By Dana Hall
*Parts of this interview have been edited and names have been changed. Special thanks to Devin Wilcox-McCombs for providing information on some of the elements of Kaddyjatou’s story.
To call the past few years challenging would be an understatement for Kaddyjatou Fatty. Born and raised in the Gambia, the former hairdresser fled her home country after she and her husband became subjected to public scrutiny and violence.
Born and raised in the Gambia, Kaddyjatou met her future husband, Lamin, while living in her hometown. The two quickly fell in love and decided to get married, excited to embark on the rest of their lives together.
The Gambia is home to eight different ethnicities, all of whom maintain reasonable peace with one another. Certain groups are more traditional than others, which is where the problems began for Kaddyjatou and Lamin.
Kaddyjatou is Mandinka, while Lamin and his family belong to the more traditional Jola tribe. Many Jolas still practice female circumcision, a procedure Kaddyjatou’s family had never had performed on their daughter. When Lamin’s family found out, they insisted that she have it done. After conferring with Kaddyjatou, who did not want the procedure, he confronted his family, telling them she was not to go through with it.
The backlash was immediate. Lamin was beaten and subject to ridicule by both his family and others in the community. As the pressure became more intense, the couple decided their best option was to leave the Gambia and start a life somewhere new. The decision resulted in a journey that continues to this day.
Kaddyjatou and Lamin left the Gambia and made their way through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. They arrived in Libya, where they found work and were able to rent a small apartment where they hoped to save enough money to cross into Europe.
Their plans nearly failed one night when their apartment was raided by armed militia, who broke down their door and took Lamin hostage. Knowing her husband had likely been killed, Kaddyjatou stayed in the now doorless apartment in case he came back. To her relief, he did.
Lamin had been taken to a prison where he and several others were locked in for two weeks. When a guard left the cell door unlocked one day, the prisoners made their escape, running for their lives as guards began to shoot. Lamin had dodged the bullets and made it back to the apartment, where he found Kaddyjatou. The two of them knew they couldn’t stay in Libya any longer and decided to leave as soon as they could.
Spending what little money they had to pay for a voyage across the Mediterranean, Kaddyjatou and Lamin boarded a dinghy carrying 88 passengers. They were bound for Italy, but Kaddyjatou knew there was a chance they might not make it. Crossing the Mediterranean in a glorified rubber raft has its risks: the inflatable boats aren’t made to withstand long journeys or rough water, both of which the passengers were entering into.
Eighteen hours into their journey, they were lost. The bad weather made it difficult to navigate and had caused a leak in the boat. As she and the other passengers bailed water out of the boat with cups, Kaddyjatou had nearly given up hope. She was in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on a sinking raft with no communication from anyone on land.
Incredibly, the passengers were spotted by a Turkish cargo ship, which came to their aid and took everyone on board. The workers contacted the Italian Navy, who came to gather Kaddyjatou and the other refugees. From there, they were brought to Sicily, where, for the first time in months, Kaddyjatou felt safe.
Eight weeks later, Kaddyjatou and Lamin were relocated to Montalto Uffugo, a small town in the Calabria region of southern Italy. Their senses of optimism returned, they began the process of applying to stay in Italy permanently. Unfortunately, the couple were not granted refugee status on their first try. They are currently awaiting an appeal on the decision, hoping that they can begin their lives in safety at last.
If their appeal is not granted, Kaddyjatou isn’t sure what she will do next. What she does know is that she is keeping her head up while she waits, because in many cases, hope is one of the most powerful tools a person can possess.
How did you meet Lamin?
Lamin was a carpenter in our village and I worked in a hair salon. We got to know each other and over time, we fell in love. Eventually, we were married.
Lamin is Jola and you are Mandinka. Is it common for different ethnic groups to get married?
Yes, in Gambia, it is common to marry other ethnic groups. With Jolas, some accept it and some do not. What is most important to many people is that you love each other.
Why did Lamin’s family feel so strongly about you undergoing female circumcision?
In their society, if you marry a woman who has not been circumcised, they must take you to have the procedure done. Hospitals do not do the procedure because of pressure from the international community, so villages do it in the bush. Girls must stay for 3-5 weeks and a lot of people normally die there. My life was too important to die like this.
Can you tell us what it was like after Lamin told his family you would not have the procedure?
When he did not agree with them, they started beating him. He faced a lot of difficulties with other Jolas. We decided to leave Gambia to save our lives and to have a better future.
You went through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger before you got to Libya. How long did this take you? What was it like?
Yes. It took 20 days to get to Libya. The journey was very, very difficult and hard. It isn’t safe and is very risky. It was the only we were able to get to Libya, since other countries would have required a visa.
What happened once you got to Libya?
Lamin and I were attacked my armed robbers in Libya and Lamin was held hostage for two weeks while I was left to fend for myself. Kidnapping, torture, and arbitrary killing in Libya is common for African migrants. We took the risk going there because we did not feel we had other options. Libya is the easiest place to cross to Europe.
I was so happy when Lamin came back. I had thought I would never see him again. Normally when they take you, they kill you or lock you in prison houses that are like big containers. A Gambian man who lived near us in Libya was kidnapped and asked to pay 15000 Dinar in order to be released. He said he did not have that amount, so they beat him to death. His body was found on a highway. I thought this was what was going to happen to Lamin, so relief doesn’t begin to describe how I felt when I saw him two weeks later.
What made you go to Italy?
After Lamin came back, we knew we had to leave. Libya was not a safe country for us, and we knew we could be killed at any time. We decided to go to Italy.
You take a risk when you cross the sea. You could get lost or the boat could leak. Both of these things happened to us.
What was it like on the boat?
I was afraid when we first got on the boat, because it isn’t an iron or wooden boat and the weather was bad. The boat was made of fiber. It could have burst in a moment.
There were big waves, but we had already committed. If you tell the people taking you to the boat that you don’t want to go anymore, they will hurt you. You cannot cancel the journey.
Our boat sprang a leak and water was entering quickly. We had to use cups to remove water from the boat and the weather was very bad. We got lost after about 18 hours
The Libyan’s who gave us the boat also gave us their contact information in case we had a problem in the water. We called them for help, but none of the phones worked. They’s switched them off and pushed us into the bad weather.
They had also given us the number of the Italian navy. We called them for help and they told us they couldn’t locate us in the water and that they would send the Libyan navy to come get us. Everyone was crying. We told them not to call. We would rather continue forward and maybe die than go back to Libya.
We were lost and our boat was leaking. We were about to die, but fortunately we were rescued by a Turkish cargo ship. They handed us to the Italian navy. When they were helping us get onto the ship everyone was trying to get on at the same time. I was seasick, vomiting in the ocean. I was helped onto the ship and I laid down flat once I was on.
When did start to let yourself feel safe?
During my first day in Italy, I felt so happy. I could see that I was safe now. I am unhappy that I still don’t have documents that will allow me to work. I have been here since March, 2015 and still do not have these documents, but a lot of people who were on that boat have received them.
They say we do not have our documents yet because there is no war in Gambia, so we are not a priority. In Gambia, there is so much fighting happening underground that no one knows about. It is dangerous, and if I go back, I could be in danger.
What was it like for you during your first days in Italy? When did you find out you would live in Montalto Uffogo?
We arrived in Sicily. We stayed for two months and were transferred to Montalto Uffugo. This is where we tried to get our visas but were denied the first time. I have appealed their decision and asked if there was someone higher up I could talk to, to explain my circumstances, but I was told I cannot do this.
What is life like for you now?
There is still a lot that I need in order to make my life good. I left my country to look for a better life, but I have not found that yet. Without work visas, you can’t do anything. I was hoping coming to Italy would help, but I still need a work visa in order to make it work. Right now, I just need to keep going and do my best until I get my proper documents.
Kaddyjatou’s story is one of strength and bravery. From standing up to cultural tradition in the Gambia, a tradition that could very well have taken her life, to boarding a dinghy to cross the Mediterranean, her refusal to give up is what got her to safety in Italy. While she is still fighting to receive documentation in Italy, her determination is to be admired.
It took Kaddyjatou seven falls to reach safety on the island of Sicily, and she will continue to persevere until she rises up eight.
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