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A Survivor's Story: From East Africa To Lampedusa To Sweden

Pictures of Jimi's odyssey
Pictures of Jimi's odyssey
Niccolò Zancan

GÄVLE — Under the dark of a freezing arctic night, Jimi arrived at his destination. They welcomed him with a plate of Swedish meatballs, before showing him to a soft, white bed in a room that sleeps eight.

“Welcome to Sweden,” says a man of African origins, shaking his hand.

Jimi, 25, who is from the small nation of Eritria in the Horn of Africa, remembers thanking him and then collapsing onto the mattress. He was so tired that he couldn’t even turn off the light.

Jimi is one of the 155 survivors of the boat filled with hundreds of would-be immigrants that sank on Oct. 3, 2013, off the coast of the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

The Gävle Immigrant Center, 170 kilometers north of Stockholm, is a red brick building accessible only by a magnetic security card. The corridors are impeccably clean. On the first floor there’s a common room with a TV, and those staying here are free to come and go as they please. Each person receives the equivalent of 77 euros each month, and they benefit from Sweden's free universal health service as they await Immigration Services’ validation of their political asylum request.

Jimi’s journey to get here has taken 557 days. He walked away from his desert village with nothing but a pair of sandals on his feet on the night of June 11, 2012. “There were two of us,” he told me. “We followed a trail in the dark. The guide told us: ‘Don’t speak and do not turn on your cell phone.’ ” So, they didn’t. “Even the smallest of lights could have caught the army’s attention. We were risking prison.”

Soon after, they arrived in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. And for the next year, Jimi worked sweeping the streets to save money to continue his journey northward.

He paid a total of $5,000 to five different human traffickers, and his journey took him 9,254 kilometers, which Google Maps deems navigable in just four days and 14 hours.

Floating, praying

The route shows some of the potential obstacles someone might encounter. In Jimi’s case, there were two in particular. “The violence and racism I faced in Libya, and then what happened in Lampedusa,” he says. “Between the good and the bad, it’s something that I’ll never be able to forget.”

On the night of Oct. 3, Jimi, a Christian, was looking at the stars and praying silently. “I was out on the deck,” he says. “I wasn’t seasick, but my legs were sore. We were squashed in so tightly together that I wasn’t able to move them much. When the captain saw the lights of the island, he switched off the motor. Two boats passed us, but neither of them stopped. It was really bad. Water was coming on board and the motor wouldn’t turn on again. So the smuggler set a blanket on fire to attract attention. Then, panic erupted on board.”

Jimi had been in the sea just once before in his life. It was the summer of 2011, on Massawa beach on the Eritrean coast, and his friend Ahmed told him that to float, he needed to turn onto his back and pretend to be dead.

“I fell into the sea, fully clothed. My friends were screaming around me, but I couldn’t do anything. I pulled up my feet and I was able to kick off my shoes. I got dragged under, and I swallowed some water. Then I remembered what Ahmed said. For four hours I prayed to God for my sins with my eyes fixed on the sky.”

That night 366 people died.

Jimi then spent two months in Lampedusa. “The Reception Center was awful,” he recalls. “They only ever give you macaroni. But the people on the island were very nice and generous. I’ll always thank them for what they did for us.”

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Migrants arriving on the island of Lampedusa — Photo: Noborder Network

Another memorable day was on the afternoon of Nov. 15. He was with four other survivors, and they decided to swim again for the first time since the sinking. “They threw me into the water with a life jacket on. I was just 10 meters from the shore, but I still couldn’t manage to float.”

For more than two years now, immigrants who have arrived in Italy haven’t wanted to stop on the island. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the voices all say: head north. If you request political asylum in the first country you arrive in, they will digitally record your details. Because of this, Jimi stubbornly refused to give any details about his identity in Italy. After the Tunisian smuggler was identified and Jimi gave his evidence, he escaped from the Pozzallo center in Sicily with eight other survivors. “The truth is,” he says, “when the police heard who we were, they let us go.”

Man U and snowstorms

From the Sicilian city of Catania they took a boat to Rome. From Rome, a train to Milan. They were ready to stow away in the trunk of a car to go further when Jimi’s aunt called him from Saudi Arabia where she works as a cleaning lady. She loaned him 800 euros and, and he was able to get a fake passport and airline ticket to Stockholm with a stop in Brussels. “I’d never been on a plane in my life. When I saw the clouds out of the window, I started to laugh,” he says.

So, now he’s here, dazed and content, and truly where he dreamed of being. He gave his details to Swedish authorities and wants to start his new life here. He dreams of becoming a nurse.

On the morning of the first day I came to visit him here in Gävle, Jimi had a medical exam, and afterwards we went to a pharmacy to get a cream for his back. It was notable how all the people in this Swedish town were friendly, and made a point of talking to him.

But at 3 p.m., Jimi had something else on his mind: a soccer match on television featuring Manchester United, his favorite team. We went to O’Leary’s pub, which had several enormous televisions on the walls. Jimi ordered a cheeseburger.

A waitress named Margareta Lax came over with a beer in her hand. “How are you?” she asked in English, “what have you come here looking for?”

“My future," he replied. And he told her about all his plans to study, learn the Swedish language, become a nurse. “With that job I can then send money home to my family.” Jimi was drinking a beer too, and his eyes were shining as he watched the game. “In Eritrea, I played on the left. My favorite player is Robin van Persie.”

Every now and then he looks for news on Facebook. Another four survivors from Lampedusa arrived in Sweden recently, and he hopes to meet up with them soon. “The thing that scares me the most is loneliness,” he says. “Maybe one day I’ll regret the choices I’ve made. But first, I have to complete my mission.”

The referee blows the final whistle: Man U has beaten West Ham 3-1. Jimi hops up from his seat, and shakes Margareta’s hand. “Wrap up warm,” she tells him. “The forecast is predicting 50 centimeters of snow!”

Jimi has never seen snow before. Just like he’d never swam before, or been on an airplane. He wears socks but no hat, and the same jacket indoors and out. When we walk outside, it’s getting dark and he sniffs the air, and says: “Who knows what it’ll be like…”

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