Il viaggio: Immigrants to Italy from sub-Saharan Africa share their stories

By Fatou Sow

October 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — Migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe is not a new phenomenon. However, according to the Pew Research Center, migration from sub-Saharan Africa has increased drastically during the past decade. Europe has witnessed an influx of nearly 1 million asylum applicants from sub-Saharan Africa (970,000) between 2010 and 2017. The dangerous journey in search of better opportunities forces young adolescents and teenagers to pass through multiple countries. The trend of asylum-seekers going through the “backway” — a colloquial term for illegal smuggling channels — has resurfaced of late. This is seen firsthand in Bologna.

The group of young black men standing near Montagnola Park is immediately noticeable. Some may find it surprising to see high concentrations of black youth in Italy. However, they have established long-lasting communities in Bologna, particularly the Senegambian population. The SAIS Observer interviewed two Gambian migrants, Aly (age 23) and Boubacar (age 17), who successfully migrated to Italy and have been living in Bologna for the past few years.

The SAIS Observer: Why did you decide to come to Italy?

Aly: Since I was 17, I just decided while I was living with my family. I applied for an American visa two times but I didn’t get it, and I heard people were going to Italy. So, I woke up one day, packed my bag, took some money from my family, and I just ran away without anybody knowing. I talked with one of my friends and we decided to go on the journey.

Aly’s friends waiting to continue their journey in Sabha, Libya.

 “In the Sahara, you will go and you will meet dead bodies. The journey is a big risk,” said Aly.

Many of the “backway” stories are unsuccessful. Aly explained that he had to leave one of his friends behind because he did not have enough money to move between countries. He was exposed to situations he had never encountered in the Gambia: police roughing up migrants in Burkina Faso, young children carrying guns in Agadez, even dead bodies in the Sahara. 

“It’s like a connection, like drug dealing and a family business. For example, if you are in Bahe, the other family member will be in Taraghin, Sabha and Tripoli. If the brother takes the people from Bahe to Taraghin, the other brother will smuggle us from Taraghin to Sabha and then next to the capital of Tripoli.” -Aly

Photo of Aly’s friends waiting to continue their journey in Sabha, Libya

The SAIS Observer: How has your transition to Italy? How have the past few years been in terms of family, making new friends and working?

Aly: I arrived in Bologna on April 11, 2014. I was in a city outside of Bologna. I was there for one month since I was underage and I stayed at that camp. I went to school for one month. The boss who was living there was a very good guy. He really liked many of us and gave me an opportunity for work. After six months, I got a contract and I got my documents within three months. I just have to thank the community of Bologna. They made my life after God.

Aly has been in Bologna for almost six years and today has the opportunity to supervise incoming migrants. Boubacar is one of the young students he looks after here in Bologna. The Observer’s interview with Boubacar follows:

The SAIS Observer: What made you come to Italy and how was the journey for you?

Boubacar: I was a student in Gambia. One of my friends came the backway to Italy so I played a fake game to my daddy. I told him that I had a school excursion so he gave me money for the contribution. I took that money to pay the bus and went from Banjul to Bamako, Mali. I was in Mali for four days and then went to Algeria. After being in Debdeb for one week, I went to Tripoli, Libya. It’s too much money. After that, I was in Tripoli for three weeks and then arrived to Italy. I was around 15 years old when I left and I have been in Bologna for three years.

The SAIS Observer: Was there a language barrier for you during the journey from Gambia to Italy?

Boubacar: Yes, language is difficult. For me, I speak English, Wolof and Mandinka. So, some countries were easy. Those countries though (Algeria and Libya), people speak only Arabic so it was difficult. 

With respect to his transition, Boubacar is thankful to God for allowing him to make it to Italy. He’s made new friends, enjoys playing basketball, likes going to school and wants to be an electrician when he grows up.

Young migrant men and women face real dangers on the journey to Europe. Aly told the SAIS Observer that if someone paid him to do it all over again, he would say no. The men also said their journeys would not end in Italy. After saving enough money, Aly and Boubacar plan to return to Gambia to take care of their families and start life in their homeland afresh. Both gave thanks to Allah and to the community of Bologna for welcoming them as their own. Their journey has been difficult, but Aly, Boubacar and many other young migrants are determined to create a better life for themselves.