by Velania A. Mesay. Reporter and scholar from the Horn of Africa.
Sitting on a bench in Sappho square, Jesus contemplates the view of the sea. His beard and hair have grown. He says he doesn’t want to shave anymore. With the smile of a sage and a name that already seems to suggest his own condemnation, Jesus makes us promise to go and check how his son is doing.
Theirs is a story of migration that starts from the same country, Congo, but unfolds through two different journeys, and two different landings, both of which end with the same result: stalemate and waiting, on two islands in the Mediterranean.
Jesus arrived alone in Lesbos in 2020. Father of three children, he dreamed of a Europe in which he could earn enough to send money to his family and allow him a better life. In Congo he was a mechanic. Now that two years have passed and his asylum request has been rejected several times, he wonders what will become of his days on the Greek island Isola del Diavolo. Exauce, his son, made his journey a year later. With the same dream as his father and the lightheartedness of a twenty-year-old boy, he decided to follow in the footsteps of many of his compatriots. However, to enter “fortress Europe,” he chooses another route: from Kinshasa he flies to the Turkish Republic of Cyprus and from there illegally crosses the border patrolled by blue helmets to enter the Greek Republic of Cyprus and then the European Union.
In Lesbos, on that April afternoon, with a colorful sunset, Jesus makes us promise: “This is my son’s number, contact him and then let me know how he is. I haven’t seen him for more than two years now and who knows when I’ll see him again. In the meantime, meet him for me.” We greet him by abandoning him to chance, aware that ours will allow us to travel for the sole (non) merit of having a better passport than his.
Exauce meets us in Ayia Napa, a seaside town on the southeast coast of Cyprus. Ayia Napa is a tourist destination, best equipped for the tourist of bad taste: its narrow streets are full of restaurants competing for the highest prices; expensive cars whizzing through the city center with intoxicated Brits peering out and screaming from their windows; there are night clubs on every street corner advertised with pictures of naked women; quod led by teenagers from good families who arrogantly cut your way as you cross; a this nefarious panorama dressed with inflatable castles, a ferris wheel on the sea, and bars where you need to dress like the characters of the cartoon “Flintstones.” The city is nothing more than a fun factory for affluent tourists who are not satisfied only with its exclusive beaches, as they are defined in the advertising signs at the exit of the motorway, but who are looking for further “entertainment.”
A little surprised by the place where he asked us to join him, we ask Exauce and the three twenty-year-old friends who accompany him why they live in Ayia Napa. Their answer is simple: renting here is cheaper than in other places on the island such as the capital Nicosia. What unites the group of friends is their origin (they are all Congolese) and their migration history. The four made the same journey: from Congo they flew to northern Cyprus, crossed the border and then ended up in the refugee camp of Pournara, in Greek Cyprus, where they met. When we ask them about the conditions inside the center, their spirits heat up: “The camp was overcrowded! Violent fights often broke out between real gangs that formed within them. We were left to ourselves, there was no one to protect us. The food was inedible and we often lacked drinking water. Thank God we’re not in there anymore,” says one of them.
The conditions they denounce are true. The Pournara camp was built in 2019 to accommodate just over 700 people, and now it hosts more than 3000. Even in the meetings we held outside the camp, the refugees still locked inside report the same inhumane conditions that the boys of Ayia Napa describe to us. There is a lack of basic sanitation, drinking water and quarrels break out frequently. The camp is a hell from which the refugees are just waiting to escape. But what is waiting for them once they cross the Pournara exit? The answer is in the portraits of the four young Congolese. Once they have left the camp, and therefore the first registration attesting their presence in the Greek-Cypriot territory has been completed, the boys are left to fend for themselves. They cannot work because their asylum application is still awaiting an answer and they cannot study for the same reason. They just have to survive. To do this, there are the 260 euros per month that the government grants him. With 260 euros they would have to pay rent, bills, food, telephone top-ups that allow them to keep in touch with families, and maybe even the lawyer who can follow their practices.
We enter the apartment of two of them, Hervè and Thimoty. In the small house the rooms are obtained from sheet metal partitions. Hervè and Timothy sleep on the same bed and another boy sleeps next to them. Their only belongings are stored in suitcases on which they have written their names. At the entrance a group of men is intent on cooking, on the small terrace another is on the phone and in the “room” next to that of the two boys, two other men sleep. In total there are 8 in a 50sqm apartment. When we ask the group of friends why they decided to leave Congo, the answer is only one: there they saw no possibility of working, of improving their lives. In short, they are what we would call “economic migrants”—those who do not flee from any conflict or persecution.
But who were the Italians who embarked for the Americas in the 1900s? Since what these youngsters claim to escape from does not fall within the definition of “refugee,” which according to the Geneva Convention is the condition of the person who: “rightly fearing to be persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, belonging to a particular social group or because of his political views, is outside the country of which he is a citizen and cannot or does not want, because of this fear, to avail himself of the protection of this country; or that, having no citizenship and being outside the country where he had his habitual residence following such events, he cannot or does not want to return there for the aforementioned fear.” Most likely, they will never see their asylum application approved. But their pre-journey knowledge of what lies ahead is in many cases poor or distorted. Many of them claim to have been misled by some travel agencies in Congo that promise that Cyprus is a sort of earthly paradise where there would be plenty of work and study opportunities waiting for them. The agency convinces its customers to buy tickets as far as northern Cyprus. Once there they have to get by on their own. They will discover that there is no paradise, that they must pay a trafficker to cross the buffer zone and then wait in a limbo made up of deceptive hopes. The story of travel agencies is a story that is also confirmed to us by a roommate of the boys in their forties: “The travel agency promised me that from Cyprus there would be trains, metro and planes that would take me to France. I’m sorry I came here to throw my life away!” says the man, his voice rising and his eyes full of anger.
There are a lot of comings and goings in the apartment. Timothy, who dreams of being able to study medicine and one day becoming a doctor, points out to me every time someone enters the house: “Did you see? Another one who comes here to spend the day playing cards or on the phone.” And he continues: “No job, no job, no job….” The days follow one after the other in the same monotony: eating, sleeping and being on the phone. But the four boys hope to be able to continue with their studies and then to be able to start working to send money home.
Meanwhile, the Greek Cypriot interior minister, Nicous Nourris, said his government will try to repatriate any migrant whose asylum application has been rejected. In November, he was also assisted by the French interior minister who visited the island and agreed to start talks between Cyprus and the French-speaking African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, with the aim to convince them to accept back all citizens whose asylum applications have been rejected.
Before saying goodbye, the boys ask us to launch an appeal to the Pope, the only authority who in their eyes seems to have the power to change their waiting conditions: “We beg the Pope to come and help us because we are young and we are Catholics. We would like him to come to our aid because the only thing we want is a bright future like all the other young people in this world. We cannot spend our youth in these conditions. Please, someone help us.”
Ph. © Phil Botha via Unsplash