With a paintbrush in his hand, Slimane begins to sketch. When asked what he is drawing, he replies shyly, "I am painting the flag of my country, Hosanna."
Hosanna, a Hebrew word often translated as "Please save us," symbolizes the city of Jerusalem for Slimane. It is an imaginary country where he lives by himself with no friends or family. It's his private world that he keeps away from everybody.
Where is it located? "Up in the sky," he says. "Hosanna is a prayer for beauty; I live there," he adds.
Slimane is a young Ghanian in his thirties. He has a mental disability. He gets around using his arms in a wheelchair. Slimane is also physically disabled; he lost the use of his legs.
Slimane is currently hosted in a transit centre in Niamey. When asked how long he has stayed in the centre, he responds one month.
He has been there for much longer, for over a year. He was referred to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Arlit by Doctors without Borders (MSF) in April 2020. From Arlit he was transferred to the Aigle transit centre in Niamey via Agadez.
Feeling more comfortable, Slimane starts to reveal himself.
"I come from America. I got two jobs there. One of them was a mason," he says. According to him, he walked from the United States to reach Guinea on foot before going to Senegal and Nigeria. He has fleeting memories of his journey and does not remember how he arrived in Niger; all he remembers is that he "left Americas because he was promised a job".
"I met Slimane in August 2020. He was in a medical observation room. I would drop by to see if it was only medical assistance he needed. I started to have conversations with him. His language was not clear, there was a high level of stress, there was a sense of stigma, of abandonment", says Seydou Hamadou, IOM's Psychologist in the Aigle transit centre.
Slimane prefers to sleep all day and watch television. He isolates himself and does not hang out with others. "I don't have friends because they are not spiritual like me," he says.
“He likes to participate in individual activities such as art therapy. That is what we use to communicate with him. He also likes watching television or sleeping under a tree in the courtyard. We often organize group outings that he likes to take part in. For example, sometimes we go to the National Museum to watch the wild animals. He loves it,” says Seydou.
When asked if he wants to go back home, Slimane replies, "Yes. I don't know what I will do when I go back home. I just want to go, but I have no legs to do so".
At first, Slimane's situation was very worrying. No one knew his real name, country of origin, or itinerary, and IOM had no information to trace his relatives. Furthermore, he was mentally unwell and required increased attention from psychiatrists and psychologists. The hypothesis from clinical experts is that he was probably born physically disabled or that it happened to him when he was a child.
In April 2021, IOM organized an internal crisis management meeting that brought together medical staff, nurses, protection, and mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) staff. The aim was to try to trace Slimane's path to better plan holistic assistance and a way to find his family.
There was a rumour among migrants that said that a woman took him to Algeria to beg. He speaks English, so he is probably from Nigeria or Ghana.
That is all the information the team had about Slimane. It was not enough to find his relatives. They decided to bet on the psychiatric treatment and the psychosocial support he was receiving, with hopes that his memory would come back.
Until the day Slimane was caught speaking Ashanti with Ghanaian migrants in the centre. That was the first solid lead.
IOM Niger contacted colleagues from IOM Ghana to ask for their assistance.
Meanwhile, Slimane was slowly getting involved in recreational activities. IOM organized outings with him and the association of disabled persons in Niger. He took part in the different activities and, little by little, started to open up to his friends. There were a few Ashanti-speaking members within the association with whom Slimane could easily exchange. As time went by, he ended up mentioning a market in Accra and a neighbourhood where he could have spent some time of his life.
After an intensive search in the locations mentioned by Slimane, IOM staff in Ghana finally managed to find the relatives of the young man.
The family explained that he left Ghana nine years ago, standing solidly on both legs. He was very different from the man in the photo. He was a mason, and they described him as a "giant". They had no news of him and thought he was dead. They also don't know why he left, nor what his destination was.
In the following days, IOM organized a call between Slimane and his relatives. He was very emotional when he spoke to them. His uncle volunteered to accommodate him when he returns to Accra.
"Only God knows what happened to him when he left the country," said his uncle.
"Slimane has always wanted to go back home even though he talked about Jerusalem or the US as his home. We will now help him to join his relatives and help him realize that this "home" is not the imaginary world he has created for himself, says Manon Dos Santos, IOM Niger's Protection and MHPSS Officer.
"We will accompany him in this process of return, particularly from a psychosocial perspective. Our only concern is that his family is not able to welcome him in the best conditions due to his reduced mobility. We have initiated conversations with IOM Ghana to ensure that his disability is taken into account in his reintegration," she adds.
"The mental health approach is complementary to other types of assistance vulnerable migrants receive after their traumatic journeys. Therefore, it is important to provide individualized mental health care, tailored to the needs of migrants and that considers their social background and their personality," says Barbara Rijks, IOM's Chief of Mission in Niger.
MHPSS activities in IOM’s centres and Slimane's individualized support are made possible thanks to funding from the European Union's Emergency Trust Fund for Africa through the EU IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, the Government of Italy and the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
This article was written by Aïssatou Sy, Public Information Officer at IOM Niger