– an autoethnographic sojourn in the (sur)reality of migration!
Text and drawings by David Johansson, unless stated differently.
What happens in one of Europe’s many camps for migrants on a Friday night? What can you expect to hear from someone who has risked his/her/their life in the Sahara desert, resided in Libya during its current upheaval, and eventually survived a boat crossing on the Mediterranean before coming to Europe? Project Awaiting decided to find out what the inhabitants of Malta’s Hal Far Camp are doing while many others on the Islands have just started off their weekend.
On the bus to Hal Far that Friday afternoon, I met ‘Jerome’, a so called undocumented migrant who for obvious reasons doesn’t want to share his real name. The acronym for Hal Far Camp is HTV, which stands for Hal Far Tent Village, and it has remained longer in popular memory than the actual tents have. Some of the migrants I talk to don’t even recognise that name, possibly because the tents were superseded by big grey metal boxes, or container barracks, as those one could see after an earthquake on TV. Hal Far Camp is anyhow where many migrants coming to Malta from the Middle East and Africa seem to reside, temporarily or for some years, while waiting for their process to resolve. Simple housing is provided for example to those with proper documents or those who have been given temporary humanitarian asylum protection. The camp, and the Open Center in Marsa, are the sites where most migrants whom I meet appear to have experience from.
Jerome took the initiative to our conversation on the bus, probably since I offered him a seat while he and his friends were standing in the aisle. “Parlez vous francais?” he said. “Oui, oui, je parle un peut du francais!” I answered. And so our conversation began in facile French. It turned out that Jerome had lived in Europe for the last number of years ‘sans papier’, without proper documents. He was going to visit someone in Hal Far, at least according to what I understood. “Cool, that’s where I’m going too!” I explained as I stopped typing on the document called ‘Interview with the Director Mario Schembri’ in my tablet. Jerome continued the conversation quietly while keeping an eye on my document. Conscious of his wariness I said, “I’m not here to report for anyone, like the government,” and for a second he looked relieved. But I continued and asked him where he was from, and what he was currently doing in Malta. Looking a bit more at ease, Jerome brought up his phone and showed a picture from his job in an industry – boxes that were going to be used for some beverages, with Arabic writings that suggested the company’s intended market was likely elsewhere. “How come did you come to Europe without proper documentations?” I said not knowing if this was too much of a nosy question to him. “Because, when I was living in Senegal, which I left 11 years ago, unrest back home forced me to go.” He claims that a proper passport is very difficult to get, and that society in Europe makes life for people like him worse. Every now and then he has to move somewhere in order to not get caught.
As the bus had reached Hal Far, Jerome and I got off. There had been additional people on the bus who I perceived as his friends or acquaintances. As we got off there was however only one other person left. His name was Ousman (drawn one picture below). Dressed in a black waist-long leather jacket and a t-shirt with a diamond print on it he gave an impression of being a fashionista. We greeted each other as the three of us – Jerome, Ousman and I – continued across the street. “I’m David, a journalism student who spoke to your friend Jerome on the bus,” I said. “Do you mind if I join you in to the entrance of Hal Far?” I continued.
“Okey, no problem,” Ousman said as the three of us got closer to the back entrance of the camp. After passing through a big space trampled down in the fence, we kept talking in English. A block consisting of numerous grey container barracks towered up in front of us. 10-12 metres long and about 2 metres wide. As we got to the one street dividing the rows of barracks Jerome hasted inside one of the doors nearby. He didn’t say a sound after Ousman and I had began to converse. Now we were left outside. “Have you registered at the reception?” Ousman asked. “Cause if the staff see you here they might not like it, but they are usually friendly anyways,” he said, acting as if he knew a lot on life in the camp. However, it soon turned out that Ousman doesn’t reside here at all. “I live in Milano, and I’ve lived in Italy over the last three years,” he said. “It’s good in Italy, and they’ve taught me about life in Europe and how to talk to Europeans” he continued. “I only come to Hal Far occasionally. To see friends” he said. “But how come you don’t stay all the time in Italy…?” I asked, a bit confounded. “Because I like it here, Italy is great, but there isn’t much work. Although I’ve gotten lessons for three years and speak Italian fluently now,” Ousman explained. “What do you want to know? I can tell you anything you want to know,” he continued kindly. Astounded by his generous approach I looked around the barracks to where some other men stood chatting. “That guy over there is from Algeria, and this one right here [a guy came riding on a bicycle near us] is from Libya, but he didn’t come here by boat, like many of the other migrants who pass through Libya do, like me. I’m from Niger. Not Nigeria, do you know where that is?” Ousman said as if he was used of having to explain African geography. “I know of it, but I didn’t know that you speak French?” I answered. “But there was no future for me in Niger, so in 2010 I decided to leave for Libya by the long travel through the Sahara desert.”
“Salaam,” I said to an old man passing by in a foot length robe. He looked like he would appreciate a greeting phrase commonly used among the other migrants around here and from the Middle East or North African regions. “Wa aleykum as-salaam!” he replied friendly. “So you are Muslim?” Ousman commented after my whim in Arabic. “No, but the word means peace, right?” I replied. “Yes, that’s true” he said, as if pleased with my answer. ”How much longer will you stay here…? If you are around for some time after my prayer we can sit down outside and talk,” he suggested while nodding towards the direction of the fence where we had entered with Jerome earlier. Suddenly a noise broke the stillness of the camp. A singing voice calling from inside the barrack behind us. Soon a couple of men entered through the door, and Ousman left too. I began to draw something inspired of our conversations earlier.
“Can I draw something too?” a guy wearing a baseball cap and pony tail said. He’d been walking around the block of barracks as Ousman and I were talking. Observing my sketchbook he commented, “it’s true, and I respect that man a lot!” he said about the portrait. When Ousman was back Salim (as seen on his self-portrait to the right) and I had already began sharing the activity of drawing. “It’s been so long since I last drew!” Salim said. “What are you guys drawing guys?” someone else walking by expressed while chuckling sarcastically. “At least this guy gave me a chance… Perhaps I should start doing this as my job?” Salim answered the person, half- jokingly.
Courtesy of Salim, April 21, 2017.
Ousman, now back from prayer, watched us drawing as he lit a cigarette. Salim kept his focus on the drawing for a long time, a man looking like a portrait of someone he knew began to take form. “This is me in 10 years,” Salim chuckled. Possibly he was referring to the stressful livelihood he had nowadays. “Do know of the Sahara? I used to go there when in Libya,” Salim said while continuing with his portrait. Nowadays he lives with his brother Yayha in one of the barracks at Hal Far. “Yayha came to stay with me recently because he couldn’t stay in Norway anymore. After 17 years he was suddenly deported to Malta and now we that barrack over there and I have to cook for him, because he works all the time” Salim said with a sigh. His brother Yayha would soon join us at the camp to share his story. “In my language [Tuareg] we write like this” Salim said and marked the top of the drawing with some geometric symbols. “It’s a Berber language, and it wasn’t allowed to talk when Gadaffi had the power in Libya. My father was a teacher and he wasn’t afraid of standing up for our people. Gadaffi’s people didn’t like him, so one day he was killed” Salim told sentimentally. “Life in Libya has become too risky for everyone now. Since the uprisings in 2011, if you don’t have a gun, they will kill you!” he argued. “But the [Libyan] people treated me very well [between 2010-2013],” Ousman filled in. “I will never forget that. Never.”
The hours outside went by and the temperature got chillier. Since we had become more acquainted, Salim suggested we should move on inside to his and Yahya’s place. The discussions kept revolving around Libya and how the citizens there had opened up their houses for and gave people jobs during their stay in 2010. “But after Gadaffi was toppled in 2011, the soldiers [rebels] could stop you if you were at the wrong place at the wrong time outdoors. People then tried to avoid being outside most of the time. Once I was very scared, because the soldiers stopped me and found pictures and a film in my phone. They told me to delete everything or they would kill me!” he said. “They treated us migrants worse than dogs.” Once at the hospital they even took my blood, because ‘somebody needed it’ and in my position I didn’t have a choice,” Ousman said emotively. “Nobody would believe what I’ve been through in Libya. If you haven’t seen it for yourself you won’t believe it, because there are no proof” he said stressfully. “This is Tinariwen, the Tuareg band you had heard?” Salim said now seated on a bed inside his and his brother Yayha’s crib. He was humming along while showing a music video with the Saharan landscape in the background. “And this one here is Benghazi, a very good Libyan rapper!” he continued while showing another YouTube-clip. Benghazi’s sound was energetic and raw, a bit reminiscent of the Palestinian hiphop group DAM. In this state of living, it seemed as if YouTube functioned as great tool of escapism for him, and who wouldn’t agree nowadays?
Inside Salim and Yayha’s barrack in Hal Far.
“Hello, my name is Yayha,” a man who’d just arrived inside the barrack suddenly interrupted us. Salim’s older brother, whom he had mentioned before, had just come back from his work shift and wanted to have a chat with me. “I was deported from Norway just a few months ago, after 17 years in the country, then they sent me here” he charged desperately. “I have two children and a girlfriend there,” he said while scrolling through some pictures carefully. “I was deported because they accused me of falsifying documents and that I didn’t have a proper driver’s license – Haloooo!? Not a driver’s license? I did have a real one – but they didn’t believe me. After three days in detention I was deported to Malta with a condition to not come back in five years, or they would put me in prison. They said Malta was informed that I was coming, but at the airport they didn’t know that I was coming at all” he said. “I’ll be put in prison for two years if I get caught in Norway again. I can’t go back and I don’t know when I will see my family next time…”
Yayha and I kept seated on the edge of his bed while talking for about half an hour or so. He spoke in Norwegian, and I in Swedish. When the topics demanded further explanations, we switched to English. A cosmopolitan, yet absurd experience in the parallel lives of Hal Far. “So what do you do meanwhile you are awaiting asylum here then?” I asked. “Well I work and I stay here with my brother Salim. I must work, or I’ll go mad. And because now I have a debt of 200000 NOK, sjekk her [‘Look here’ in Norwegian]! I’m back on square one. Haloooo!?” Yayha said again, even more dejected from telling his story.
The evening in the barrack continued… Jerome, the undocumented migrant, still wasn’t to be seen. Not since we arrived earlier to the camp. Perhaps Ousman had been seeing him during his slalom of the barracks? As I was reflecting, a sun-drenched frame made its entrance to the group. “Kompis! [‘pal’ in Swedish] someone called Mohamed (drawn here) said. “Can you draw me too?” Mohamed said with his broken English and sat down on Salim’s bed. His manners and request were nicely put. “I have a ‘sambo’ [Swedish for a co-living partner] in Scandinavia” Mohamed said while freezing his posture for me to draw. He and his sambo were hoping to live together again, like they used to. We never got to why Mohamed ended up here, but he told me of how he had lived, travelled and worked in several countries since arriving to Europe in 2009. While being at Hal Far he practised his language skills and worked out at the home-made outdoors gym in between the barracks.
Sharing life stories and meals, discussing hopes and common longings with each other… This Friday evening surely came to imprint on my memory on what it might mean to live as a migrant or not on the borders of Europe. If only the camp wasn’t so distant from everything else on Malta, there wouldn’t even be much of a difference to the parallel lives of everyone else. “By the way, we think the last bus from Hal Far just went. How are you planning to get back home tonight? The cab is €20, and it’s raining so you can’t walk anywhere from here now” one of the guys said cutting in abruptly on my precious moment. “What? “But isn’t it just past 10pm, and Friday night?” Bewildered as I was, I said to myself: “How is this even possible?” ▪️
~ THE END ~