For every child, every right: Ibrahim Kondeh, advocate for migrant youth in Italy
From Sierra Leone to Italy: a personal diary shows what it means to be a young migrant
This story is part of a special series produced by the UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Office on young advocates using their voices to protect and promote the rights of other young people to mark 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“I didn’t become strong because I wanted to: I became strong because I had to”
“The first time I set my foot on the soil of Italy, I think that was the first time I laughed or smiled since I left my country,” says Ibrahim Kondeh. He was 17 when he arrived in Italy, after a year-long journey that took him through Guinea Conakry, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria and Libya. On the way he endured slavery – as well as hunger, thirst and cold – before risking his life to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Today, he uses the words he once wrote for company to advocate for the rights of other migrant and refugee children and adolescents.
A year of fear
It was never meant to be like this. Ibrahim’s parents in Eastern Sierra Leone were subsistence farmers who knew the value of education. “They never had the opportunity to be educated,” he says, “so when I was six, they sent me to Freetown to go to school. They knew that education was the only key for a better future.”
“When I was a boy, I had nothing to think about – it was just about going to school. Everything was going well, I was in school, and I really thought I had a great future.”
But everything fell apart when Ibrahim’s father died. When he visited his mother, it was clear that he was no longer safe in his own community, and she could no longer pay his school fees. With no prospects in Sierra Leone, he went to neighbouring Guinea Conakry – a journey of just a couple of hours – to earn money for his mother. He had no idea of the turmoil that lay ahead.
But Ibrahim became part of a stream of people from West Africa heading north-east to escape violence and find better opportunities. His meagre savings were whittled away by demands for money at every border and checkpoint across Mali, Burkina Faso and on into Niger. By the time he reached Algeria, his money was gone and he worked on construction sites for months.
Then there was the horror of the journey to Libya: “through the hot desert, the condition was very, very rough, without water. Still stuck in my mind is the memory of a young boy with whom we were travelling. He was kind, he was a nice guy. He had a dream like everyone else: he wanted to be a lawyer. His dreams, his ambitions, died with him in the desert.”
In Libya, Ibrahim was held captive by traffickers, who told him to call home and ask for money. “So if you didn’t get the money, you were stuck there as long as they want.”
With his mother in poor health and living in poverty, Ibrahim refused to make that call. And that was the start of his slavery: working on farms and construction sites in return for one piece of bread each day, while his captors pocketed all of his earnings.
"I thought about it. Is it really worth it, going through this? After all, I’ve seen girls forced into prostitution in that place. It’s like running away from the frying pan and falling into the fire.”
The Mediterranean crossing to Italy was his only hope, even though he knew that people were dying on the Sea. One day he was crammed into a tiny boat with dozens of others and sent on his way across rough December seas.
“Everyone was just praying. Some were Christians, some were Muslims, when Christians called we all answered together, when Muslims called we all answered together, because we know it was only God’s grace that could see us through that great mysterious sea.”
The worst moment came when a rescue boat approached them: people stood up, the boat tilted and started to sink. Some jumped into the water and were lost. But somehow Ibrahim made it.
How a diary became a companion and a messenger
Ibrahim arrived in Calabria, Italy, in 2017. He spent the next 11 months in a reception centre – almost as much time as he had spent on the road.
“There were certain things that I expected to face, which I was prepared to face,” he says. “Being in a different society, the climate is different, the culture, how to learn a new language: these are all difficult things but I was prepared to face them because they’re normal, you just have to deal with it.”
“But on the other hand: the way people look at you when they see you. When we went out we heard different words from people about how much their tax money is being used on us. I found myself becoming isolated, with a fear of going out.”
This isolation was his greatest challenge: “I had no-one, someone that I could just tell my stories and all the bad memories that I had. So I used pen and paper. That was actually my companion.”
This was to become his turning point. It occurred to him that “there is no communication between us the migrants and refugees, and the locals in the communities we live in. They don’t know who we are actually, we’re from different places, they don’t know our story. So, if I could write and share with people, then people could know our story, it could at least break that barrier.”
Ibrahim started to write a diary about his journey and write poetry. He became a UNICEF Youth U-Reporter for U-Report on the Move, which gives migrant and refugee children and adolescents a platform to connect with each other and share their views, then a Youth U-Ambassador. He also participated to the blogging internship programme (U-Blog on the Move).
His diary caught the attention of UNICEF, and was exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. “That was a good experience: people reading it. After that day it really helped me to keep going. And with that, I’ve had the opportunity to be in different seminars, workshops – I’ve done a lot of interviews as well.”
“No child should ever go through the consequences of leaving their home country. When this crisis comes about, the children suffer the most. They should try to make sure that no child is left stateless. They should try to make education a priority for every child, irrespective of the geographical location that child is from. Children must be listened to as well, because they suffer the most.
“People don’t move only because of wars in their country. It’s normally not something that we really wanted to do, but in most cases it’s the only option we had - so it would be nice if people knew about this. No one is happy when leaving home.”
New beginnings – and hopes
Thanks to the cooperation between UNICEF and the NGO Refugees Welcome, Ibrahim moved to Ostia, a seaside town one hour from Rome, with a foster family: Helena and her husband and their son Andrea, aged 17. “Now Ibrahim knows everyone in the neighbourhood,” says Andrea. “He’s part of the community. And life is better with Ibrahim in our lives. He’s part of the family”
Ibrahim is no longer isolated. “Now I have people I can talk to, simple things like wake up in the morning and say ‘good morning’ – it’s just simple things like that it means a lot. People that I could eat with, just going out and having the thought of having a place to come back to, where it feels, like home.”
This year Ibrahim is back in school and racing to catch up with his studies, having lost years of his education. His hope is to go to university and “help people out, just how I’ve been helped. I think that could be a better way to pay back.”
This year, he started to study at the United World College in Trieste, a new beginning and a new step towards his aspirations. He still uses his poetry to express his feelings and to raise awareness on the rights of young migrants and refugees. He writes:
“In this modern day we became slaves
Some wish for nothing but the grave
Just like in the days when people lived in caves.
In a war zone we became stuck
We made up our minds and say no turning back.
(…) A true Hero is what you are
We may not be recognized but that's what we are”.
One third of the refugees and migrants who have arrived in Europe are children. UNICEF responds to the needs of all uprooted children at every stage of their journey, urging governments to protect their rights.
The vast majority of young migrants taking the perilous Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy are boys aged 16 to 17, and most of them travel alone from countries in West Africa and the Horn of Africa. For many, like Ibrahim Kondeh, Europe is not their intended destination when they set out on their journey. Most head for neighbouring countries at first, but the abuse they experience along the way compels them to push on towards Europe.
All children and adolescents on the move are vulnerable to grave forms of violence during and after their journeys. UNICEF is on the ground defending their rights, trying to protect unaccompanied minors from exploitation and violence, providing access to psychosocial support and pressing for lawmakers worldwide to combat the root causes of violence and poverty that push children and adolescents to flee. In Italy, we focus on providing unaccompanied children with protection, improving social inclusion, participation and skills building. This is done through targeted interventions to improve access to services, support and care for migrants and refugee adolescents and to strengthen the guardianship system and foster care.
The CRC @ 30 in Italy
2019 is the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC): the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. The CRC has helped to transform children’s lives worldwide, inspiring Governments to change laws and policies and invest in children’s health, education and protection. Importantly, it has enabled more children like Ibrahim to have a voice, participate in their societies and hold their Governments to account.
To mark this anniversary, UNICEF confirms its support to local and national institutions in Italy to ensure that all children and adolescents – including vulnerable groups such as young migrants and refugees – are protected, their voices heard and their rights respected. UNICEF will also step up efforts to promote alternative care and skills development to support migrant and refugee adolescents in their transition to adulthood.