African migrants in Europe trade one hardship for another

Nearly a million Africans now call Spain home, sending stories of hope back to family. But they hide a difficult reality.

By Cynthia Gorney
photographs by Aitor Lara
Published 25 Jun 2019, 17:40 BST
Gody Fofana (standing), originally from Mali, and his Senegalese friend Atab Bodian are into their second ...
Gody Fofana (standing), originally from Mali, and his Senegalese friend Atab Bodian are into their second decade in southern Spain—and flourishing. Both secured legal residency after starting work as fruit pickers; they now co-own several businesses, including one that exports cars like this Mercedes-Benz from Europe to Africa.
Issa Diakite, 50, built both his barbell and his home, one of dozens of chabolas clustered near an Andalusian agricultural region. Originally from Mali, he settled in as a regular field-worker and now helps others construct solid shacks. He’s turned one into a gathering center, with sofas and tables, where friends watch soccer on a solar-powered TV. His preferred team these days: Real Madrid.

When Youssouf walks in the southern Spanish town of Lepe, where he is living for now inside an abandoned slaughterhouse, he greets in passing the other Africans he recognizes: the Senegalese, the Nigerians, the men from Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

He is fluent in French and has learned good Spanish, but with Malians like himself the exchanges are in Bambara, which requires more elaborate courtesies. Is your extended family fine? Yes, they are well. Your close family is fine? They also are well. And your wife? She is well.

Youssouf likes to wear a short-brimmed hat and sunglasses outdoors. His clothes and shoes are clean whenever he’s on the streets; there’s hot water in the slaughterhouse, where aid workers have improvised a migrant shelter amid the concrete stalls. Youssouf helps keep order inside. Because of this, and because he knows how it feels when a man with ambition battles shame every morning—why a good son or husband or friend tells lies over the mobile phone to people he loves, a continent away—Youssouf makes it a point to sit with newcomers in the shelter’s common rooms, just keeping them company.

The guy today was a Malian named Lassara. He had a melancholy face and sat at a table in the makeshift kitchen, alternately staring at a cell phone and slumping over to rest his head on his arms. “The next harvests haven’t started here yet,” Youssouf said. “So he has no work.”

Lassara had been in Spain for eight months. Youssouf, who’s been in Spain for 14 years, calls Lepe a carrefour, a crossroads. He means both a stopping place and a confusion of alternate pathways. The pull and push of modern global migration makes carrefours of places no one could have imagined a few decades ago, and here in this plain little agricultural town, Youssouf wondered how many times he had listened to young men like Lassara tell stories exactly like his own: the first resolution to leave home, as neighbours kept passing on reports of their admirable distant relatives enjoying fine lives while sending support money from afar. The conviction that despite breaking immigration laws—paying a thousand euros or more to be smuggled northward country by country and by the grace of God or Allah surviving the illicit open-boat crossing from Morocco to Spain, the European landmass closest to Africa—a migrant labouring hard in Spanish fields will somehow obtain a work permit and land a steady job and make home visits properly, on an airplane, to embrace those relatives who were supposed to have been the whole point of their leaving.

Lassara raised his head, said something in Bambara, and Youssouf translated into Spanish: “Nobody talks about what it’s really like.”

Youssouf watched him bury his face again and nodded. Nearly 60,000 people hazarded the Mediterranean crossing last year, following northward routes mapped by rumour and smugglers. But in carrefours all over the world, migrants talk to each other in this way, trading hope, disappointment, tenacity, pain. Youssouf has a teenage daughter he hasn’t seen since she was an infant, and a son he’s seen only in pictures; his wife was pregnant with the boy when Youssouf left the Malian capital, Bamako. None of them know he sleeps in a former slaughterhouse. When he spent a decade sleeping in a succession of chabolas, the shacks migrants build with plastic sheeting and scrap wood dragged from the berry fields, they didn’t know that either. This is why he asked to be identified by first name only.

Trained as an engineer, this 38-year-old Nigerian imagined Spain would prove the gateway to a better life in Europe. That was 14 years ago. Still migrating between Spanish planting and harvest jobs, he lives in a chabola, a shack that field-workers assemble from scrap wood and plastic.

Squared and bound like giant packing crates, these chabolas, shacks, are home to migrant workers who build them from agricultural scrap material. Around Lepe and other produce-dependent Spanish towns, chabola clusters can house hundreds; completed shacks are sometimes abandoned and reoccupied as migrants move around for work.
As he passes through a settlement of chabolas, a Spaniard in the southern province of Huelva watches a young African practice ball-handling skills. Soccer on the dirt clearings amid chabolas is a popular pastime.

“There are secrets each of us has to keep,” he said.

Youssouf waved a hand at their surroundings: the battered couch; the weedy broken concrete outside; the cemetery up the street, where a half acre beside the graves now holds so many chabolas that when people in Lepe say el cementerio, they usually mean the migrants’ slum. “All of this,” Youssouf said. “None of us are going to tell our families about it. All of this is a secret.”

I’m fine. Things are good here. Make sure Ma doesn’t worry. How much human migration over the centuries has been propelled partly by protective shading of the truth? And how much more efficient, here in the 21st century, to dispatch the reassuring report via mobile phone? A few years ago World Bank economists figured out that the world’s poorest households were likelier to have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet. Inside Lepe’s chabolas, the furnishings are scraps and discards, but nearly everybody has a phone. Some of the phones have cameras, and attractive backdrops are abundant for the selfie sent home: a stranger’s parked convertible, a bar’s television, the kitchen of an acquaintance who’s managed to rent an indoor room in town.

A decade into their new lives in Spain, Senegalese friends Fatou Ndoye, left, and Hawka Diallo prepare for a Senegalese holiday inside Ndoye’s apartment in the town of Moguer. Diallo works picking berries; Ndoye and her husband have jobs in a fruit warehouse. The younger of the Ndoyes’ two children, an eight-year-old girl, was born in Spain and is a standout at her public school.

Lepe is not historically a migrants’ carrefour. It’s part of a southern Spanish crescent of coast that in recent decades has been transformed, through intensive irrigation and greenhouse farming, into an abundant multiseason agricultural belt. Lepe’s berries and citrus ship throughout Europe, and back when the farms were expanding, as growers ran out of Spaniards willing to accept field hours and wages, they turned to outsiders for labour—Moroccans and Eastern Europeans at first, some hired by contractors who delivered work papers as part of the deal, some arriving illegally and hustling jobs on their own. Men and women came by the hundreds; growers with berries to pick favoured the women’s more delicate hands. Shopkeepers put up signs in Polish, Romanian, Arabic. Butchers began offering halal meat.

And the word kept spreading, to more places poorer and tougher than Spain: a chance. At what? “At searching … for my life,” Youssouf said, pausing to answer in a way that satisfied him. “I’d heard from all these people who’d gone to Spain. That it was easy to get to. That they had a life better than ours.”

In fact he once imagined he would find his life in France: A French-speaking African sets off for Europe assuming he will land for a while in southern Spain, recuperating and marshalling resources to proceed north. Then things happen, one field gig leads to another, deceptive employers promise papers but don’t come through, rental apartments are pricey and scarce for dark-skinned foreigners who want many roommates for rent sharing, so they all can keep sending money home.

Gody Fofana (standing), originally from Mali, and his Senegalese friend Atab Bodian are into their second decade in southern Spain—and flourishing. Both secured legal residency after starting work as fruit pickers; they now co-own several businesses, including one that exports cars like this Mercedes-Benz from Europe to Africa.

As he put on his hat and sunglasses one afternoon last fall, Youssouf was still a workingman with neither a work permit nor the Spanish residency documentation that would allow him to cross more national borders legally. “Tirando maletas,” he said: heaving suitcases around. That was the migrant life he found.

But look, he said, striding easily now toward the centre of town: He is sleeping under a solid roof. Work in the orchards and berry fields is hard and sporadic, but every month he sends home at least a hundred euros through one of the money transfer services proliferating around Lepe. His son and daughter are doing well in school. They have enough to eat. Youssouf bought a Huawei tablet, and when he finds free Wi-Fi, he can download Malian music and talk with his family by video. In Bamako he was able to touch his wife and children and live with them, but what he could not do for them, with a Malian labourer’s wages and their small plot of inherited land, was more than he could bear. “It’s still better that I’m here,” he said.

Youssouf could give up on Europe, yes. He could save for a one-way ticket home. But he won’t, not yet. Too much has been invested in him—the payments to the smugglers, the expectations layered thick from so many years away. He’s too embarrassed to go back. “Not with empty hands,” he said.

At an entrance to Madrid’s historic Plaza Mayor, Senegalese migrants take a break from their labors for an autumn celebration of drumming, singing, and prayerful thanks. In urban Spain, many Africans have been unable to obtain formal work permits. A popular alternative: peddling merchandise on blankets that can be whisked away when police show up. The salesmen are called manteros, blanket men.

Rounding a corner, a block from the Lepe plaza where migrants from many nations gather at dusk, Youssouf raised an arm in greeting. The younger man he hailed was a Malian named Ibrahim, and in Bambara he replied according to protocol: Yes, his extended family was well, his close family was well, he was well. Except that he wasn’t. He was just back in Lepe, after a harvest job in another province, and had spent the night in a cardboard box on the street.

Youssouf and Ibrahim looked at each other. “No, I don’t tell my family much,” Ibrahim said. “I send money to my brother. He shares it with everyone. I haven’t seen them in almost 10 years.”

They considered, standing on the street together, what might make them feel they could return to Mali with dignity.

In the 1980s, as irrigation and greenhouses were transforming the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, Francisco Braima Sanhá arrived from Guinea-Bissau as a cook. Now 59, a veteran among foreign labourers, he checks the vegetable garden he planted around his shack. The modern Andalusian agricultural economy has exploded, Braima says—“thanks to the migrants.”

“Enough money to buy a good house,” Ibrahim said.

“Enough money to start a business,” Youssouf said. “In agriculture I’ve learned a lot.”

Ibrahim said he needed to find an indoor bed for the night. Youssouf told him to stop by the migrant shelter. There’s Wi-Fi inside the building too, and later that evening Youssouf used his tablet to send off his most recent collection of Lepe photos. He’d found an app to make them special for his family. Click on an arrow, piano music plays, and images appear in rotation: Youssouf on a beach, Youssouf in a park, Youssouf beside a car. In the last few pictures he’s in an office chair, wearing a button-down shirt with a pen in the breast pocket, sunglasses pushed atop his head. His legs are spread. He’s smiling into the camera. He looks great.

This story was produced by National Geographic through a reporting partnership with the United Nations Development Programme.

Cynthia Gorney wrote about migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates in the January 2014 issue of National Geographic. Spanish photographer Aitor Lara is a first-time contributor.

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