Interview with an Illegal Immigrant by Taha Barakaoui From Tunisia

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I met Mohamed in Palermo, Italy. Mohamed, 31 year old, is an illegal immigrant from Tunisia. He gently accepted to answer to my questions in a small bar at Ballaro market.

-Tell me first about your childhood. What led you to think that illegal immigration was the only solution?

  • I grew up in the countryside, I dropped out of school when I was very young. As far as I remember I needed to do something I love and believe in. I decided to study pastry. I remember seeing my cousins bragging each summer when they were coming to visit us in Tunisia. They were always bringing us gifts… I was jumping of happiness each time! At that age I knew I wanted to make my family happy, I wanted my mother to be proud, my father not regretting “the efforts and money” he spent to raise me.. Yet I grew up to do the worst.

-When did you arrive in Palermo?  And how did you get the money necessary for the trip?

  • One year and half after the revolution, the country was still in a chaos, they had bigger problems than to control the borders. The price to illegally leave the country took a serious hit at this time, it costed me 8000 Dinars in total (4000 Euros Approx.). My father was saving this money for pilgrimage in Mecca… I am sure I will reimburse him one day… I still owe him. Let’s say that I borrowed the money, technically I did borrow the amount of money from him, and I am willing to give it back as soon as my life gets better here… I still haven’t found the job I want…
  • It is so funny that my father begged me to stay and work with him in the farm and that I refused. I wanted to be more than a farmer; agriculture and plants aren’t my thing. I was, in a way ungrateful to what God has given us, but yet I found myself working as a gardener here in Italy for 20 euros a day. It is not a stable job but it helps me survive.

-How many immigrants were on the boat with you?

  • We were about 300 persons in a small boat.

-300 persons?

  • Oh believe me some boats at that time would contain up to 800 people. There were babies, women, old people… old people! What the hell these old people still want from Europe?

-How did you manage to overcome the problems that you faced during the first days of your arrival?

  • First days? Ha. I spent about 8 months barely going out in public. I was afraid, afraid of people, of the police. I’ve always heard of those who got caught by the police and were sent home. I don’t want to be sent home with nothing. I still want to prove to my father that stealing his money was worth it… I still need to build myself… I spent the first weeks homeless, going from one neighborhood to another. After a while I met this Tunisian guy who owns a bar, I worked at his bar for 5 months. He also let me sleep there; it helped me a lot get my feet on the ground. After that I joined a group that teaches Italian to immigrants. It was organized by volunteers who were willing to help people in my situation. Later on I found this café in Mandello that was looking for a gardener and since I had some basic skills in this field I went for it. I am now sharing an apartment with Italians and Africans in Ballaro. It feels like a family.
  • To sum up, I’ve been through a lot. I wouldn’t say I regret coming here but I could have had better life in Tunisia. It is not the Promised Land as they say. You need to have tons and tons of diplomas to integrate the European society… Otherwise you are just a rat, an illegal rat.

-You mentioned something about regret; do you actually regret coming here?

  • It is always good to have a fresh start… whether the experience ends up being positive or negative. But to be honest if someone had told me how hard it would be and what my life would be like here…I wouldn’t have gone for it. I would have stayed. I can’t say I regret it, but when you think about the look that people give you in my hometown just because you are jobless, or not “socially correct” it boosts me to accept such life here. I am free to do whatever I want here. I am free to have the political opinion I want, and I am also free to have the life I want without having anyone judging me. It is sad in fact but it is relieving in some way. In Tunisia you always get too much attention from people who have nothing to do but to interfere in your life.

-Since you arrived, have you been able to visit your family in Tunisia?

  • I am not able to go back to Tunisia because I still don’t have any legal status here… So I could not come back. But I am working on it. Right now both Italian and Tunisian administrations share the same “we cannot provide you this document today” ideology. I am still in contact with the Tunisian Embassy to receive a new Tunisian passport since I lost mine the day I arrived here.
  • To be honest I couldn’t face my family at home. I call them every once in a while but I still need to become something, someone, before I go back. I am planning to move to Paris where I can actually practice my passion which is bakery. Bakery in France is so popular… I am sure I can easily find a job there.
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