“My journey from Cameroon started when I was 19 years old and I got a visa for China; now fifteen years later I’m in France, hoping to receive the papers that will allow me to work. I’m a sportsman and I’m doing well. This year I came second in the regional championship.”
“I was a black belt judoka of second grade back home and having watched lots of Chinese movies, I thought it would a great place to continue my sporting career. I was lucky to get a visa but although I continued to compete in China, I had to have other jobs to sustain myself. I learned to DJ and through working in clubs got friends from all over the world. One helped me getting a job as a sports teacher at an international school. That was me sorted! For the next many years my life was smooth.
Just before coming back to Cameroon to renew my passport and see my family, things began to go wrong. I had a car accident, and then I had a run in with the police. I got out of it but ever since nothing has worked out for me.
My plan was to get my new passport during a two-week holiday but I was told they had introduced biometric passports and I’d have to wait at least six months for a new one. What should I do? I had my jobs and a girlfriend waiting for me, so I did everything I could to speed up my return. This meant getting a fake passport from one of the countries where they can easily be obtained. It was costly and apart from spending all my savings, I got extra money from my girlfriend and my brother.”
“At first, I still wanted to return to China, so I tried to apply for a visa in every country I went through but every time they told me to go to Mali because I was traveling on a Malian passport at the time. I tried to arrange for a visa at the Chinese embassy in Bamako but when it fell through because my bank card got blocked; I got fed up and went to Algeria. This was where my journey to Europe began.
Seven months later I succeeded in getting a visa for Malaysia but, much to my own surprise, I stopped in my tracks, reflected on my situation and decided not to go. By then my girlfriend of eight years had broken off our relationship. Instead of going back to Asia, I went to Mauritania to obtain reliable information about the routes to the Canary Islands. In Noadhibou, I trained judo with the Spanish military officers who were on coastal patrol. One of them drew me into teaching judo to migrant kids. It was a great four months but, as I couldn’t make money through this work, I continued to Morocco.
Same thing in Morocco. All the work I did – in a bakery, in a restaurant, as removal man – I could only just make enough to pay for a small room and my food. It couldn’t get me anywhere. I had exhausted my savings and the money relatives and friends sent were few and far between. I gave up on getting a visa but still wanted to get to Europe, even though I thought crossing the Mediterranean was too dangerous. I knew I could trust my physical strength to get me there via the over-land route and thus after about a year in Morocco I decided to cross over the border fence into the Spanish enclave, Melilla.
This was easier said than done. The living conditions in the forest around Melilla were extremely rough. To get food was a problem, to sleep was a problem and to get health care if you fell ill was a problem. The area was raided frequently by the Moroccan military to discourage us from climbing the fence. To get across, we went in big groups of 100-200 persons, maybe the first 50 or 40 would succeed in crossing all three fences and the rest were beaten back. All the border patrols – Moroccan and Spanish alike - were vicious. One of the Cameroonians was beaten so severely in the head that he died of the injuries a week later.”
“I was so shocked that I went back to Rabat to take stock. While I was there, a whole group of my friends entered Melilla in a massive attack. If anything, I was physically stronger than they were, so I picked up the courage again. I tried several times. The day I had my luck, I was at the front and had no time to wait for anyone. Once I crossed the third fence I just ran. I ran as fast as I could to get away from the fence area where you risk being moved back to the Moroccan side even if you are standing on Spanish soil. I went straight to the police to register my arrival.
I’ve been waiting ever since. I’ve been waiting for 2 ½ years by now. I’m not sitting with my hands in my lap waiting. In Melilla I washed cars while waiting so I had money to buy internet access and a bit of clothes to look decent. In mainland Spain I was busy learning the language but as the job prospects were minimal I continued to France.
I’m still waiting. If I didn’t have my sport, I don’t think I could have coped with all this waiting. Some days I train a lot, but I don’t always have the means to eat properly to restore my body. When I first began to compete in France, I was surprised I didn’t get prize money when I did well, like we did in Cameroon. I’ve only managed to get work for a few weeks and with no income and no prize money I’ve had to rely on the kindness of others and I’ve had to move on because I couldn’t contribute to paying the bills. That is really, really difficult when you normally are a hard-working person. The day I get my papers and I can work, my life begins again!”
*Dew’s details are confidential, he has given his consent to publish his story.
Dorte Thorsen is the Theme Leader for Gender and Qualitative Research at the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium. Her research interests include child and youth migration and, since 2012, the lives of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in Morocco.