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Long road to freedom

Zakaria El Noor cries as he bids farewell to his Maltese family. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Zakaria El Noor cries as he bids farewell to his Maltese family. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

As he packs his bags to leave for Germany, aspiring electrician ZAKARIA AL NOOR tells Christian Peregin why he fled Sudan and could not live in a country which tolerates racism.

Five years ago, Zakaria Al Noor put on a brand new pair of leather shoes, packed two T-shirts in a small bag and said goodbye to his uncle who had housed him in Libya for nine months.

His plan was to reach Italy the next day on a large ship far away from his war-torn home country Sudan, where he would have otherwise been forced to join the military.

But four days later, in March 2005, the 16-year-old found himself dehydrated on a tiny wooden boat filled to the brim with Somalis, with an overheating 50-hp engine and only a small compass to direct them.

His uncle warned this would happen, but the young man had preferred to believe the people who took his hard-earned €1,300 – one of whom he says he recognised from television pictures as a top Libyan official.

They had told him the journey would only take eight hours, but when night turned into day, and day turned back into night, the young man resigned himself to a sure death. His only consolation was that this was a better alternative than having to kill other people in a war.

Since he could not swim and the sea was rough, the young man was too scared to venture away from the centre of the boat, or to jump in the sea to urinate like all the others were doing. So he did not urinate or defecate for three days, causing extreme swelling in his lower right thigh.

Eventually, the boat was intercepted by the Armed Forces of Malta – near a small island he had always believed was situated somewhere between England and Ireland.

“The soldiers told us that Italy was another three days away. They said they could give us food, water and fuel to continue on our way. But they warned we would probably be sent back.”

The young man’s dream of reaching Italy would have to wait, he thought, as soldiers escorted him first to hospital in Malta and then to the Safi detention centre. His soiled, soaked, and stinking new shoes would have to be thrown away.

Now a mature 22-year-old with a deceptively childlike smile, Mr Al Noor left Malta last Thursday to start a new life in Germany, together with 99 other refugees as part of a programme facilitated by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.

During his turbulent stay in Malta, he found work and was taken in by a Maltese family. However, he felt ostracised because of the colour of his skin.

His departure is bitter-sweet, because although he has fallen in love with Malta (and with a Maltese girl), he also knows he cannot stay.

“I don’t see a future for myself here. Malta is not European enough,” he says.

Mr Al Noor was prepared to leave Sudan when he was just 15. Life was not hard but it was easy to be killed, he says.

Soldiers had taken over his village where he lived with his father. His mother and elder brother had already been killed in the war. He wanted to flee the country well before he was 18, which is when he would have been forced to become a soldier.

“I knew I would die if I was sent to war. I wanted an education instead.”

He had a cousin of similar age whom he later found out had joined the army and was killed in Southern Sudan only a few weeks after his six-month training period.

Mr Al Noor first went to Egypt. His student card was enough to get him in, but the process to get out took much longer than he expected.

His next step was Libya, but to enter he had to go through the Sahara desert. The four-day journey on a four-wheel drive was intimidating for the young man, who realised how easy it was to end up lost. The driver read the stars at night. During the day he switched on his GPS sparingly since there was no way to charge its battery.

A taxi was waiting for Mr Al Noor to take him into Libya illegally. His uncle, who lived in Libya, was rich and well-connected.

Mr Al Noor did not have a problem fitting in. He found a job quickly and focused on saving up money to make the journey to Italy.

“I did not have many problems. But I was lucky. I had friends who were often stopped by soldiers and thrown in jail for a few months. Some were sent back to their countries.”

As the money came in, Mr Al Noor began planning his escape. Then just 16, he had heard many success stories of migrants like him who ended up living in Italy and beyond.

Unlike his uncle, who used to warn him about the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean by “boat”, people involved in the business of human trafficking always used the Arabic word denoting “ship”.

“I thought it was a big ship. Like a cruise liner. Or a cargo ship. I knew people who travelled in cargo ships. They would be given documents and the captain would say they worked for him.”

He remembers the days leading up to his departure. First he was sent to a beach where he huddled with scores of other people in small rooms waiting for the weather to improve to start their journey.

The people running the show were dressed normally but many were government officials, soldiers and policemen, he says, adding that the lull in migrant arrivals in the past year was evidence of how the Libyan authorities are in control of the situation.

Some of the people waiting in his room had been there for a number of weeks.

“They were given food and water,” he says. But some people were fed up of waiting and begged those in charge to let them start the journey, regardless of the weather. They were allowed, but within minutes of leaving, a police boat would bring them back ashore and take them to jail, their money going down the drain.

Eventually, Mr Al Noor and some others were taken to another beach in a big truck. The cabin was covered in cloth and the roof of the vehicle filled with sacks of animal fodder. If they were stopped at a checkpoint the driver would say he was carrying cows.

When they reached the second beach they were placed in another room. Their wait would be shorter this time.

“We were separated by nationality because some nationalities do not get along so you can’t put them on the same boat.” This is what got him on one of the “lucky” boats that reached land without capsizing.

A group of Somalis were about to leave but someone dropped out in the last minute and there was a vacancy.

“When I saw the boat I was shocked. It was tiny. I said: ‘You expect me to go onto this?’ They told me it would only take eight hours to get to Italy. At that point I had no choice. They would not have taken me back. I knew I had a big chance of dying, but I got on.”

Mr Al Noor describes the gruelling journey as one of desperation, where the scorching sun caused his skin to crack open. Even the sea was burning on the first two days of the journey, he says.

There was no concept of time. The driver had only a compass to guide him and whenever the 50hp engine would overheat, the boat would drift in a different direction as everyone sat in silence. The weather took a turn for the worse on the third day.

“We saw another boat but it capsized in the waves,” Mr Al Noor says.

Eventually, the boat carrying him was intercepted by the Maltese army and the group agreed it would be too dangerous to go on.

When Mr Al Noor arrived in Malta he was placed in detention where he would celebrate his 17th birthday.

He hated life inside Safi barracks. “I was always hungry. We were given very little food and had nothing to do.”

True to his new way of life, he began planning an escape and with only six months of detention to go, he jumped through the broken fences and ran for freedom.

Walking the streets of Malta for the first time, he knew he had to get to Valletta but did not know how.

He met an old farmer along the way who realised he had escaped. But Mr Al Noor denied the accusations and kept going.

Dead tired, he slept in a field. The same farmer woke up him up the next day and offered him a bunch of grapes.

“He told me which bus to catch and gave me some money.”

Before he knew it Mr Al Noor was a free man. He started living with some friends in Msida and went to Marsa each day to find a job.

One day, a white van stopped and the driver asked him if he was willing to work.

“There was another immigrant in the van so I accepted.”

He started out as a freelance painter, earning around €20. But as he excelled in his work he was offered a proper job by Gatt Brothers.

One of the people who worked there, Alfred Zammit, took a liking to the young man and invited him over for daily dinners, where Mr Al Noor got to know the family.

They wanted him to move in but since Mr Al Noor was still technically a fugitive he could not get a work permit and did not want to land the family in trouble.

With the advice of Mr Zammit and a lawyer, Mr Al Noor decided to regularise his position with the authorities. He thought this would entail having to spend a week in detention until documents were cleared. Instead it took five months.

At first he was placed in a cell alone, as punishment for his escape. Then he was put back in ordinary detention where he decided to spend his time reading and getting himself ready for freedom. But life was hard, especially since he had already tasted life cooped up inside.

He recalls a day when an immigrant was struggling to breathe while calling out for an inhaler. The doctor’s arrival was delayed and the immigrant died, fuelling Mr Al Noor’s rage at the authorities.

He was determined to escape again if he was forced to stay in detention for more than six months. But in the fifth month he was released and began living with the Zammit family where his life in Malta took a semblance of normality.

He made many friends, earned enough money to start travelling around Europe, was given protection by the authorities and started to settle down.

But Mr Al Noor soon realised that although he was welcomed by the Zammit family and other people he met along the way, many others rejected him because of his skin colour.

When he was refused entry into two Paceville nightclubs, even though his other European friends were allowed in, he tried to file a police report.

But instead of taking up his complaint, the police claimed Mr Al Noor was drunk – a claim he strongly denied since he is a practising Muslim.

He reported his story to the media, a move that brought him in touch with many other people who wanted to fight injustice.

But the police were not happy. When he experienced another incident in Paceville recently his friends told him not to bother filing a police report.

But he says he went to the police station anyway and when a police officer refused to help him and threw him out of the station he got a lawyer to write a letter to the Police Commissioner.

This time, his claims were investigated and he was called by a superintendent to identify the offending police officer, which he did.

That case is still pending, but he felt vindicated by the fact that the guilty officer was questioned by his superiors over the incident.

Paceville was not the only place Mr Al Noor suffered discrimination.

“For every person I met who tried to help me, I met someone who wanted to bring me down,” he says.

“I will miss Malta a lot. But I want to leave because I know that if I have a child he will experience the same problems I did and will be treated differently because he is black.”

Mr Al Noor is not only bothered by racism and the way it is tolerated by the authorities; he also thinks other forms of discrimination are very common in Malta.

“I want the Maltese to know that everyone is the same and should be treated equally. We should not discriminate against people who are of a different colour, religious belief or sexual orientation. You can say that in my country worse things happen... but that is no excuse. Over there people are ignorant, they’re far behind. Malta is meant to be in Europe,” he says.

His positive attitude towards integration and his firm belief in European values is possibly what convinced the German authorities to select him for resettlement.

He acknowledges that racism can be found all over the world, even in the European countries he dreams of living in. But he believes that in such countries it would not be tolerated by the authorities the way it is in Malta.

Mr Al Noor will now study to become an electrician, hoping to eventually graduate in engineering.

He plans to come back to visit, he says, mentioning several people who helped him throughout his stay.

“Thank you,” he says, as he packs his bags and gets ready for what he hopes will be his final voyage.

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