living has yet to reap fruit. According to officials, approximately 560,000 jobs must be created annually just to control the rise of unemployment.

Little wonder, then, that the village of Shubra Al-Nakhla has been dubbed Rome because of the large number of villagers who have gone to settle in Italy over the past 10 years. Surrounding villages also bear Italian epithets such as Naples, Florence and Milan. "The entire area is full of people, entire families, who migrated to Italy, seeking better living conditions. They settled there, made money, and returned to buy land, factories, whatever," says El-Sawaleh. "They got married, bought cars -- they live like human beings."

Mahmoud, El-Sawaleh's next-door neighbour, made the crossing several years ago. "He started out washing dishes; now he owns a restaurant and has 20 acres of land here. If I spend my entire life washing dishes here, I will never be able to afford even one acre," he adds.

So El-Sawaleh decided to try his luck, and began his journey to Italy last July after two years of planning. For starters, of the LE20,000 he had saved, he paid LE12,000 to a travel agent "whose job is to get people like me into Italy without a visa," he explains.

'A GOOD ROUTE': "He told me there was absolutely no problem, that I'd make it there easily. It took him a year of promises and LE8,000 more to take action. He's a greedy man, but I went along with it."

El-Sawaleh and his childhood friend Mohamed Mursi were joined by three others from neighbouring villages. Before the departure for Libya -- the clearinghouse for would-be migrants like them -- their number had increased to 55, all Egyptians hoping for a future in Italy.

"We were told of a good route: we go to Libya, which doesn't require visas, and spend three days there. And then from a certain spot on the Libyan shores, we would be taken to Italy by ship."

The three days, however, became seven months.

"It was a hard time. We had very little food. When you're in a country that's not yours, it's quite bad -- except that if you're in Europe, they'll treat you decently and with respect."

DAY OF DECEIT: The day of departure finally dawned. "But when we got to the port, we found ourselves packed into a nine-metre vessel. You can't imagine how dangerous it was. Imagine 55 people in a boat that small in the ocean. I could easily touch the water. I was really scared, but the man who was taking us told me to shut up, that it was too late, and that if I didn't like it, they would just throw me in the sea. All of us voiced our anger -- we wanted to go back to Libya, but he wouldn't let us. So the only thing I could do was say the Fatha and pray to God to take us safely to Italy and not drown us in the sea."

The men spent 26 hours in the tiny craft, where death "was the predominant subject of conversation." El-Sawaleh remembers: "After many hours I had to ask if we had even passed Malta and he said we had, long ago, and that we would be in Italy in just a few more hours."

The travellers reached land at 3.00 or 4.00am. "We jumped off the boat and ran to the sandy beach, overwhelmed at the thought that we were finally there. We scattered, and each one went off alone. But after an hour or so, Italy didn't really look like Italy. There were goats, and the streets weren't clean. No way was this Europe. We walked in the desert for hours. Then we saw a sign that read 'Welcome to Tunisia.' We just couldn't believe it. One of the guys said, maybe this is an advertisement, but when we reached the highway we started seeing cars with license plates marked Tunisia. It was only then that we realised: this was definitely not Italy or any part of Europe. Europe doesn't look like this in the movies."

Meanwhile, some of the men had met a policeman, who informed them they were indeed in Tunisia. Frightened that the rest of the group would die wandering in the desert, they asked him to save the others. Soon all the migrants had been located and taken to a shelter.

"We asked to see the Egyptian ambassador. They wouldn't let us. We stayed there for approximately four days, and then we told them we wanted to go back to Egypt. Home is much better than any humiliation abroad. They kept making excuses to prevent us from meeting the ambassador; then one day they told us they would take us to meet him. They said they only had a small car, and could only take a few of us at a time. When it was my group's turn, they just left us in the middle of nowhere and told us that we were at the border. It was 9.00pm. We walked till the next morning."

El-Sawaleh is not in good health: he has never fully recovered from the poliomyelitis he suffered as a child. "It was another exhausting and deadly journey. I had no energy and my legs couldn't carry me. I told them I couldn't walk any longer, so they left me behind and went on. I was on my own and I literally couldn't walk. I slept on my own in the desert. And I think that anyone in my place would have died of fear. This is no exaggeration. I recited verses from the Qur'an to try and comfort myself a bit. When I woke up it was still dark, and as I asked myself why this was happening to me, I started crying. I looked up and addressed God, saying "You saved me from drowning in the sea and from death. You can also save me from this desert." I slept again for around half an hour, and woke up to the noise of wolves howling. I didn't know which direction the howling was coming from: it seemed to be coming from all directions because in the desert the noises echo back. But as I kept walking, I saw lights and realised I was near a road."

BACK TO LIBYA: By that time, the Libyan police had picked the others up and sent out a team to search for El-Sawaleh.

"We were all put in jail for two months. It was the worst time of my life. The treatment was inhuman. I just couldn't understand what was happening. I never thought this was where I would end up -- a filthy prison cell. I'd never been to a police station before, let alone a prison. I mean, I paid over LE20,000 to end up here?"

Each day passed like a year. El-Sawaleh and the others had been accused of leaving Libya illegally. Eventually they were put on trial.

"The court-appointed lawyer told the judges that we had been locked up for two months for nothing. He said all we were trying to do was to work to build our future. That was no crime, on the contrary. We were released on bail and they gave us our passports. That was a happy day."

The story does not end here, however. The men still had a future to fight for and a dream to fulfill. Another attempt was planned.

"We met someone else who assured us he could take us to Italy. Because we had no money, we agreed that we would pay him later. We still had hope, because we kept hearing about people who had managed to get to Italy without problems. We wanted to try our luck as well. I mean we really wanted to go to Italy -- the country we had been dreaming about for so long."

It was the month of Ramadan. A date was set for the second attempt. This time, the ship was a large one and the captain, who was Tunisian, was "a wonderful person who restored my confidence in the Tunisians," El-Sawaleh recalls.

The number of migrants had doubled too, however. "There were 100 of us, of different nationalities. It was a wonderful trip for a change and it lasted 48 hours. The ship had three levels and there was plenty of space to move around."

They arrived in Italy earlier than planned, at 10.00 at night, rather than 2.00 or 3.00am. As they approached the shore, lights began to flash. In a few seconds, they were surrounded by the Italian coast guard, and arrested.

ARRESTED IN ITALY: This was El-Sawaleh's second arrest in less than two months, but he recounts it with a certain nostalgia. "The Italian police were very kind and generous. They treat people well and the whole thing was just beyond my expectations. They're human and have principles."

The migrants were provided with blankets and food, and "treated like gentlemen," he adds. "My experience was so positive I wouldn't mind serving the Italians for three years without getting anything in return."

Italian and Egyptian officials interrogated them. The story was ready. "We had torn up our Egyptian passports and said we're Iraqi refugees trying to escape the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. We were told to say so by the man who planned the trip. He said it's the best trick," El-Sawaleh says. This statement, a few Iraqi slang expressions and random information about the country seemed to work, then "one of the guys got scared and confessed that we're Egyptians. Still, some of us insisted, and since there was no proof a few of the men got asylum as Iraqis."

By February, however, 53 of the 55 had been deported back to Egypt, where they were arrested for the third time and interrogated by the authorities.

El-Sawaleh's return to Shubra Al-Nakhla was hardly a happy event. "My family blamed me for what had happened, as if it was my fault. I know it's God's wish but one of the guys, who seemed too stupid for anything, got in while I failed. I just can't help feeling sad."

El-Sawaleh's idea of Italy as a land of opportunity remains intact, too. "We all know that if worse comes to worst, the ones who got in can at least find decent food and shelter just by going to any church or to the Red Cross. They treat people like humans over there."

Mohamed Fouad
Khayri Bishara's Amrika Shika Bika

Just like Hollywood

TWENTY-two-year-old Mohamed Mursi, who travels from Shubra Al-Nakhla to 10 Ramadan City every day to work on a construction site was among the 55 whose Italian dream was thwarted. "Any movie director can take our story and turn it into a box office hit," he states.

When the movie Hammam fi Amsterdam (Hammam in Amsterdam) was screened last summer, Mursi watched it -- but not just for its entertainment value. "It's not a farce as many think. Hammam could easily be a real character. Any of us could have been Hammam if we were allowed into Italy," he told the Weekly.

In the film, Hammam, played by Mohamed Heneidi, spends his life savings on a fake visa to Holland, where he hopes to make a fortune. Once there, he has trouble finding work. After a token struggle for survival, he starts his own small business and magically becomes a celebrity. Eventually, he buys Amsterdam's best restaurant and marries the girl he loves.

The movie was preceded by two successful productions by the same director, scriptwriter and cast. The three productions launched a new trend in the film industry, not least because they featured young actors instead of the mega-stars most producers bank on to guarantee box-office hits. They also tackled simple issues relating to youth -- hardly a negligible market, since over half of the population is under 15 -- and played on socio-political themes that were sure to resonate with viewers. Critics, however, panned the three; Hammam fi Amsterdam in particular was criticised for playing on the naïveté of a segment of society that is already frustrated by the difficulty of daily life.

Ahmed Ragheb, head of the Foreign Ministry's Travel Guidance Unit, says: "Naive, unrealistic films like Hammam play a role in encouraging young men to do anything just to achieve their European dream. Of course reality is never like that; happy endings just don't happen. We try to get this message through."

Apart from the Libya-Tunisia-Italy route, migrants head for Germany via Hungary, Austria and Poland or try to reach Greece via Turkey. "Others get a visa to an African country such as Burkina Faso and get off during a stopover in Paris, for instance," Ragheb adds. Similarly, since a visa to Turkey is relatively easy to obtain, migrants sneak through the forests on the border, targeting Greece. According to Ragheb, 80 per cent of these are caught on the borders and deported, at their own expense, back to Egypt.

In the early 1990s, several Egyptians tried to enter Germany via Poland but got lost on the way. Many froze to death; those who survived lost limbs to severe frostbite.

The desperation brutally revealed by the incident, and similar, equally poignant attempts that followed, sent shock waves through society, and inspired director Khayri Bishara's Amrika Shika Bika (1993), based on a true story.

Speaking to the People's Assembly foreign affairs committee, Mustafa Abdel-Aziz, assistant to the foreign minister for expatriate Egyptians, referred to the agents who arrange illegal immigration as a "mafia" that makes "profits similar to drug trafficking." Most recently, a group of 110 Egyptians obtained visas to Bosnia and were smuggled into Italy, but were then caught and deported back to Egypt on a military plane. Such incidents, he said, caused considerable harm to Egypt's "international image."

"But empty stomachs won't take advice," snapped MP Ibrahim El-Nimiki. "An alternative must be found -- and that alternative is generating employment."

Related stories:
More than tulips in Amsterdam- 19 - 25 August 1999


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