Meet Emmanuel

Emmanuel at a cafe in Naples, Italy; November 2017. © Pamela Kerpius

Emmanuel at a cafe in Naples, Italy; November 2017. © Pamela Kerpius


Meet Emmanuel.

21 years old and from Delta State, Nigeria.

To reach Italy he crossed three countries: Nigeria, Niger, and the most dangerous of all, Libya.

His journey took about three months.

The travel from Nigeria to Niger was complicated in that there were a number of car transfers along the way. As he began, there were just twelve people in his group; the number grew to 18 on his last transfer to a van that took him to Agadez, Niger. In total, travel across Nigeria, over the border to Niger, and into Agadez took about five days. 

Why are people leaving like this?

In Agadez he stayed in a house with no windows for three days with the 17 others; they were not allowed to leave the grounds, “I was so scared,” he said.

“You see so many people. I was so surprised––Why are people leaving like this?” he thought as he left Agadez.

Emmanuel crossed the Sahara desert in the back of a pickup truck with 32 people, including women and a number of young kids. There was water when he departed, but once the truck made it further onto its path, a UN vehicle spotted them; the Arab driver discarded the water and began dropping her passengers too. 

He was treated by the UN, being given food and water, and was then returned to his starting point before the desert, Agadez. On the same day, he took a different vehicle and departed again for the Sahara.

I just pray.
Just pray, just pray, just pray…

On his second attempt at crossing, Emmanuel was in the desert for about one week. Up to four people died, he said; the truck did not stop to help the fallen, and he said additionally that if he asked the drivers to wait they would stop the truck and beat him instead.

He described the experience of being in the desert as complete confusion and discomfort, “I don’t even have an appetite to eat.” We think of the desert as hot, and it is; but at night temperatures fall, and he didn’t have a jacket to keep warm. He had no sense of his geography, where precisely he was. “I just pray. Just pray, just pray, just pray…”

He arrived in Sabha, Libya and was held in a compound for five days where more than 100 people were in hiding. Any food he ate was shared with him from other migrants. 

He left under cover for Sabratha, the seaside camp outside of Tripoli, which took two weeks to complete. In Sabratha he found work from a “wicked” man outside of the camp who gave him farm work on his orange grove. He was not paid. He was beaten. He ate once a day. He finally escaped after two weeks on his property; it was 1:00a.m. and he was lost in the city, overhearing gunshots as he scrambled to find some sense of direction. 

Another man who spoke a few words of English picked him up for work. He worked at the man’s car wash during the day for over two months, receiving no pay; he was held on the man’s property and was given food and basic shelter.

One night the man started calling for him to leave, and finally brought him to the shore at Sabratha where he expected him to find the boat. Before Libya though, Emmanuel had no intention of coming to Europe, “In my mind, I’m not going to Italy,” he explained, but “the situation is so bad in Libya, I don’t know what to do.” He says the man who held him as a slave at his car wash put him on the boat.

Emmanuel crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a rubber dinghy with about 130 people, including women, children, and one baby at midnight. He never saw the sea because he was sitting so deep inside the crowd of passengers. 

He was rescued around 10:00 or 11:00a.m. by the Guardia Costiera and landed in Catania, Sicily on 24 November 2016. It was on the bus that transfers arrivals to the reception center where he met Fabulous, they sat down next to each other and have remained friends since. 


© Pamela Kerpius

They don’t speak the same Nigerian dialect, since they are from different states and since there are hundreds of dialects in use across the country. They communicate in English instead, in the same way Italians from different regions speak standardized Italian together.

Emmanuel, Fabulous and I spent a few hours walking through Napoli together, where they live now. They were perfectly lit up by the miniature nativity models in “Christmas Alley.” I picked out two strings of corni and told them to hang them on their door handles at home. We sipped some coffee. We admired street art––and street art-turned-gallery-art, a Keith Haring knock-off behind a shop window. And just before we arrived back at the train station, the two friends hammed up their best poses for the camera on a quiet side street.

Emmanuel is an amazing human being.

In Naples, Italy; November 2017. © Pamela Kerpius

In Naples, Italy; November 2017. © Pamela Kerpius