This is the story of Ibra. Three years ago he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a patera to come to Spain. In June, he passed with high marks the entrance exam to a Spanish course. In September he began to study public health and this week he is telling his story to the students of a summer course:

I left my house at night; I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I didn’t want to see anyone, I didn’t want to cry in front of them. But I also didn’t want to celebrate another New Year’s Eve unable to give them anything. My country Senegal offered me no opportunity to prosper.

In Africa there aren’t proper medicines. If a mosquito bites you and you catch malaria or typhoid fever, you die. In some of the countries where I have lived the pharmacies and shops will sell you fake drugs.

My trip lasted five months. I traveled with all sorts of companions. Some had already been to Europe, some had never seen electric light. The former described to the latter the color codes of the light signals.

We journeyed at night so as not to be stopped and detained by the police. The objective: to cross the border of Mauritania. The frontier is a river that runs along Senegal. We arrived there after many nights of walking and many days of sleeping hidden in the bushes.

A friend and I decided to make the journey to Spain. We waited many days until the sea was calm. It was night when we left and the water was cold; all around us was darkness. The waves flooded the boat. My nose and eyes stung with salt water. I was so afraid. I was afraid of dying, drowning, because many of us die that way.

You must overcome the force of the sea to match the expertise of the coast guards in Tenerife. The police patrol the waters, preventing the “undocumented” from entering. A risk diluted by the alternative: pretending to drown or acting as corpses, a body that one might find bloated and stranded on any beach or lost forever at sea.

I was close to losing consciousness. We saw the Spanish police. We wanted to shout, but we didn’t dare. I couldn’t put at risk the journey of my fellow travelers nor incriminate those who had been our guides. If did it, and if, for any reason, we were returned to Mauritania, they would never forget my actions. I would have many problems. But the police didn’t catch us. In reality, they saved us.

I spent three and a half years in a reception center in Tenerife. There was a case against our guides and I had to serve as a witness. I asked for asylum but they denied my request. I told my story to whomever would listen and I listend to the all the stories I could. Each time someone in the center asked me where we wanted to go, a chorus of voices sounded “pe-nin-su-la”

When time came to leave they asked me where I wanted to go. I talked about Tarragona, a western city where there should be others there from my country, and so they sent me there. They gave me a ticket and a paper that gave me permission to to enter Spain. When I got off the bus I didn’t know what to do. I stayed behind to see in which direction the others were waling. I was bewildered. Everything around me was new. I felt lost and tremendously alone.

Europe, the peninsula, the paradise, didn’t end up being as idyllic as I thought it would be. I found travel companions to help me during my first days there. I stayed at friends’ houses and everyone who received me explained that life here was very difficult.

We left our towns thinking that in Europe they gave you money whenever you needed it, 100 Euros without question, why not? We thought that everyone was rich here. We thought that the women would fall in love with us. We thought that Europe was a never-ending party to enjoy with friends. Not a single Senegalese or African left each other on their own. We helped each other however we could, though we had little to offer.

Among the reasons why I came to Santander, one of the most powerful ones was the existence of my brother. While I am here I have time to plan my life, to find stable work and to find a group of friends.

I don’t set goals for myself. Life takes you through better and worse. I have seen strong and intelligent men lose their mind because they couldn’t adapt to this new society. I have had the luck to endure. I am not a friend of the ‘big picture’. I am used to improvising and choosing the best option presented to me in a moment. In the 7 months that I have been in Santander I have achieved the most important thing: many people care for me. I am obligated to do the same for others.

Four years have passed since I left Senegal. The journey still has not finished. With each step of my journey, I feel closer to success. But, every day, I think about returning home.

– Ibrahima Faye


Hanane comes from the town of Mostaganem on the northern coast of Algeria. In 2008, Hanane fell in love with a Spanish man she met in Mostaganem. In the months that followed, she married him, she came to Spain, fell in love with Spain, had a baby girl, fell in love with her too, and hasn’t stopped loving every new thing since.

Before the spring of 2008, Hanane was working at a hospital. On her break one April afternoon, she was in a café with three of her friends when she crossed glances with a man making eyes at her. That afternoon, in the exchange of one wink, two names, and a phone number, a man named Roberto went from a stranger to the person who would determine her future.

“Hanane,” he declared a week later, “You are the woman I want to make my wife.”
Within months, on the heels of a big traditional Algerian wedding, Hanane followed Rober to Cabezón de la Sal, Spain, to start a new life. It really was a new life. To move to a new country where everything she’d learned so far was obsolete, babbling a few handfuls of words, was jarring for Hanane, even if not unexpected. As she explained it, you have a perfectly legitimate life and the things you have are valid—your relationships, your degree, your job, your possessions—and suddenly you start at zero and you have to validate yourself again. “I’m in an adult school taking classes for 2º de la ESO [12- to 13-year olds in standard settings],” she said. “In my country I have a degree. Here that doesn’t qualify me for anything.”

Yet this wasn’t discouraging to Hanane. She began studying Spanish right away and used it as much as she could. She made friends in the neighborhood, in cafés, and in stores. “I love to talk!” she declared. “Well or not well—however it comes out of my mouth!” Now she is proud to be able to speak and understand, read and write the language.

This country has been welcoming and accepting of her, yet Hanane is conscious of her differences. She sees many people she knows here as uncomfortable with things that are foreign, beginning with their lack of languages. “In my country, Arabic is our language. We also speak French and we learn other dialects of Arabic. Now I’m learning Spanish and I’ve just begun English.” Both culturally and individually, Hanane has come to recognize language as either a tool or a barrier, and finds that in Cantabria, people are less interested in language as a resource than as an obstacle.

Though the language is no longer her main obstacle, her desire to adapt at times makes it a struggle for Hanane to remain connected to her culture. She relies strongly on her religion to connect her to her roots, and to her, being Muslim means various things: yes, it means praying five times a day, fasting for the month of Ramadan, and whispering the words “Allahu akbar” in her daughter’s ear the moment she first held the infant in her arms. But she is also honoring her religion when she helps distribute food to the poor during Ramadan, in her patience and her love of the new things her life gives her, in her pride in who she is and where she comes from. In various ways, among Islam, couscous, and her half-Algerian daughter, Anissa, Hanane maintains elements of her old life here.


Luís left his home in Chepén, Perú when he was 18, almost 15 years ago. He came from a farming community and a poor but happy family that liked dancing, telling jokes, and going to the beach. They lived on a chacra, a small plot of land that they worked with their neighbors and extended family. Luís was the fourth of seven children, but he had an extended family of around 220 cousins from the 31 aunts and uncles that were siblings of his two parents.

Together they managed the small farm. Families worked in teams and shared the chores. Some families were dedicated to cooking, others to farming. Some families daily walked the 300 meters to the well to bring back water in buckets. Other families went out to the hills to harvest crops, including squash, rice, and wheat. Everything was shared.

A day for Luís began at 6am. He and his siblings got up before the sun and went to the fields with their father. During the peak of the heat, they took a siesta, then returned to work till 8:00 in the evening. Throughout his childhood, Luís’s father owned a small food stand, a chiringuito, where he earned about five soles (around one euro) a day. These five euros were what he had to feed the battalion that was his family. The rest of them ate hard bread—“and I mean it was a rock,” Luís recalled—and drank water. Not potable water, either; the water they drank came straight from the ground.

Later, he began studying at the university like his older siblings, pursuing a degree in systems engineering. However, after three years his family could no longer support him, so he quit school, left home, and went to the capital to look for work. Not one of his siblings was able to complete a degree, and they returned to Chepén to continue working however they could. Nobody’s job looked toward any future.

Luís was 18 years old when he went to Lima. “It was horrible,” he recalled. “I had a really hard time, and it hurt my mother to know I was living this way.” He slept in the streets, on benches or beside ATMs; he found a piece of cardboard to lay down on the street and that was where he slept. He didn’t have work. He eventually found a job in the textile industry, where he learned to sew and spent several months making and mending clothes. He made enough money to eat and put a roof over his head, but he wasn’t making a life for himself. Scrimping, he saved 5 soles (about a euro) each month. “This was not enough to save or study or ever do anything fun,” he said.

So when some friends who had moved to Spain said they could find work for him there, he told them, “If you can arrange the papers, I’m there.” Eight months later, he moved to San Sebastián, Spain. He was 19 years old. He worked in a pasture with hundreds of sheep that only responded to calls in Euskera, the language of the Basque Country. “I’d go out to the field and see the backs of 200 grazing sheep. I just had to say, ‘Torneauks!’ and I’d see every head lift and answer, ‘Baaaa!’” He laughed with nostalgia. In the field is where he feels most at home. He was raised with animals; they listen to him, they let him lead them.

He was happy in this job, but there came the day when he came in from the fields and his boss told him, “Luís, I can’t afford to pay you anymore.” For Luís, this meant starting back from the beginning. He floated between many jobs. He worked construction for a year but he was always cold; the weather was cold, the people were cold, and he bundled up till he looked like one of his sheep but he still couldn’t shake the cold. He continued looking for work and then he accepted a job washing dishes “That was an accident,” he confessed. “I didn’t know marmitón meant dishwasher.” However, this mistake ended up sending him on his next path: after six months of 14-hour days in the kitchen, he borrowed a book from his boss, he took off two weeks, studied as hard as he could, and he returned a chef. He enjoyed cooking—preparing fish, meat, and all kinds of pastries—and he was earning a living, but not a life. The hours were too many. Once more he left. This time he set up a fruit shop until he found his current job, serving tables in a café, where he has worked for seven years.

“I’m happy here,” he said. The moderate hours and decent pay have led the way to a new life for Luís. He has friends. He has free time that he dedicates to swimming and surfing or riding his motorcycle through the streets. He has a business running in Perú and has made enough money to make it possible, this spring, for his brother to be the first in the family to graduate with a degree. “I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. It was hard but he learned to work, to value himself, and he has exceeded his dreams.


“The problem was there before all of us. We were just born into it, like the generation before us and the one before it.”

This is how Baba described the conflict that plagued his tribe in his homeland of Ghana.

Though the tribe had a history of conflict, Baba explained, “You didn’t see it. It was something you heard about, and you knew whose side you were on, but you didn’t see anything happen.” Until 2002. The violence erupted while Baba’s uncle was leading the tribe. The problem was the same as always: kinship, chieftaincy. They were all family, but they were torn. And now the problem was no longer dormant—his uncle was killed, along with other family members—and Baba was no longer safe. Security forces in Ghana were aware of the conflict and controlled the violence within the boundaries of the tribe. “But if you went to the town, stepped out to get something from the market, they could get you,” Baba said. He pointed to his face, racked with scars.

He escaped for months at a time, first to Côte d’Ivoire, later to Niger; for four years he lived in Libya to study the Quran. At times there was peace—life went on as usual and Baba returned to his country—until the violence erupted again. But in all this time, the resounding beckon came from Europe. Everyone was saying the word. Finally, in 2010 and following the murder of his father, Baba decided to go to Spain.

Baba traveled with a group of West Africans and passed freely through Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, all the way to the border of Algeria. To enter Algeria or Morocco, all Africans were legally required to have a visa, unless they were traveling on Malian passports. Baba’s group acquired these in whatever way they could and passed unhassled into Algeria—only to enter the beginning of the real challenge.

North Africans were well familiar with such groups. Populated areas exercised high surveillance and patrol officers regularly deported illegal migrants to the empty no-man’s-land between borders. Baba and his companions stayed far away from the towns as they traveled through Algeria, through the border town of Maghnia, and into Morocco. At night they set up camps in the brush outside towns to minimize the chance of being captured by the police. But sometimes the police came out to the outskirts, the desertic wilderness where they slept outside, and captured them. Baba was taken back across Maghnia so many times that he memorized the path well enough to later help others across. After many attempts, they were in Morocco and up against the next challenge: Europe.

Along this journey, men from each country segregated themselves into groups, every country a small sect. However, Baba described a code of brotherhood that bonded all West Africans on the journey. They trusted each other, supported each other, and if one did wrong, they ensured that he was peacefully made to understand justice. Economically, emotionally, logistically, they were interdependent. The problem was, this code did not extend to the North Africans.

From Morocco, their mission was to find an Arab who would, for close to 1000 euros apiece, provide them with a patera, a small wooden boat, which they would use to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Spain. Their “brothers”, other West Africans who had crossed ahead of them, helped them find an Arab. But this man was not part of their brotherhood. There was no accountability.

When Baba’s group of 50 people was ready to board the patera, rain and rough seas hammered the shore for days. There was no way to cross. There was also no way to wait without being caught. They returned to the town and waited for the weather to improve. Then, by the time the rain had cleared out, so had their Moroccan. So had their money. Back to square one.

The group did make it, in the end. They crossed the Sea from Morocco to Almería, where the Red Cross collected them and took them to a camp in Barcelona. It was traditionally a deportation camp and that understanding was haunting. For days Baba lived with the fear that his entire journey might have been for nothing. Then the Red Cross interrogated him and informed him that his case was one of political asylum. After several relocations, from Bilbao to Torrelavega to Santander, he settled in the Cocina Económica, the immigrant center in Santander. Currently he takes Spanish classes and works a few hours a week with the nuns that run the center.

Baba does not have papers or a real job. He arrived in 2010 when Spain was well into its economic crisis. When it was time to renew his residency, he was denied political asylum, as Ghana was seen as stable in terms of economy and politics. “Ghana did not have a problem,” Baba agreed. “Not as a country. But my tribe is still fighting.”

Beyond the fear of violence, Baba has a fear of returning home empty-handed. “I’ve wasted time,” he said. The people he left behind in Ghana got jobs, moved forward with their lives, and he fears having wasted time, energy, and money getting to Spain, only to find little in exchange.

Every day he talks to his mother. Every day she tells him to come home. “I will, Mom,” he says simply. He knows she doesn’t expect anything of him, but he feels that he must continue to provide for his mother no matter the distance, and that she must have a part of anything has, no matter how small. He will return, but before that, he is in Spain and determined to make something of it.


Bruno Diabang is one of many Senegalese immigrants that arrive in Spain by the thousands every year. However, Bruno’s story does not begin like that of many, on a patera, a rickety wooden boat built for the 1,200-mile journey from Senegal to the Canary Islands. Bruno’s story begins with a woman whose name is Rebeca.

Bruno is from Kafountine, a town of 2,000 inhabitants in the South of Senegal. He lived in a close-knit community with his parents and three siblings. “But really,” he explained, “there’s family, and then there’s second family”—and everyone is one of the two. You could go to a neighbor’s house for anything, he said, knock on the door, and say, “It’s me,” and they would know you by your voice. Everybody was open and friendly. “You had somewhere to be by nine, you didn’t get there till ten because so many people would stop you in the street with something to say.”

When Bruno finished school, he spent several years running a hotel for Kafountine’s many tourists but, worn down by the daily chaos, he left for the calmer atmosphere of work in the fields.

One spring, six Spanish girls came to stay at his farm in Kafountine. One of them had been there the year before on a project and had been so drawn to the place that this time she returned as a tourist with some friends. Bruno recalled the class consciousness that existed between the Senegalese and the Europeans. “We all maintained our distance. We were the workers and they were the tourists.” Nevertheless, their paths were intertwined. Bruno was always the first one awake, eager to start work and experience the morning. The tourists, with their days full of plans, were also always up with the sun. Every day while he swept floors or wiped down tables, there was one girl who passed him on her way from the lodgings to the showers. She noticed him, and he noticed her notice him, but they never said a word. After all, he was a worker, and she was a tourist.

One day he had been to the town, and on his way back to the farm he saw the same Spanish girl walking on the other side of the street. They were going the same way and maintained the same pace, but they crossed neither paths nor greetings. Only eyes.

Then one morning they spoke for the first time. Bruno was up and working when the girl came in and said something in Spanish. She mimed that she was having problems with the shower. “Let’s have a look,” he said to her in French, and let her lead the way. Indeed, there was no water coming out of the shower, so he tweaked the nozzle and got it running. The girl smiled.

Her name was Rebeca. From that point on, Bruno and Rebeca’s paths continued to cross. They didn’t share a language, but they made use of their few words of English and found other things to share. He sang and played guitar for her. Another night Bruno’s boss threw a big party and invited everyone, people from the farm, the tourists, friends.

The night of the party, Bruno set out walking but a car stopped beside him and Rebeca waved him in. So close to the Spanish girls for the first time, in another sense distance between them and him had never been so vast. They were the typical Europeans he knew well from his days in the hotel; meanwhile he had long dreadlocks and wore traditional red, yellow, and green Senegalese clothes. But as he walked into the party beside Rebeca, the Spaniard slung her arm around his waist. “I think she likes you,” his friend said to him. Bruno grinned, reached down, and clasped her hand in his.

It was that night, while they were dancing, that Rebeca gave him a kiss.

Soon after, the Spaniards went back to Spain. “It was too soon to tell her I loved her,” Bruno observed. He knew from stories he’d heard when he worked in the hotel that Europeans were more conservative with these words. He had to let her go. He just gave her a phone number where she could reach the farm. One week later, she called to say she hadn’t been able to sleep since she left him. From then on, for the next four years, Rebeca went to see Bruno three times every year. She started studying French so the next time she visited they could share a language. At the end of the fourth year, seven months ago, they got married in Senegal and Rebeca brought Bruno to live with her in Santander, Spain. He’s begun the slow process of integration and learning the language, but the culture is different from all he’s known.

“I like it better there,” Bruno confessed. He misses the hum of the village, his work, and the relationships he had. “But she wants nothing more than for me to stay.” He doesn’t know where he will end up. “Where I’ll be in a year from now? Five years? Ask me then.”


In June of 2009, Iranians surged into the streets of Tehran in protest of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection as president. His landslide victory insinuated fraud and left outraged citizens demanding, Where is my vote? As protests escalated, the opposition massacred these crowds. Citizens were randomly and methodically killed or captured. Nasrin was living in Tehran while the violence overwhelmed her city. What’s more, she was involved.

“I knew they were going to come for me,” she said, and so she and her ten-year-old son abandoned their home and fled to a relative’s house. When they did go looking for her, all they found in her house was her husband. They took him. “He spent months in jail,” Nasrin said, “for what I did.” She knew she was not safe in Iran, so with her husband in jail, she took her son and left the country. But where were they to go?

Over a year earlier, Nasrin’s sister had tried to flee to Canada and had paid a man in Iran to smuggle her there. The man took her as far as Santander, Spain before he abandoned her. She found herself in a city where she didn’t have anything: not a single person, not a euro, not a word of the language. So when Nasrin fled, she fled to her sister.

The two sisters faced different situations because of the time that elapsed between their arrivals. Nasrin’s sister had been able to work with a lawyer and had been granted asylum. Nasrin went to an immigration to ask for asylum, but all she received were pursed-lipped sorrys.

So she went to Germany. Nasrin knew of Iranians living in asylum there. But the European Union had a rule she didn’t know about: in short, if Mom says no, you can’t go ask Dad; and if Spain says no, you can’t go ask Germany. Once again denied asylum, she returned to Santander.

There is one way out of her situation: if she can get a job offer—a signed piece of paper by an established employer—she can apply for residency. But in her three-and-a-half years in Spain, Nasrin has not been able to find a job.

One time an agency helped her get an interview. The woman who was to be her employer was offering 350 euros a month for 13-hour work days, Monday to Friday. “What do you think I am?” Nasrin asked.

“You need a job, don’t you?”

“I need a job,” she said to me, “but I’m not an animal. I’m a human.”

Nasrin lived off her savings for a while, and now receives money from her husband, who is out of jail and back at work while on probation. But a job, beyond sustaining her here, is the only chance at escape—for both her and her son.

Kamran, Nasrin’s fourteen-year-old son, is Nasrin’s biggest concern. As far as she can see, his happiness and his future don’t exist here. As a child, he was fortunate to learn Spanish within months of arrival; however, it didn’t help him fit in. At school he faces unbeatable racism. His first year, a boy posted a picture of Kamran on Twitter with the caption “Bin Laden’s son”. Nasrin showed up at school the next day to talk to his teacher.

“You need to do something about this,” she insisted, but his teacher just looked at her sadly and told her she couldn’t control what went on the internet. Another time Kamran came home with a handprint on his cheek, and again Nasrin marched to the school. Only after one girl spoke up that she had seen Kamran get hit did his teacher acknowledge that it had happened. This time she shrugged. “Kids will be kids,” she said with dismissal. In yet another incident, Kamran had been running through a doorway when a group of boys on the other side quickly closed the glass door, sending Kamran slamming through the glass.

Nasrin has taken him to the hospital four times for injuries related to bullying.
One day a boy from school called the house was Kamran was out. When he returned, Nasrin told him his friend had called. He said, “I don’t have friends here, mom.”

“It’s extremely difficult to be an immigrant,” Nasrin said. “Until you have papers you can’t have a credit card, open a bank account, use the post office, buy a plane ticket, go to the doctor…” The worst for her is not being able to give her son a better life. He begs her just to get a job offer so they can get residency and get out.

In Tehran she was an electrical engineer for 20 years. She knows not to expect work from that—not while even highly qualified Spaniards are suffering in that respect—but in her empty time she has acquired various skills from cooking to designing clothes. Maybe they will lead her to work, but, as she said, “If I can’t work, I might as well learn keep learning.”

In Nasrin’s eyes, the problem is the people who don’t understand her situation; they see someone without papers and don’t want to get involved because of fear. They don’t understand what she needs from them, what is and isn’t at risk, and they would rather just keep their hands clean. Spain is in a crisis and the last thing they need is her crisis too. For Nasrin, this lack of understanding is the crisis. Eventual improvement will only come if people on both ends realize their responsibilities, their rights, and their capabilities.


Patrice was born in Cameroon, the middle child of seven and everything that connotes.

Patrice’s father worried about his son. “You’re not my father!” Patrice was known to scream. “I’m going to run away. I’m going to leave!” And so one day, when Patrice was ten, his father took him out alone. They sat down at a café and his dad ordered a beer for himself and a juice for his son. Over their drinks he said to Patrice, “I know we have our troubles right now. But when you are older we are going to be best friends. I see something in you I don’t see in any of my other kids. I can’t explain it to you now while you’re so young, but I think in five years I will be able to.” But in five years, Patrice’s father passed away from an illness. Patrice still wonders what his father saw in him.

Patrice left Cameroon ten years ago when he was 24. He had completed high school, had spent some years working in a small store in his hometown, and he was ready to get out. It wasn’t that the situation was terrible. In fact, Cameroon was receiving a fair number of immigrants from other parts of Africa; the education was better and, after all, people were not starving or extremely poor. However, throughout the country there reigned a sense of better things “out there” and many young people were dazzled by the dream to explore.

Patrice played soccer, so a friend in Buenos Aires encouraged him to try his luck playing for a team in South America. Patrice spent several months in Argentina and Ecuador, but he was disheartened by the harsh and outright racism that was inexplicable to him. No one liked to see Africans and no one tried to understand them. “It wasn’t the language,” he said. “My Spanish was bad but I could communicate. One thing is to not understand. Another thing is to not want to.” One you can overcome. The other you cannot.

So Patrice returned to Africa—but not home. This time his destination was Dakar, Senegal. Once more, he was appalled by the racism. “There we were all Africans—we were all the same color! But they only left you alone if you had money.” So Patrice moved on. From Dakar to Côte d’Ivoire, from Côte d’Ivoire to Niger, then to Algeria, Morocco, and finally Melilla. He worked where he could. He made bashful phone calls home when he needed money. He made ends meet.

After he left Senegal, Patrice’s experiences were better. The racism dissipated. By the time he reached North Africa, he began to feel at home. Arabs, he explained, were sympathetic to the needs of people. “If they saw you needed something, they wouldn’t let you be without.” In Algeria he rented a room from a woman who lived with her young children in a small house. He was supposed to pay every week, but before long the woman said, “You are just another son. This is your home.” He played with her children, helped out where he could, paid if he had the money, but it did become a home for him. “I walked in the door and she was there to say hello, to see if I was well or not well. It was hard to leave that behind.” But Patrice was not ready to settle.

In Morocco, he experienced similar hospitality. He met a Moroccan his age who had never seen a black man before. He was fascinated by Patrice—the color of his skin, the places he came from, the soccer photographs he carried in his wallet—and was eager to bring him into his group of friends. This was the man who looked out for Patrice during the time that he spent in Morocco. But he did not settle there either.

By that time his destination was Spain. Europe was a legend in Africa. Clean, just, a place where work came easily and so did money. He paid an Arab 3000 euros to hide in the trunk of his car while he drove across the border of Melilla, one of two Spanish cities on the African continent. On that day he took his first steps on European soil, and joined hundreds of immigrants from all over Africa in Melilla’s camp for illegal migrants.

There were 800 people in the camp and most were not simple explorers. Many were fleeing the horrors of war or hunger. Many were desperate; many had been waiting a long time. They slept eight to a room, and often spent their days there as well. The women in particular whiled away the time bickering in their close quarters.

It was Patrice who made the change. He announced that there was going to be a soccer tournament. “Everyone has to play!” he declared. The women protested but under his spirit and insistence they relented. Patrice went around the camp with sheets of paper, recorded names and nationalities, and organized people into teams by country. The miniature World Cup began and people left their dorms to defend their countries on the soccer field or to watch the latest match. “Who is responsible for this?” managers of the camp asked, bewildered. Patrice gained a reputation as the man who started it all.

There, he was happy. He had chores in exchange for food and shelter, he had a routine, he had friends. He got a little bit of training in gardening and after two years, he was taken to the peninsula in 2012. Because of his gardening experience, he went to the North to look for work amid the green of Cantabria. He was briefly employed but the crisis has kept him out of work for months. He learned that Spain is not as legendary as it was in Africa’s collective imagination. “Some things are good—Spain is clean, its schools are good, its women are equal. A man can’t have three women in the same house like in Cameroon. It looks nice on the surface. But inside it’s hurting too.”

Patrice has now been away from home for ten years. His short-term goal is to return to Cameroon as soon as he finds money for a ticket. “I need to see my mom,” he explained. Nothing more, nothing less. The need to explore is still in him, but it is the spirit that has leaked out. He wants to see his family, let them re-inflate him, before setting out again.

–Samia Bouzid


“Damn gondola,” Iñaki wrote on the postcard he sent his girlfriend from Rome, six years after the gondola ride that changed her life forever.

“The problem is,” Rolande confessed, “It might have been ‘blessed gondola’ after all.”
A long series of mixed fortunes and misfortunes led Rolande from her hometown of Douala, Cameroon to Italy at the age of 35. It began when she was four months old and her mother fell ill. Rolande’s father, not knowing what to do with a four-month-old baby, picked up his daughter and drove her to an orphanage 200 kilometers away.

Despite two attempts to return to her family at the ages of 5 and 10, Rolande struggled to adapt to the happy but humble farming lifestyle that was less privileged and less organized than the one she knew. To Rolande, farm work was a punishment. “At the orphanage, if you woke up in the morning and you saw ‘field’ next to your name on the chalkboard, it was because you had been bad.” It was hard to accept this as her family’s way of life. After the second failure to adapt to home, Rolande’s father drove her back to the orphanage, where she stayed till she was 23.

She maintained ties with her family. Her father visited her regularly, often with a sibling or Rolande’s mother. As the country developed and roads were paved, the once-a-month visits even became weekly. But this didn’t inhibit the fear that Rolande developed with adolescence that she was a product of misfortune, and that she had a happy family she would never truly be a part of. It wasn’t till she was 18 that she began to see things a different way.

She had been educated in the orphanage and trained in secretarial skills. At the age of 18, she got her first job as a secretary for a lawyer. For the first time in her life, she was making money, and that money was for her and nobody else. What’s more, her family was in need and she was able to provide for them. The realization that she was the only one of her siblings to receive an education, and that she had the power to help them, awoke something in her. She recognized a sense of purpose in herself. Overnight, her misfortunes had turned themselves into an opportunity.

When she was 35, Rolande was granted an opportunity to study in Torino, Italy for three months. A month-and-a-half into her stay, Rolande and two friends, a girl from Finland and another from Benin, were touring Venice. Somewhere, between the beginning and end of a gondola ride, Rolande’s future changed forever.

Before the ride, the gondolero showed them where to leave their bags behind the seat. By the end, their bags were gone. “I lost everything,” Rolande said. The bag had held all her documentation. “I could not get on a plane. I could not go back to Cameroon.” The girls got police passes that allowed them to move within Europe but there was nothing to be done about the missing IDs. Many times passports were turned in, the police reassured them. But if not, it would be three years before Rolande could return to her country.

After distractedly finishing her course in Italy, Rolande moved to Santander with the girl from Benin, who had family there. The girl soon left and moved to the South of Spain, but Rolande saw no reason to move. She took shelter at the Red Cross and waited to be offered a job.

She did not speak a word of Spanish when she was hired as a caregiver for an elderly couple in Santander. The man she worked for was an old, retired banker who rose every morning and put on a crisp, ironed shirt and tie, before sitting down for breakfast beside his wife who was very ill. He was wonderful to Rolande and appreciative of her work. “Oh, I couldn’t say a word but I could iron shirts,” Rolande remembered with a laugh. Rolande felt comfortable in spite of the language barrier but she made it her mission to learn the language. She read, she asked questions, and every day after his siesta, the man worked with her. He made her practice saying expressions and writing them down so she could learn how words looked and sounded. Within three months she was able to communicate with him and his family, answer phones, and carry herself with competence.

When the man’s wife died nine months later, Rolande found a job caring for a different woman in Santander, where she continues to work now. This work paid her well—far better than she was ever paid in Cameroon—and for a while she lived very comfortably, buying things when she wanted things, spending money with ease. But she felt a certain agitation. Having been raised among nuns in an environment of charity, she felt a need to give back.

Anxiety grew in her and one day she woke up unable to see clearly. She went through two weeks of tests at the doctor but no number of pokes or pinches gave rise to any diagnosis. Then one night in a dream she resolved to herself, “I am going to do something.”

She woke up, her vision clear, with a new resolve, a dedication. Through the local parish she began providing for a family of one mother and five kids whose father had died in the fire that burned down their house. When she realized she was able to make a difference and people were interested in helping her, she turned this into a full-fledged non-governmental organization (NGO) that now reaches out to the families of 42 children.

In the time since her NGO took root, Rolande met her current partner, Iñaki, a citizen from the Basque Country, who is working beside her to achieve her latest goal. Together, Rolande and Iñaki are reaching out to Cameroon so that Rolande can give back to the place she came from—in the form of an orphanage for the care and education of disadvantaged people.

For the first time since she left, Rolande is returning to Cameroon this summer with Iñaki to set up the orphanage. She is devoted to her religion and to her history, which have together made her see herself as having both power and purpose. Rolande’s goal is to pass on a message that disadvantage is not tragic or inescapable; rather, it is an opportunity.

–Samia Bouzid


Sometimes, all you know his how the story ends. “I know that I will die with my feet on my soil and be buried in a white kafn, but many things must come before,” said Rachid, a Moroccan immigrant who has lived in Spain for eleven years.

Rachid comes from a large family in Tangier, a city that receives many European tourists. He got to know many of them working as a tour guide when he was in his twenties, and with one family in particular he developed a special relation. They were a family of Spaniards: a mother, Maribel, and her two daughters, a few years younger than Rachid. On more than one occasion, they traveled with Rachid during their visits to Morocco. “Now you have to visit us in Spain,” insisted Maribel. “Come. You have a home in Santander.”

Rachid had always wanted to explore Europe. He felt inspired by the tourists that came to his country from a part of the world that was foreign and enticing. Above all, he was drawn to Spain. There were many Moroccans living in Spain already and they created a grand impression in their homeland. Those who returned for a time saved up a couple hundred euros every year. While those euros wouldn’t reach past a month’s rent, utilities, and groceries in Spain, in Morocco they reached far. These men bought themselves expensive clothes, leased fancy cars, then went back to Spain to return to life as paupers. But in the eyes of Morocco, Spain was a land of kings. Rachid was as starry-eyed as any other.

It was difficult to enter legally into Spain, but Maribel’s husband was a business-owner and wrote out a job offer so Rachid could apply for papers. A few weeks later, Rachid entered Spain on a visa. The family welcomed Rachid and took him in in their Santander home. “I had become really fond of them during our time in Morocco, and Maribel was like my mother,” Rachid remembered. Then one day he realized the seriousness of his mistake he had made.

The husband had just left for work and the girls were out of the house, when Maribel began making advances on Rachid. “She was the age of my mother, and I thought her affection for me was mother-son,” Rachid recalled. “She was married, she was much older. I told her, ‘I won’t let myself do that, and neither will my religion or my culture.’” And so Maribel threw him out on the street.

Rachid didn’t consider returning to Morocco. “I was in Spain and I had papers. If I went back to Morocco, I’d never have that chance again.” So he stayed. He found work right away, at first doing odd jobs in construction. Later he took a few courses and began working as educator in a center for youth with social troubles. Now and then he passed Maribel’s daughters in the street, but he never returned to the family that brought him here.

Work dried up with the onset of the crisis, and Rachid has been without employment for some months. However, work is still more promising in Europe than in Morocco, so he is not ready to go home. His next destination is Germany. There are many things to come before he returns to the place where his story ends.

–Samia Bouzid


At 27 years old, Malick, a native of Gambia living in Senegal, set out for the Canary Islands on a creaky wooden boat with 113 people. There were days when waves slammed across the boat, when storms shook their vessel and their spirits; days when Malick did nothing but pray, days when he thought he would never arrive. They were cold, they were hungry. After eleven days at sea, they numbered 110 when they washed up on the shores of the Canary Islands.

The Red Cross collected them and took them to a camp on the island. Old fears were replaced with new fears. The biggest: deportation.

For the first time since his departure, he was able make a phone call. He hadn’t said goodbye, not to his mother or any of his 16 siblings. Instead he’d had had a friend tell his mother he had gone to Gambia to find work. “I didn’t want to scare her,” he said. Then, that day in the Red Cross center, he heard his mother’s voice on the phone. “Hi Mom,” he said. “I’m in Spain.”

“You’re what?!” his mother cried. “Are you hurt? Are you sick? Are you okay? Are you safe?”

“Yes, yes. I’m okay. I am safe,” he promised her.

Was it worth the risk? For Malick—and for most of Senegal’s youth—the answer was yes. It was 2006 when Malick left Senegal and education was pushing young people to look for greater things than their country could offer. Malick had never exceeded a primary education, but most people of his generation were much better educated than their parents. Yet they had no way out. “Some people lived happily selling goods from little carts their whole lives, but 90 percent of my generation was thinking other things.” It was contagious, the dream of getting out. “For years I wanted to go to New York. Then I had friends telling me to go to Buenos Aires. Others said Switzerland. I dreamed all those dreams,” he recalled. Then someone said Spain. What’s more, he had a way to get there. Malick didn’t hesitate. “I’m going.”

After a month at the Red Cross in the Canary Islands, after which he could no longer be deported, he was moved to the peninsula. His first goal was to learn the language, so he was taken to Santander, where the Cocina Económica, the local immigrant center, made Spanish classes obligatory for anyone receiving its services.

In 2006, Malick was among the first wave of migrants to filter into the North of Spain. Beginning around 1999 immigrants from Latin America, North Africa, and West Africa, among other regions, began moving to Spain. While other European countries, especially Spain’s Mediterranean neighbors, France, Portugal, and Italy had a long history of immigration, before the turn of the century, less than 1 percent of Spain’s population was foreign-born. When the inflow began, immigrants flocked mainly to Spain’s big cities or stayed in the South. The North was the last part of Spain to mix. When Malick arrived, the presence of a tall black man with a head-full of short spiky dreads caused ripples wherever he went. People wanted to look at him; they wanted to know where he came from and why he was there. “It wasn’t discrimination,” Malick said. “It was curiosity.” And Malick was outgoing and eager to share.

He met people quickly. On his first day in Santander, he was riding a bus and studying a map on his lap. A man his age came over and asked what he was looking for.

“La Cocina Económica,” said Malick, looking up.

“Get down at this stop,” the man said. “I’ll take you there.”

And so Malick made his first friend.

He continued meeting people with ease. His first relationships involved a lot of broken Spanish, repetition, and head-scratching—but quickly he surpassed many of his classmates in fluency as he threw himself headlong into Spanish culture.

He recognizes the difference between himself and many other migrants. He came with ganas, desire and eagerness to become a part of Spain. To learn the language, adopt the culture, marry a woman here, have a family here. He wasn’t going home. However, other immigrants he knew came with the idea of living in Spain for just a short time, to make some money or to get away from a bad situation in their country. They lived through the people they had at home; sustained themselves on the dream of returning. “These people can live years without learning to speak the language,” Malick acknowledged. “Maybe they go to the market every day, set up their cart, sell some bracelets or purses, but then they return to an apartment with Senegalese people. They eat with Senegalese people, pray with Senegalese people, and try to live a Senegalese life in Spain.” But this is not what Malick came to do. Malick learned the language right away; he made Spanish friends; he dated foreign girls. He doesn’t feel like he is Spanish, but he does feel like he is completely adapted here.

At the time that he arrived there were a lot of jobs in Spain, and Malick found work as a gardener at a hostel in San Vicente de la Barquera, a small town in Cantabria. One day during his third year, one of his coworkers introduced him to a Spaniard named Alberto. Alberto was fascinated by Malick and asked him all about his country. Did he live on the beach in his country? How was the weather? Were there big waves? Alberto was a surfer, and he was so impressed by Malick’s story that he wanted to go to Senegal.

“Have you been back yet?”

“Not yet. Without papers and all…” Malick was working but he needed a contract in order to apply for citizenship.

“Yeah. Well, when you’re ready to go back, I want to go with you. I’ll buy my ticket and I’ll buy yours.”

“Cool. For sure.”

“Oh, and one more thing. As soon as I find you work, I’ll let you know.”

It wasn’t an empty promise. Some months later, Malick signed a contract with Alberto’s family, which owned a restaurant in the nearby town of Cabezón de la Sal. Their home became his second home. He kept his apartment in Santander, but he spent days at a time with Alberto’s family, and become a recognized and welcome figure in the small town.

Though he is now a Spanish citizen, he hasn’t yet returned to his country. He admits he will be a little nervous to do so. “It’s been seven years. You leave things one way, and then you go back and your siblings who were babies are grown up, your childhood friends are married…” He lifted his palms. “Things will be different.”

Malick appreciates what he has here. He enjoys each moment, knowing that optimism and attitude are more valuable than plans. All he has to do is ask himself, “How was I born in Gambia, raised in Senegal, aimed for New York, and destined for here?” In his experience, it’s good to make plans, but your life is made up of the surprises and the detours, not the expectations.

–Samia Bouzid