Meet Mohammed

Mohammed in Lampedusa, Italy. April 2017.  © Pamela Kerpius

Mohammed in Lampedusa, Italy. April 2017. © Pamela Kerpius


Meet Mohammed.

19 years old and from Brikama, Gambia.

To reach Lampedusa he crossed six countries: The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the most dangerous of all, Libya.

His journey to Europe took 3 years and 9 months. Mohammed left The Gambia with his 13-year-old sister.

At first, he had enough money to survive. But there were always hungry people around when he and his sister would take their meals, “You cannot eat and leave those people.” Mohammed shared his money with them so they could eat, too.

Work became a quick necessity. His stash of money was exhausted by the time he and his sister reached Mali.

He arrived in Niamey, the capital of Niger, and stayed in the city for four months in a single room above a garage with his sister and a friend. He worked as a tailor and in lumbering. He had to keep close watch of his sister, because in the city there were other migrants, Nigerians, he says, who had tried to rape her*. 

Over the course of one week and one day, Mohammed and his sister walked almost 1,000 kilometers (over 620 miles) to Agadez, Niger; he managed to snag a couple of car rides between smaller cities. He slept on the road, and to eat he would have a yam with sugar and a bottle of water, which he was able to buy twice daily.

He stayed in Agedez working construction for two months, while his sister sold water and ice on the street. They stayed in a compound shared with over 40 people, likely other migrants. 

...survival is not
always the outcome.

He crossed the Sahara desert in a pickup truck with 35 people. He had three liters of water, and again, ate yams with sugar to survive; it took him and his sister four days to complete the crossing.

He made clear, survival is not always the outcome. 

“If it is nine vehicles, know that about 5 of them will never survive,” because, he says, many drivers do not know the route and do not have a compass. “They get lost, and their customers do not make it."

He saw a mass grave of over 100 people who perished in the desert. There were people who died in front of him. A pregnant woman didn’t have the strength in the heat and died. Another woman, weakened by the hot sun, died. They stopped to bury each of them, a shallow grave on the side of the road. “We all prayed in our own way, and then we continued our journey.”

Mohammed arrived in Sabha, Libya at 9:00pm and was immediately sold, along with his sister and the 30-plus others in the truck, to new traffickers. They demanded money, up to 1,500 Euros, and threatened them with death if they did not call family members for the cash transfer. 

Mohammed said his Libyan captors would hang around the compound smoking pot a lot, drinking too. After the first night in prison there, at 6:00 in the morning he noticed a door fortuitously left open, grabbed his sister and fled. 

I always heard
the crying

He stayed in the Sabha city limits evading capture and working construction and tile work, his sister again selling water and ice on the street. They were robbed regularly and it took him about a year to accumulate enough money to transfer to Tripoli.

Before he reached Tripoli, he was brought to Bani Waled, Libya, and held in prison with his sister for six months. He was locked inside of a cage there while his sister was raped. He didn’t know how many times it happened because he could not see, but “I always heard the crying.”

She got pregnant. She would be raped again. She was doused with water then electrocuted, so much so a hole burned through her hand. Others endured the same. Some were electrocuted so much that they would lose fingers or their hands would be “spoiled,” as Mohammed describes it. 

Even after migrants would pay ransom to smugglers, Mohammed says they would still abuse or torture them. Some would be taken to the desert and abandoned.

Two months into her pregnancy, while Mohammed’s sister was locked inside of a gas tank (imagine a kind of fuel tanker you might see trailing the engine of a semi-truck) with himself and over eighty others, she died. There was only a small hole cut in the tanker for air, and they all choked on the fumes. Only 25 people survived.

With the help of a Libyan man (not a smuggler), Mohammed buried his sister in the desert, and escaped the Bani Waled prison. The man gave him food, and helped him find medicine for his leg that had been hurt. He worked in the man’s garden for one month and 3 weeks before finally leaving for Tripoli.

In Tripoli he worked as a tailor, but was not always paid. After eight months in the city, he transferred to a place called “27,” an area near Sabratha that was a former army camp that Colonel Gaddafi’s son once operated. 

“Freedom was a problem” in this place, he said, but he pooled enough with the different migrants he would meet there (where there was, he said, over 2,000) that he could buy some food and water to survive. They boiled water on the fire to use for bathing. He stayed for three weeks, sleeping under a canopy against the early spring Mediterranean wind.

It was the middle of the day when he crossed the Mediterranean Sea with 160 people on a rubber dinghy. 10 women were on board, five of whom were pregnant, plus four children and four babies. The boat was out to sea for 9 hours before they were rescued by the Guardia Costiera; everyone survived. Mohammed landed in Lampedusa on Saturday, April 15, 2017 at 10 or 11:00 at night.

His favorite footballers are Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, but he admires Michael Jordan more than anyone. He wants to play soccer professionally in the United States, in New York City.

Mohammed is an amazing human being.



*Mohammed described a parallel Nigerian prostitution business happening across the smuggling route. He regularly saw Nigerian prostitutes, their brothers working as their pimps. Other times, he saw Nigerian men sell their sisters directly into prostitution rings that would grant the girls passage to Italy for their sex work.

There is a practice, he says, of Nigerian men calling their sisters to Libya from Nigeria so they can sell them for financial gain upon their arrival. He described the outcome for the girls too, who can be killed by Libyans for the nationally outlawed sex work, or who are often deported.

“If you do not sleep with the man, you do not get food,” he said. Nigerian girls and women, by his count, are dependent on this trade to survive.

Lampedusa, Italy. April 2017.  © Pamela Kerpius

Lampedusa, Italy. April 2017. © Pamela Kerpius