Friday, December 3

All is Not lost: A story of reintegration

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When you feel down and think all is lost, just remember that if you are still breathing, there is reason to be hopeful. In every pain, there is a gain at the end of it. Never feel discouraged, because everything happens for a reason.

Every young person growing up has a set of visions and goals to achieve in life, so they tend to work towards achieving these dreams. But when things don’t work out according to their dreams, they tend to give up.

Here is a story about a young, beautiful, vibrant and hardworking lady named Erica Johnson, which is me. I am the firstborn of my family, the breadwinner and a single mother of an eleven-year-old girl. My dream and aspiration was to become a chartered accountant with the help and support of my family.

Unfortunately, my dreams were shattered in December 2006 when I lost my father. Since then, I had to struggle to get educated with the help of my mother. Due to the stressful situation I was facing, I decided to fall in love with a guy just so I could have someone to talk to, not knowing that was the start of an additional pain. I got pregnant and was abandoned by this person. I had to stop going to school for an entire academic year to give birth and nurse my baby.

I later completed my course, graduated with a Diploma in Accounting and Finance and was able to secure a job in 2013 in a reputable company as an account clerk. My salary was used to take care of the family until 2016, when the company was shut down by the government.

At that moment, I felt all was lost. Being out of work was so devastating for me, because I had a family to look after. One day, while I was out searching for job adverts, I met some old friends who told me about their plans to travel to Europe through the irregular migration route in search of a better life. Without much thought, I decided to follow them in order to give my family a comfortable life.

I left without informing my family, together with six others hoping to reach Europe. The journey was so smooth from The Gambia, Senegal and along the first part of Mali. When we reached Gao, things changed. We were taken off the bus and transported in a pick-up truck towards the desert, heading for Khali, when their vehicle was intercepted by some armed men. We were forced to get down from the vehicle and were separated into two groups, male and female.

The first lady they wanted to abuse was unfortunately from the group I left with. Her boyfriend was trying to protect her, and it led to a serious fight. As he was reluctant to give up, he was brutally killed and burnt down to ashes in front of us. The group was later captured and taken to prison. In that prison, there were different compartments according to your nationality.

We were handed over to the commander of the Gambian prison. He would instruct us to call our families to send money in exchange for our freedom. I had no one to call because I well know my family couldn’t afford such, so I was tortured and maltreated. Finally, I managed to escape and caught up with my friends along the way. We proceeded to Libya where I lost my friends in the Mediterranean Sea. I was lucky to be saved by an old man, who stopped me from entering the boat even though I persisted. His reason was that, if I entered the boat, something bad would happen. I never understood it until the boat capsized right in front of me. The old man advised that I return to The Gambia.

Upon my return, I received assistance to open a grocery shop*. Today, I am using the same business to sustain my life and family. I am also enrolled at the Gambia Tourism and Hospitality Institute, where I am currently pursuing a Certificate Programme in Rooms Division. With my zeal and relentless efforts, backed up with the help of my family, the business has been profitable and has even expanded.

My business sells green tea, sugar, milk tin, stationery and other similar items. I later bought a popcorn machine and a refrigerator. These two items have really helped in diversifying my business products to sell popcorn and soft drinks. It is going well, and I am using the profit to pay my rent, cover for my daughter’s education and healthcare and support my family. I assessed the market to understand what people want now, then invested in products that are marketable. During the pandemic, I also took advantage of increasing reliance on online activities and is now selling mobile phone credit.

Indeed, all is not lost, because I can take care of my family with the business. That is why I am now working with fellow returnees, using our stories to touch lives and pass on messages to others who feel that all is lost. Our focus is to save lives and raise awareness about the dangers involved in irregular migration.

This work has brought a lot of strength and solace for me. I was able to share my migration story; and through that, I found the strength to combat stigma and inspire other migrant returnees to share their stories as well.

*Erica’s reintegration assistance was supported by the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migration Protection and Reintegration, funded by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.

This story was written by Rosamond Erica Johnson, Migrants as Messengers (MaM) Volunteer in The Gambia

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