‘African Dream’ of Europe turns into a nightmare

December 31, 2015, 2:34pm


Refugees and migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Picture: AFP

By Drew Hinshaw and Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin, the Wall Street Journal on Business Day Live

BAMAKO — This year saw the largest wave of migrants since the Second World War. Among them went 25-year-old Mahamadou Doukara, whose journey began one morning in March, when his uncle gave him $500.

"I will be a stranger in a different man’s home," the young villager said, as his uncle counted out the money. "It will be a different culture. But I will keep hold of who I am, and I won’t look for problems."

For eight years, Mahamadou had been living in Marseille, a migrant neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Malian capital, and a human montage of the wave that has unsettled Europe. More than half of the rising apartment blocks in Marseille were built by Malians who now live in France. Nearly every tenant is a young man, hoping to leave.

"It’s the African dream," said Doumbia Kaba, a member of the local chief’s council. "To go abroad, make some money, build a house, marry."

But lately, the route is becoming costlier and deadlier. About 3,000 migrants died this year, trying to make the three-day sea crossing into Italy from Libya, the International Organisation for Migration says.

When Mahamadou heard that smugglers in Morocco were charging $1,000 for the half-hour boat ride into Spain, he persuaded an uncle to lend him the fare — one half in Bamako, and the other once he made it to Morocco. Within days, he was on the move. "This is the way to build a life," said his uncle, before handing him the cash. "You must know the journey is not going to be easy, but you have to keep going. Even when you think there is no way forward."

Mahamadou looked into the sky and said, "Finally! Praise be to God! It has finally begun."

It rained the morning Mahamadou set out for Europe. That is good luck, his roommates assured him. It is what he told his aunt, too: "It’s all right, I will be good," he said, as he visited her for the last time before his voyage. "There will be no problem, God willing. Everything will be good, God willing. Be happy for this. You are happy, right? Don’t worry. Everything will be good."

As he headed out, he muttered a prayer in Bambara: "Amena, amena, amena, amena," he said. "I will be back soon, I will be back soon, I will be back soon."

Seventy-some years ago, Mahamadou’s grandfather became the first in his family to venture abroad. N’Bolo Doukara didn’t have a choice. France had just been conquered by the Nazis, and French troops were driving around rural Africa, forcing young men to join the fight against Hitler.

After helping to liberate France, N’Bolo settled in Paris, painting houses. In 1973, he bought an Air France ticket for his son, Djimé Doukara, Mahamadou’s father. Djimé didn’t even need to show a passport to enter France.

Now, after four decades of working construction in Paris, Djimé has run out of strength to labour on — and money to care for his 16 children. "Every one of these children needs to leave," he said, on a recent evening, under a tree in his village of Salaka, where he has retired. "Because I’m getting old. It’s me alone keeping this family eating, and it’s not easy."

Mahamadou assumed it would be free to leave his home country. Instead, a border guard demanded the local equivalent of $9. Police on the other side, in Mauritania, stopped him, too. First, they opened his wallet, to confirm he had enough cash for the bribes he would have to pay along the road. They kept roughly $74 for themselves, before Mahamadou climbed back on the bus.

"It’s crazy — and so expensive," said a seasoned migrant, seated by Mahamadou, who had been going back and forth to Spain for 20 years. "It used to be easier."

"No problem," said Mahamadou, as the bus trundled forward to Nouakchott, Mauritania’s desert capital. "I’ll make it. My heart trusts this."

Mahamadou’s people started travelling to Europe in the 1800s, when the slave trade ended. The Soninke of western Mali had been among the most feared and prosperous of slave merchants. French colonialists moving up the rivers offered them a bargain: leave the human-captive business and come work French ports.

They did. By 1968, Soninke had come to constitute 85% of all sub-Saharan African migrants in France. By 1975, one out of every three working-age Soninke men had gone to France. A joke took hold in Mali: "When Americans landed on the moon," it went, "they found Soninkes already there, digging for gold."

In the 1980s and 1990s, France began to restrict new immigrants. But by then, they were fighting a powerful new force: the fax machine. For generations, Soninke emigrants had sent their wages home in envelopes. Mahamadou’s family would travel for two days, on foot or on donkeys, to collect the cash from the nearest sizable town. Sometimes, money disappeared. Then Soninkes began to set up cash-wiring systems, using the fax.

These days, three fax machines each wire hundreds of euros daily into Mahamadou’s community. The money has financed a public tap-water system, a solar farm, a nearby school, a mosque, several gravel-paved roads, a chain of pay-what-you-can pharmacies, and dozens upon dozens of new cement houses, overlooking mud-brick homes. It has also paid for the next generation of young men to buy their tickets north.

"The fax machine, it set us a little bit free," said Djimé Tandia, a migrant who came home to run a fax-machine business in the village. "We’re buying cows and sheep and motorcycles."

Before leaving Nouakchott, Mahamadou spent roughly $82 to purchase a ticket to Morocco. As he did, two distraught Gambians walked in with a warning: Moroccan border guards were asking for more than $500 in bribes to enter the country. Mahamadou only had $200 remaining. It didn’t spoil his mood. The day before he left, he sat with a half dozen fellow travellers, wildly cheering around a television: Pro wrestler Bret "The Hit Man" Hart was grappling in a match, dressed in pink spandex as he thrashed his opponent. All of the migrants believed the bout was real.

After a bowl of camel’s milk around dawn, Mahamadou rode through the desert in the back of a rundown Mercedes-Benz. Through the window, he saw evidence of the cars that had broken down here: abandoned trucks, old TVs left in the banks of sand dunes, tossed-out furniture.

At the border, Mahamadou handed a Moroccan officer $200. The officer pocketed the cash — then demanded more.

For two hours in the midday sun, Mahamadou argued furiously, trying to get into Morocco, or his money back. Exhausted, he gave up, and headed back to the nearest city, Nouadhibou, with a plan to buy a flight to Casablanca. His father would wire the money. "No problem, no problem," he said, repeatedly. "No problem."

A sort of social crisis has been erupting for Mahamadou’s generation of West Africans. Men of his father’s age once slipped easily into Europe. They created an economy and culture founded on emigration. Leaving became a rite of passage for young men in western Mali. In Mahamadou’s region, villagers who don’t go to Europe became known as tenes: a derogatory word meaning "stuck like glue" in the Soninke language.

But Europe has lost its appetite for new migrants. Even Mamadou’s uncles in France no longer want to spend money importing a distant nephew to a saturated job market. "Everyone is taking care of his own family, his own wife, his own children," Mahamadou said. But, he added: "Even if you tell me things in Europe are not going well, it will not enter my brain. It’s Europe. Europe is everything."

Mahamadou arrived cold and shivering in Casablanca, stepping off the train that had carried him from the airport. His plane ticket had cost him $586—and his father’s patience. "I knew I would make it," he said. "I knew there wouldn’t be a problem."

But there was a problem. The first smuggler said he wanted €4,500 (about $5,000) for the 30-minute trip across the Straight of Gibraltar into Spain. Pushing back tears, Mahamadou bargained that down to €3,000. It was still an impossible sum for an unskilled, illegal immigrant who had already burned through his money. A second smuggler wanted €3,000, too. Another offered a convoluted trip via plane to the Turkish side of Cyprus, and from there, into Europe. That also cost €3,000. "I cannot believe it is so much," Mahamadou said over and over again, walking the streets of Morocco. "How is it so much?"

For the next two months, Mahamadou worked a truck station by the sea, in Rabat. He lived in a squalid hostel jampacked with migrants, nicknamed The Titanic, because it was big and full of travellers who didn’t seem likely to make it.

One day, on the shore, he caught a glimpse of the other side. "I can see Spain!’ he shouted. "There! Can you see it? I can see Spain! It’s right there!"

In September, he gave up. A flight paid for by the International Organisation for Migration brought him back to Bamako. "My head has been in the toilet," he said after arriving. "My father is a little bit furious with me."

Indeed, his father has been exhausting his pension, lately, to care for his son. Djimé Doukara says he doesn’t know what Mahamadou should do next. "It’s for him to decide. It’s not my choice," the father said. "But in any case, he can’t stay here. There’s nothing to do."

At night, Mahamadou lies on his childhood bed, an outdoor mattress balanced on a dozen or so sticks beneath a baobab tree. "I don’t sleep," he says. "I ask myself: Do I have a future? If I don’t get to Europe, how will I marry, have children? How can I give my family a future if I don’t have a future?"

Back in Marseille, the migrant’s quarter on the edge of Mali’s capital, another Doukara is planning to make the trip. At 24, Adama Doukara sleeps on the mattress where Mahamadou once slept." I’m an adventurist," the young man said. "As soon as I get the chance, I’m leaving. It’s not a choice."