A ticket to run away from home

The cheapest round-trip airline ticket from Nairobi to London is $565 (€412). What in the world would force people like myself to spend thousands of dollars, and risk our lives to come to Europe?

Farah Abdi recounts his story of leaving home in Nairobi, to reach a place where his human rights could be respected.
Farah Abdi recounts his story of leaving home in Nairobi, to reach a place where his human rights could be respected.

Part 1 of Farah Abdi’s journey from Nairobi to Malta

Human trafficking is an empire that spans across continents.

Every day, millions cross borders irregularly. Billions in cash exchange hands. The smuggled see it as a passport to a better life. The smugglers see it as their livelihood. And governments whose nations are affected by the flow of irregular migration see it as a thorn in their side. Join me, as I take you through my experience.

Human trafficking is amongst the largest illicit businesses: Forbes ranked it the fourth greatest in 2010, estimated to be worth over $28 billion, and predicting it to be one of the fastest-growing criminal activities. By 2013, it came in second only behind narcotics.

Trafficking comes in different forms. It changes quickly, from a means out of poverty and persecution for victims, to something deadly. It was the only time in my life where I found myself at the mercy of smugglers, even after paying the amount they had asked for.

This is what makes it different from mainstream forms of travelling, like air travel: when you pay for your flight ticket you expect value for money. When you are smuggled, you expect nothing. You count your blessings as you live to see another day, because some are not as lucky.

The cheapest round-trip airline ticket from Nairobi to London is $565 (€412). What in the world would force people like myself to spend thousands of dollars, and risk our lives to come to Europe? This question was answered recently by the EU commissioner of home affairs, Cecilia Malmström, when I met her at a conference in Brussels. She acknowledged that it was close to impossible for third-country nationals to travel to the EU legally, because of tough visa rules. It is this that gives the impression of rejection, forcing third-country nationals who are fleeing from their countries for different reasons, to seek out the services of smugglers.

I left the comfort of my home because of my sexual orientation. I grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. My mother made sure my brother and I were provided for. While it’s true some people flee for economic reasons, I took the decision to depart from my family to exercise my freedom as a human being. No mother in her right mind would allow her son to embark on such a dangerous journey – I remember my mother persuading me to stay, by vowing to buy me a car and anything else I wanted. She eventually let me go when I stood my ground, and convinced her that buying me material things would not buy me happiness.

I will never forget the Sunday 26 February 2012. I left my mother, brother, our house and all that was familiar to me. As the sun set over the horizon in the Kenyan capital, tears of despondency cascaded down my face. I was afraid of the unknown, but I was adamant not to remain caged. Little did I know my decision would be tested time and time again.

Calamity first struck at the South-North Sudanese border. I was travelling in a group of eight when we were arrested by South-Sudanese militia. They accused us of travelling undocumented, and took us to a secluded detention facility. My gut feeling was that something would go wrong. My mother’s last words to me were to ‘always follow your guy’ – I kept doubting it in the hope taht they would follow the law, because they were dressed in uniform.

The horror started to unfold when they ordered the two girls in our group to strip naked. They kept shouting at us: “Muslim traitors! Muslim traitors!”, as they whipped each and every one of us.

They thought we were spies for the North-Sudanese government, just because the women travelling with us were covered. For the first time in my life, I watched as my dignity was washed away. They locked us up in a small dark room, where we would stay for the next four days. Like animals, we helped ourselves in the room when nature called. I thought karma had finally caught up with me, because I had left the love of my family and the comforts of our home.

When the guards realised that we were not spies, they asked us for money and then let us go.

They then divided into two groups of four each, in order not to attract attention. They informed us that they would help us to get to the border after payment. The only hope we had was that the men keep their word. An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded my senses.

I only remembered that one of the girls was taken away from the rest of us the night before, when we crossed the border. A ghastly whiteness spread over her face, when I asked her why they had taken her away. I now knew that this journey was not a laughing matter – it was really dangerous. What I never imagined was that the waters would get murkier as the journey progressed.

Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, was less dangerous for Somali nationals, because the relationship between the two countries is cordial. My case was different though because of my sexuality. My intuition was on high alert, knowing fully that I would risk persecution if my true identity came to light. My body shape was not helping matters. I was forced to wear baggy clothes to hide my curves and blend in. In a state where sexual violence is the order of the day, due to tough, customary premarital conditions like high bride prices, sexually active young men are known to go on the rampage and rape women.

I knew I had to move on, but the torture of my indecision and fear threatened to crush me. Images of the Sahara desert I had seen on television kept flashing in my brain. I was at a point of no return, so I gathered up all my courage, and embarked on the other leg of my journey.

Terror held me in a vice-like grip, as the smugglers hurried us along a silent alley on the night of our departure from Khartoum. I remember sinking into a state of numbness to cope with everything. I came back to reality at dawn, when the leader of the smugglers came to inform us that the vehicle was ready. The man had a black trench coat on; his piercing, cold, dark eyes were spine-chilling .He explained to us that the journey across the desert would be gruelling. His words, a cold breath coming from deep inside a grave, cut through my soul. He made it no secret that he was trigger-happy… firing a few shots in the air as we responded in a timorous voice.

I soon realised the value of space as we were packed into a pick-up truck, just like boxes. We were 33 in total. My first glimpse of the mighty Sahara desert was at midday, when the driver stopped and ordered us to alight from the truck, because it got stuck in the sand. He wanted us to pull it out.

I had studied it in geography at school, but now it lay before me. It looked desolate and barren. This was no tour. But I was escaping from the cage back home.

Farah Abdi returns on Tuesday