Abubakar Mukhtar fled civil war in his country of birth only to find homelessness and indifference in Rome. He now has work and a place at university. But, he says, his journey is far from over
Dapper and cracking jokes, Abubakar Mukhtar could pass for any other gregarious young student as he sips his coffee in a low-lit literary cafe in Rome. But there is little that is ordinary about this 26-year-old’s short life; and when he laughs, it is often about things many people would find tragic.
Asked about his experience as an immigrant in Italy, he chuckles. “At last I can’t hear the mortars that I used to hear; at least there’s that,” he says. “But there’s a total void, a feeling of total disorientation.”
Five and a half years ago, on 30 July 2008, Mukhtar arrived at the southernmost point of Italy with just one word of Italian – ciao – and hopes of a better future. Then 20 years old, he had fled fighting and despair in Somalia and was willing to risk everything to make it to Europe. He had left his family in Mogadishu at the end of 2007 to set out on a perilous path trodden by thousands every year: through Somalia, across the desert of Sudan and Libya, and finally across the Mediterranean to the island of Lampedusa.
He spent two days at sea on an inflatable boat with 43 others. The journey as a whole, he says, lasted eight months and cost him $3,500 (£2,133) in people-smugglers’ fees. “You go through places that are themselves difficult. But you’re pushed by a much more difficult cause,” he says. “Better to die trying for a future, looking for an alternative, a hope.”
Born at the tail end of 1987, Mukhtar was just three years old when the vicious Somali civil war broke out. He grew up moving from place to place with his family, edging away from the violence. Several of his schoolmates went off to fight, some of them to die. He watched some of his older relatives flee to Britain.
But it was not until 2007, when Mukhtar was old enough to cast out on his own, that he too decided to leave. He could have stayed in Somalia and joined the ranks of the internally displaced. “But this was not a solution,” he says. “As a young man, you need a better solution for the future.”
For Mukhtar, it was Europe or bust. Italy, however, where on Lampedusa he was sprayed with disinfectant and slept without a mattress, was not part of the plan. “Holland, Scandinavia, or Germany: those were the end goal,” he says. “I absolutely didn’t want to remain in Italy but it was necessary.” Under EU law, asylum seekers must generally stay in the country where they lodged their claim.
With damning understatement, Mukhtar concedes the country he arrived in “was better than Somalia”.
“But it was not the end solution I wanted,” he says. “I already knew then, more or less, that a future in Italy would not be a real future … But there is no other way.”
Mukhtar spent a week on Lampedusa before his number – 10 – was called, and he was taken to the mainland. Over the next eight months, in a centre for asylum seekers in Castelnuovo di Porto, about 20 miles outside Rome, he started learning Italian. But a rude shock was on its way: once he was granted subsidiary protection – one step down, in effect, from refugee status – Mukhtar had nowhere to go.
“As soon as you get the permit, it’s, ‘Ciao, arrivederci!'” he says. In recent years, the third tier of Italy’s state-funded asylum protection system has had about 3,000 places and grants a year – far fewer than the number of applications it receives. The government has vowed to start boosting the numbers, to 16,000, from this year, but some observers are sceptical about the promise.
Mukhtar, by then 21, started living hand to mouth. He says he had “not a euro” to his name for three years. He ate food provided by charities such as Caritas, and slept in some of the squats in the greater Rome area that have become the decrepit places of shelter for people who have on paper been granted protection but often have no proper bed.
One of them, fittingly, was in the abandoned Somali embassy; another, where he spent two months, was a disused university building known as Salaam (“peace”) Palace, whose unsanitary conditions have become symbolic of Italy’s dysfunctional asylum system.
For the young Somali, the future was not looking bright. Friends in a similar position were fleeing Italy in the hope of getting to countries such as Sweden or Germany. But he was aware that, because of EU law and an international fingerprint database, many of those who tried to do that would end up being sent back. “Knowing this, I said: ‘Better to sacrifice myself here,'” he says, with a dry chuckle.
After six months, Mukhtar became one of the lucky ones: his name came up on the waiting list for shelter provided by the Rome municipality. It offered a way out from the squalid limbo in which many people exist in Italy for far longer. Soon, he had started to work and enrolled at university. Now, he is studying international relations at Roma Tre University and working part-time in the reception centre where he arrived in August 2008.
He has found new accommodation in a shelter on the outskirts of Rome; he has made friends; and he has made impressive progress with his Italian, which he now speaks with rapid fluency.
He appreciates the Italian weather, and the Italians’ open and sociable nature. (Amid raging debate about levels of racism in the country, he says, from his experience, the problem isn’t so much racism as indifference: a lack compassion or understanding.)
Despite all he has achieved, Mukhtar still hopes his time in Italy will be temporary, a stepping stone to something, and somewhere else: Scandinavia, ideally, where he has family. He says he cannot see himself settling down in Italy because the work is so unstable and precarious.
“Italy is not a country in which I can get married and have a family,even if I work,” he says. “I cannot see a future here.”