‘My target was to get to a place of peace’

After escaping from Al-Shabaab in Somalia and enduring two years in Libya, Somali refugee Mahat was rescued by the Lifeline search and rescue boat in June 2018

Mahat: “In Libya there is no safe place... even if you go outside they will catch you and put you in another prison”
Mahat: “In Libya there is no safe place... even if you go outside they will catch you and put you in another prison”

By Anna Camilleri

“Before the problems at home in Somalia started, I never thought about coming to Europe. But then there were a lot of problems. Every morning there was someone, like my relatives and my friends, getting killed. Then I feared for myself and I ran away.”

Mahat set foot in Malta in 2018 with nothing but the clothes on his back, and arriving in a safe country marked the end of a long and treacherous journey that he had to take in order to survive.

Having grown up in Mogadishu and working in a stable job by his early 20s, Mahat’s life was hit by tragedy in 2015, when his father was killed by the armed militant group Al-Shabaab. The murder shocked and traumatised Mahat’s family, and when he himself was targeted by Al-Shabaab, he realised he had to flee his home.

“And then [Al-Shabab] told me, ‘Either you work with us or we will kill you.’ So I escaped, instead of them killing me.”

Mahat later learnt that after he had fled Somalia, his family home was burnt to the ground. He then travelled to Libya.

Uncertainty and violence in Libya

In recent years asylum-seekers in Libya have been increasingly subjected to unlawful detention in harsh, inhumane conditions. People continue to fall victim to widespread human rights abuses, including violent and degrading treatment at the hands of smuggling networks.

After fleeing Somalia, Mahat was detained in northwest Libya for almost two years.

“In the detention there are a lot of people. It is hot. There is not even a window with air coming in. There is only one toilet, so sometimes you could not get in and there would be a line of almost 800 people. And they gave us food only once a day. People start to catch diseases, like scabies… and only people with money were brought medicine.”

Detainees in Libya are often tortured by smugglers, forced to phone family members to send money. While Mahat was stuck in detention, he did not have the means to pay. “I told them I did not have money, and they gave me a telephone to call my family. Because I could not get money they beat me with a piece of metal... Sometimes they used electricity, too.”

While struggling throughout his time in Libya, Mahat knew that returning to Somalia was not an option. Despite the cruel reality of the situation, Mahat and other detainees remained there in the hope of someday being able to reach safety.

Back in Somalia, Mahat used to work as a midwife. It was a career he pursued with dedication, one which provided him with skills that would prove to be beneficial, even in Libya. While pregnant women are some of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers in detention, they are nonetheless neglected and not given any medical attention. For this reason, and for lack of assistance from anyone else, Mahat actually had to step in and provide vital, sometimes life-saving support to expectant mothers in the detention centre. He had to make sure that when the time came, they gave birth safely.

Incredibly, as his time in Libya went on, he actually became the unofficial, on-call midwife in the detention centre. “I delivered 15 babies while I was in Libya,” he says, and goes on to tell one story of when he delivered a baby boy in detention. It was February 2018.

“The mother was already around six months pregnant when she was brought to detention. Around two months later, she started to feel pain. When she went into labour, people were telling her ‘Mahat will help you.’ And some women brought her to me.”

With the assistance of two other people, one of them a qualified doctor from Eritrea, Mahat tried to make the delivery as easy as possible. The detention centre would only bring them some basic medical items and makeshift curtains, but only because Mahat asked.

“One day before she gave birth, I informed the detention people... I told them that if they wanted to assist her, they can get me some things, and then they gave me a small paper and I wrote down what I needed. We were then given a separate area. Not a room, just a small area covered with blankets around for privacy.”

On this occasion, amid the difficult circumstances and tucked away in one corner of the crowded detention centre, a Somali boy named Abubakar was born, and Mahat was relieved to have succeeded in very risky conditions.

Over a year later, Mahat still keeps in touch with the mother. She and Abubakar were also rescued by the Lifeline and have since been relocated from Malta to start a new life in Portugal. It is thanks to Mahat that Abubakar and 14 other babies were brought into the world safely, notwithstanding the horrible conditions surrounding them.

Rescue at sea

As time went by, Mahat worried that he would never be freed from detention, but on the night of 20 June, Mahat was placed on board a flimsy boat with around 130 other people. He knew what a great risk leaving itself would be and was fully aware that many people who make the crossing do not make it alive.  “All the smugglers promise is that they will give you a boat, put you on the sea, and then it is either you die in the sea or you’re safe. They do not care.”

After a night at sea in complete darkness, a boat was spotted in the distance.

Worried they would be turned back to Libyan shores, where they would face further violence, there was some panic among the people on the boat. “Some people were not sure what to do. Others wanted to jump in the sea. They were afraid, because if the boat was from Libya, they would be killed.”

When they discovered that it was in fact a rescue boat, they were overcome with relief and joy. They were then taken on board the Lifeline. Mahat remembers the kindness of the crew, who warmly greeted all people on board and immediately provided them with medical attention, water and food. “I feel very grateful that they saved me.”

With the deterioration of the weather and in the midst of a dispute between Member States on assigning a port for disembarkation, the Lifeline was allowed to dock in Malta on 28th June, on the condition that some of the people on board would be relocated to other EU Member States. “When I arrived on the Lifeline ship, I heard about Malta. That was the first time.”

Since arriving in Malta and being granted Subsidiary Protection, Mahat has been working to rebuild his life. He is burdened by memories of a difficult past, but he is trying to get back on track.

He now has a job as a Somali cultural mediator for an organisation that provides services to refugees and asylum-seekers in Malta. He enjoys this job, which allows him to support other refugees, but his dream is ultimately to further his studies. “I want to become someone known by people, a respected person... like a doctor.”

This will not be straightforward for Mahat. Even as a qualified and experienced professional, he will have to start almost from the beginning, a stark reality facing most refugees who have had to leave everything behind.

At the same time, Mahat maintains his ambition. He has started studying science at Mcast, a higher education institute in Malta, and lives in a shared house with other refugees, where he feels comfortable yet independent. He spends his free time exploring Valletta and other parts of the island.

Over a year after he was rescued at sea, Mahat has come a long way. Step by step, but not without further obstacles, he is still looking ahead... looking towards his future with optimism, hope and determination.

UNHCR’s Building Communities magazine is distributed free with MaltaToday on Sunday 5 January 2020

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