Ousman Umar: “I was destined to die but I am alive. I am a lucky one”

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  • A photo of Ousman Umar
    A photo of Ousman Umar.

When Umar was nine years old, he left his village in Ghana to live in the “country of whites.” He fell into the hands of immigrant trafficking causing his journey to take eight years. Now, he is the voice of the immigrants who have died on their crossing.

Umar was born into the ‘Wala’ tribe and he and his family lived in Wa, one of the capitals of the 10 regions in Ghana. In Wa, when a woman dies during childbirth it is considered that the baby is bad and, therefore, must die. Children are tools for work and are the property of the tribe. Umar’s mother died at birth and he was meant to be sacrificed. However, his father, who was the village shaman, saved him. Umar survived in the village until he was nine. Here, is where the story begins.

What happened when you were nine years old?

In my village, the wise men did not arrive. One day, I saw a plane flying so I picked up a stone, raised it above me to throw, but it fell on my head instead. Later, they told me that the plane did not burn because it was made by white people and only white people could fly by planes. That day, I wanted to be white and I wanted to go to the country of the whites.

So, what did you do?

At nine years of age, I went to the nearest city to learn tapestry weaving. I worked there for a few months in exchange for a plate of food. Eventually, I ran away and spent three years in Kumasi where I worked at the port. Then I went to Accra, the capital, where my dream was still to go to the country of whites. Since I had worked in the port repairing trucks, I knew many truck drivers who told me that I should go to Libya because there was money for work there. Until then, I lived on a plate of food and tips.

How was your trip to Libya?

In Libya, I fell into the hands of traffickers, people who left us in the middle of the Sahara Desert. The trip was from Ghana to Niger and then to Agadez, the gate of the desert. The traffickers told us that they would take us with the ‘Land Rover’ in Libya along the road however, this was a lie as there are no roads in the desert. We were 46 people and only six survived.

That must have been very hard…

We are talking about the desert where there is no life and the sun is more than 50 degrees in the morning and less than 15 degrees at night. We walked all day and only paused to sleep. On the way, we saw dead bodies everywhere… The desert is full of corpses, more than the Mediterranean.

What happened once you made it to Libya?

After 19 days of walking in the desert, I finally arrived in Libya. I remember that I did not arrive with my own strength. I saw huts from afar and I collapsed, later I woke up next to a fountain. I thought I was very fortunate. Being black and living in Libya was almost a miracle. I was alive and healthy in that country where being black was virtually a crime. I arrived there when I was 13 and for four years, I was constantly at the risk of going to jail.

What did you do next?

After four years, I had enough money to leave however, I fell back into the hands of immigrant traffickers. They told us that we had several options. Go to Italy or Morocco. They told us that we would arrive in 45 minutes. I was practically illiterate. We made many laps, Tripoli, Tunisia, Mali, and then we went up again… The first time did not work.

And the second attempt?

The second time we had to go to Morocco and then Mauritania. There we had a boat. At first, there were 150 people, but none of them survived. Everyone was killed. I was unable to move for 48 hours, constantly thinking that at any moment I would die.

When did your little boat arrive?

After 48 hours, we were left without gasoline and the small boat turned upside down on the rocks in Fuerteventura. Everyone struggled to save themselves. I did not see anyone by my side. On the road, there were police, television cameras, the Red Cross… They brought me to an ambulance.

What happened in Fuerteventura?

I was at the 33 Day Foreigner Internment Center. Because I was a minor, I had the right to stay in Spain. They took me to Malaga and asked me where I wanted to go. I said I wanted to go to Barcelona.

Your last trips were then, Fuerteventura, Malaga, and Barcelona…

Yes, I remember coming to Barcelona in October 2005. With one hand in front and the other behind. I had no name; my name was #101. They gave me a tuna sandwich and then left me in Barcelona. On the street.

What did you feel when you arrived in Barcelona after all of these years struggling to reach Europe?

I remember that I was happy. I said hello to everyone and was the happiest of them all. But then I realized that reality is something else. I was sleeping on the street for a month and a half until, one day, I found a lady on Montse. I asked her where the Red Cross was. She called her husband and they both accompanied me there. They welcomed me and then later became my adoptive parents.

Did you live with them?

They are my mother and father. I have white and black brothers. They appreciated me a lot. When they took me home, I thought, “Why do I? Why did I have to suffer too much?” Now I know that I am here to be the voice of all the people have not managed to reach their destiny.

And what kind of a life have you had here?

I started to learn Catalan, Spanish, Math… I did a Baccalaureate and I started to study chemistry in Barcelona however, I abandoned it and instead finished my master’s degree at ESADE. It has been 14 years now. I paid for all of it by working as a bicycle mechanic.

You have also written a book and you have started an NGO, NASCO feeding minds…

Yes. In November, I left my work to write the book ‘Trip to the White Country’ and to dedicate myself to NASCO, which I founded eight years ago. The book is the story of all of those people who did not reach their destiny, the people who die on the way. I have also devoted myself to making this misfortune known.

Your NGO means ‘Feed Minds’. Why did you choose to call it this?

Yes, because I believe that teaching is an opportunity to develop and grow Africans. If the boys and girls do not receive a good education, they will continue marching in their countries which will not solve anything. NASCO offers digital literacy programs and allows young Ghanaians to have a classroom with 45 computers and two teaching staff. We have more than 800 students currently studying.

Now, you also dedicate talks to voice the drama of people who have not managed to reach Europe and demystify certain information…

Africa does not need rice. Africa needs education to reverse misery. The NGO does not receive subsidies. Following lectures, I have received 1,500 euros from the City Council. I dedicate myself to give voice to this situation and also to make the NGO well-known. We need to give voice and provide real long-term solutions. Partners, collaborators, sponsors are needed…

After 14 years here, how do you feel?

After being born I was destined to die, but now I am alive. I am very fortunate!

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