In Malta, as a citizen of the world

In Libya, human rights violations were the order of the day.

PART 1 of Farah Abdi’s journey to Malta

The desert was home to me and the other travellers for the next twelve days.

We would travel non-stop all day, and stop at night. It would get extremely cold at night, and necessity being the mother of invention, I remember us burying ourselves in the sand to generate some heat.

The smugglers would give us some pasta, and a concoction of water and petrol. We cooked the pasta, burning plastic cans for firewood. The water was deliberately mixed with petrol by the smugglers… to stop us from drinking it. They wanted us to use the little they gave us for cooking, not drinking.

The dreamer I am, one of my highlights would be to gather around every night to talk about our hopes and aspirations. Talking about my dreams was the fuel to my vehicle, driving me to aspire for greatness even when the going got tough.

By now I was yearning for my mother’s voice. I sought comfort in the words of one of my all time favourite authors, Erich Fromm: “The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.”

I knew that she was praying for me, because I was lucky to have met a great group of people who held my hand whenever danger reared its ugly head. The Somalis I was travelling with were over-protective of me, because I was the youngest in the group. They also wanted to shield me from aggression, because by now they knew I was not familiar with the death and destruction in our country, having grown up in Kenya.

My beacon of hope came when we arrived in Sabha, our first Libyan town. Little did I know that the gates of hell were now wide open, unleashing its wrath at me for the next seven months.

We parted ways with the smugglers from the desert, who handed us over to Libyan smugglers, who now would help us to get to the Libyan capital of Tripoli. They were more ruthless than their counterparts. This became evident when they showed us a torture chamber where people who refused to pay them would be served their punishment. Fear ran its icy hand down my spine. I now knew for a fact that we would stop dicing with death only the day we make it out of Libya alive.

To this day, the events that I witnessed one fateful night in the Libyan town of Umm Al Aranib, still cause me nightmares. We were hiding in an abandoned school as instructed by the smugglers, when we heard gun shots. I immediately knew that something was terribly wrong.

Two Libyan men found the room we were hiding in, and ordered us to stand up. They instructed us to sort ourselves according to gender, separating the men from the women. They identified themselves as “the authorities”, but by now I was familiar with the situation in Libya, and they did not fool me.

After the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, different militia groups had taken control of different areas in Libya. These militias were mostly tribal, doing as they pleased with immunity. They walked away with two of the women after asking us a couple of questions. By now I had lost my train of thought, feeling physically and emotionally drained. My sanity was on the brink of collapse, unable to keep up with the trials and tribulations of the journey. One of the women, heavily pregnant, came back to us crying: ‘They've tainted us! They’ve tainted us!’

I was amazed at the wonders of the human spirit, at the power to have faith in a better tomorrow even in times of darkness. We were still eager to continue with our journey out of Libya after we arrived in Tripoli.

It was clear that human rights violations were the order of the day there. People were forced to work from dawn to dusk without any payment. Rape was used to torture and scare both men and women. When caught, people would be held in deplorable detention facilities without ever being charged before a court of law.

My attempts to cross over from Libya were unsuccessful a couple of times. I would land myself in incarceration each time. Once in custody, there were only two options to get out: (1) paying the militia who had caught you: (2) or escaping. And if you choose the latter, batten down the hatches, because the militias will torture you once caught. One time I watched in horror, as they tied the feet of some men who tried to escape, and the militias caned them until they bled.

I was not aware of my source of perseverance, but I was fed up of living a lie and I wanted to free myself. I knew of Malta only through a Miss World pageant – a beautiful, slender brunette would usually walkout, making me wonder where Malta was. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think of going there. Fate not only knew where I would go, but that it would be the place that would connect me to my awe.

I arrived on the shores of Malta in November of 2012. I was physically and emotionally a broken person. I remember being afraid of my own shadow. One thing however clearly stood out. My purpose in life was never lost amid all this.

I was placed in detention as procedure dictated, but a wonderful lady who worked for a government agency managed to get me out within 24hrs of meeting me. At the time I was a minor. She also picked up on my insecurities, as I would later find out.

I was taken to an open centre for minors, and the lady who got me out put me in touch with a psychologist. She considered therapy to be a necessity that would help clean up my Pandora’s box. I can safely say today that it was the best gift somebody has ever given me.

Once I was ready to open up, it was all systems go for my asylum to begin. I was granted refugee protection in May of 2013. By now I was on the road to finally find out who I truly was – I was able to look at myself in the mirror, and not look down.

As young boys, my mother would always tell my brother and I – “My boys, go places!” I wanted to do just that, so I embarked on a mission to make my dreams come true. I wanted to be an example of hope to people from all walks of life.

In August last year, I did a short video on migration with the help of my colleagues at Kopin. The video was shown in Geneva and New York .I also wrote a book based on my life, and I hope to have it out by the end of the year. I was able to meet MEPs and the EU Commissioner of Home Affairs during a recent trip to Brussels where I delivered a speech about children on the move at the European Parliament.

Education for me is not only the key to success, but success in itself. I want to pursue a degree in international relations. This will become a reality sooner rather than later, because thanks to my mother, I managed to complete my primary and secondary in Kenya. Kenya and Malta, both former British colonies, have a similar education system. This makes it easier for me to catch up.

I am going after my passion for fashion. This year I will be involved in Malta Fashion Week. I know it won’t be long before London, Paris, Milan and New York, the fashion capitals, come calling…

The moral of my life is ‘work hard, dream big, connect with yourself, have respect as a virtue and you will go places’. I am a citizen of the world, from my native Somalia, to Kenya where I grew up, to Malta that helped me to find myself. Indeed, as my mother likes to say, “Variety is the spice of life.”