A boy sets foot on board without shoes. The only luggage he carries with him is the hope for a better future and the memories of his family he left behind over 6 months ago. He was enslaved in Libya. He managed to flee over the sea. His passport was left behind.
Samir* is 17 and he has already experienced hardship like few people his age have. The last months have robed him of the boyish naivety.
He grew up in a village in the region of Sylhet, deep in the rolling hills of North-Eastern Bangladesh. The region is famous for its lush tropical forest in the valleys and it’s innumerable tea plantations hugging every hill.
If it were up to him, he would have liked to continue his education, to take care of his parents and to play with his little brother, who just turned 6. But that is no longer possible. He has embarked on a very difficult journey.
His story begins one morning in spring, four years ago. Samir’s father informs the family that he has been diagnosed with a weak heart and that he can no longer work. For as long as Samir could remember, his father had been driving customers around on his brightly painted rickshaw. Driving these three-wheeled bicycles with a customer is very hard labour, particularly during the rainy season when the unpaved dirt tracks of the Bangladeshi countryside turn into deep trails of mud.
Farming and small-scale aquaculture is the only source of calories for millions of rural Bangladeshis. Yet, Samir’s family owns no land or fishpond. Now that father can no longer work, it is the boy’s duty to care fore his family. He is twelve.
At school, history was his favourite subject. “I always liked history, it opened up a larger world to me”, he explains. But since he has to support his family, he drops out of school after the seventh grade. As the boy is not strong enough to pull his fathers rickshaw, the headmaster offers him the occasional jobs at the school, where he helps with all the little things that needs fixing.
His former teacher Panna, who Samir recalls fondly, continues to teach him English after-hours. “I wanted to learn English, to be able to communicate with the world”, he remembers. Samir is not particularly strong, but he is a bright and curious child. He learns the language quickly. He is good-natured and innocent. This juvenile naivety will cost him dearly.
Two years later – Samir is now 16 – he is standing in a popular tea-stall near his house. It’s crowded and a stranger, who has just moved into the neighbourhood, starts a conversation with him. During their chat the newcomer explains that he has just returned from Libya. The boy is told of these incredible salaries paid in Libya: “Five-times higher than in the Bangladeshi capital!” His head is filling up with dreams of a better future for himself and his family.
When asked if he can remember or describe the moment he decided to leave, he shyly looks away. He does not want to remember this ill-fated decision. The family borrows the money for the trip. Around €4000. Two-and-half times the annual salary of an average Bangladeshi household.
It begins as an exciting adventure. It’s his first trip to the capital Dhaka; his first time at the nearly renovated Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport; his first flight. “I was a little bit scared when the plane started to climb. Once it stopped though, I really liked it.” he explains with a big smile on his face.
Asked about his first impressions of Libya he recalls the arrival hall of Tripoli International Airport. A soldier wearing sunglasses, lazily leaning against the wall, smoking, next to a no-smoking sign. He is being taken to a dormitory somewhere in the capital. Others Bangladeshis from the same flight are with him. Their mood is cheerful; they are excited about having arrived and eager to begin their new job.
Samir begins to work in one of the capital’s many bakeries, situated in a poorer peripheral district of Tripoli. His new boss takes his passport for “safekeeping” he is being told. He works 13-hour shifts and receives two meals a day. At the end of the first month, he is told that he will be paid the following month. After another four weeks, he asks again for his salary. He is told not to worry. When he starts insisting that he wants his money now. He is being taken into the courtyard. A gun is being put to his head, and the boss and one of his relatives start yelling at him. Samir only speaks Bangla and English, they shout at him in Arabic.
That’s when he decides that he needs to flee.
He is terrified to go to the embassy. He has heard rumours that if he is caught without a passport on the streets of the capital he will be put into prison. The stories about Libyan detention centres circulating amongst migrants are terrifying. But where can he go? He has no money, no passport. Together with some fellow Bangladeshis, he chooses to escape over the sea.
Asked about how he paid the smugglers for his passage. He looks down; he does not want to talk about this.
It is 10.30am. Six months after he left the green hills of Sylhet, he climbs barefoot aboard the rescue vessel Aquarius. Together with 85 other people, Samir was just rescued from a rubber boat 25 miles off the cost of Libya. The wind is picking up. By noon the waves have reached 3 meters. They would not have survived another 90 minutes out on the water. But Samir is going to live.
* For security reasons the name has been changed.