Freetown, 13 September 2023 - In the heavy downpour of the August rain, Fatmata* puts on overused Ebola plastic protective wear that now serves as a raincoat as she goes out in the rain to meet a client Requesting her services as a beautician.
Fatmata just finished secondary school and was hoping to go to university when the deadly Ebola virus broke out in Sierra Leone. Her dream was to study Business administration and become an entrepreneur. “Growing up in a poor family, I was determined to become a businesswoman because I wanted to break the cycle of poverty and improve the lives of my family,” says Fatmata.
The Ebola virus not only ravaged lives but also destroyed hopes and dreams. Fatmata’s hopes of going to university were shattered when her uncle who was sponsoring her studies died of the Ebola virus. “The death of her uncle marks the beginning of a new chapter of struggle for me, says Fatmata. Life became tough for young Fatmata.
She has no one else to support her dreams and she has faced the worst side of life at a very early age. “Life forced me to do many things to survive,” she shares. During those trying times, she learned about the 'temple run' journey; a journey many Sierra Leoneans see as an escape from poverty and unemployment at home and risk everything for a life abroad.
"It was on Facebook, that I got in contact with old friends who started convincing me to travel to Algeria, telling me that when I get there, I can find a good job that pays good money and from there I can cross over to Italy. They sent me nice pictures with beautiful backgrounds of themselves in Algeria," she recalls, narrating how she was cajoled into travel.
Before the death of her uncle, Fatmata had lost her father when she was 10. Raised by a single mother in the village Fatmata learned responsibility at a very young age. At age 15, she was sent to live with her uncle in Freetown to get a better education in the city. Her hopes for further studies have turned blur but her determination to make a change in her life got renewed upon learning about the “temple run” journey.
Fatmata found new hope, a hope that if she made it to Algeria, life would be better. Filled with unmitigated determination to change her life, she left home in July taking the ‘temple run’ journey to reach Algeria. She has been assured by friends that she will get a good life once she reaches Algeria. "I had no idea of what the journey would look like or what would happen to me on the way, I was just determined to reach Algeria, the country where I hope my life will be better, thus, the ‘temple run’ journey was the only way to get there," says Fatmata.
Fatmata faced a lot of troubles and sad moments during her journey. One of the saddest moments in her journey was when a fellow migrant was shot dead in front of her. "It was the first time for me to see a person being killed right in front of my eyes. That memory hunts me throughout my journey and it makes me sad," she said with her eyes welling up with tears. It took Fatmata over a month to reach
Algeria. She shares a bitter experience crossing the Sahara Desert through the hands of smugglers.
When she reached Algeria, she had no phone to reach her friends who had invited her. ‘’ I was a stranger in a foreign land not understanding the language, everything was just strange for me,” she cries. One day she met a group of Sierra Leonean migrants sheltering in an uncompleted building in Algeria.
Fatmata got arrested along with other migrants during a police raid. “We were arrested and held in detention for some days, and later armed police escorted about 40 of us to somewhere in the desert and told us to find our way she says. Fatmata, having realized the increasing difficulties in her journey, decided to return home. “Had I known the journey would be that difficult, I wouldn’t have ventured into it,” she cries. Walking gloomily through the wreckage of the treacherous pathway of her ‘temple run’ journey, Fatmata found IOM in Niger where she received shelter along with other migrants. With help from IOM, Fatamata was part of the 149 Sierra Leonean migrants who were assisted to voluntarily return home in August 2022.
She feels uncertain about her future, with no money to continue her studies and nothing to start life with. From hope to shame, Fatmata hides herself to avoid fingers being pointed at her. “To avoid the stigma, I stay indoors,” she says, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. Fatmata was living a dull lackluster life until she was informed of being entitled to cash-for-work reintegration assistance from IOM Sierra Leone. The news of being selected for the job brought some degree of hope and happiness to Fatmata. “I saw it as a stepping stone,” she says.
Fatmata was among the 298 Sierra Leonean migrants stranded in Niger that IOM assisted to return home in August 2022, however, due to limited funding at that time, the group was only assisted to return home but without reintegration assistance. After months of consultations, IOM Sierra Leone and partners found the funds for work as a form of reintegration assistance for Fatmata’s group.
Fatmata confessed that she faced provocation and stigmatization for being seen cleaning the beach “People laugh at me with provocative words that I was deported to come and clean the beach.” Climbing the hills of her future at home, Fatmata describes herself as a lioness. Amidst all the challenges she encounters, she keeps going until she completes the 20 days of work she signs up for. “It was hard bearing all the insults from people,” she admits. “But I never missed a day at work,” she adds.
Fatmata and other returnees employed for the cash for work were paid daily for cleaning the beach. Through this work, she managed to save some money to sponsor herself to study a short course in cosmetology. Having completed her course, Fatmata now earns money doing beauty make-up and hairdressing for clients. Being unable to rent a saloon in Freetown, Fatmata does home service on demands from her customers.
“With the help of IOM, I have found hope to start a new life, I am now a certified cosmetologist,” says Fatmata with a beaming smile replacing the earlier pink flush of embarrassment from her cheek.
The cash-for-work beach cleaning is one of the new forms of green reintegration assistance implemented by IOM Sierra Leone with partners. The cash-for-work reintegration assistance enables returnees to earn income and gain waste management skills while contributing to impact positively to their communities and solving community needs or problems. The cash-for-work beach cleaning activity is aimed at promoting a healthy environment in Sierra Leone.
*Name was changed to protect identity.
Written by Bilal Kamara, Communication Assistant IOM Sierra Leone.