My name is Bilal Kamara. I am a returned migrant from Libya, originally from Sierra Leone. Traveling abroad is my dream but I never thought I would travel the irregular or ‘backway’ to Europe, but the ‘backway’ was the only way for me during that time.

It all started when I dropped out of college because I was unable to pay my tuition fee. I became stressed and frustrated with life and the Ebola epidemic in my country worsened my situation. At the age of 22, I felt like I had to do something to change my life, and those moments impregnated my thoughts of taking the risky journey to Europe. I left home in January 2015 to chase my dream and Germany was my hopeful destination. I like Germany! I grew up watching Germany playing in the FIFA World cup. Till now I am a big fan of Die Mannschaft.

Being a migrant was a challenging experience but a remarkable one also. My journey to and from Libya lasted about three months. I missed many things during that period but what I missed most was speaking my local language to someone that can understand. For about three months, I managed to communicate mostly nonverbally and with broken French and Arabic that I learned on the way. I couldn’t find any fellow Sierra Leonean during my travels. Most of the time I was in groups and ghettoes with people from francophone countries. They fondly called me Blonde.  I remember one sunny afternoon, I walked into one of the migrant camps in Gao, Mali, and shouted in Krio “anybody dae ya so way comot Salone?”, which means “is anyone here from Sierra Leone?” I got no answer. I only heard some people murmuring “blonde la malade”.

Some people say home is where you are born, but for me, home is where you can have a job and live a decent life. I saw Germany as my home. I strongly believed that no matter how difficult Germany might be, it can never be more difficult than the place where I was born. It was rather unfortunate for me I was unable to achieve my dreams of reaching Europe, and Libya to become the incongruous place where my dreams die.

Bilal continued his studies upon his return. He has graduated with a BA Degree in Mass Communication, from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. Photo: Bilal Kamara

In Libya, I gave up my dream of reaching Europe when my friends drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. I met three Nigerian men in Mali, and we became friends since my Sierra Leonean Krio language is not too different from Nigerian Pidgin English, so we found it easy to speak and understand each other. We got separated in the Algerian desert but I later found them in Libya. I felt happy again, I found my friends, but my happiness was short-lived because my friends would be leaving for Europe the following day. The night before their departure, they showed me extra kindness by giving me food and some of the properties they were not allowed to take on the boat. We joked, laughed, and envisioned how our life would be in Europe. One of them is a footballer, we fondly called him Nani. Nani’s dreamed of playing for AC Milan when he got to Italy.

The morning sun glinted a golden line on the rough sea like it’s showing the direction of the amateur captain on the route to Europe. My friends boarded, one foot in the water and one foot in the crassly crammed plastic boats. I waved them goodbye and wished them a safe journey. Had I known it was the last goodbye; I would have hugged them and asked them to wait. Their boat capsized and we were told that nobody survived. That moment broke the “be-a-man” feeling that kept me strong throughout my journey, and I cried uncontrollably in my camp and nobody dared to console me. I cried for my friends and for all the three months of pain that I have endured coming this far. I changed my mind about boarding the next boat and gave up my European dreams. I cried but consoled myself with words like ‘it’s better to be alive in my poor Africa than to end up in body bags on the shores of Europe.’

Bilal shared his testimony to students during an awareness-raising engagement with LiccsaL Business College in Freetown. Photo: IOM/Alfred Fornah

I returned home from Libya on the same route I used to get there. Upon returning home, I decided to give my life a fresh start. I decided to continue my studies to make myself useful in society.

Six years after my return, I managed to complete my diploma and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Sierra Leone. Even though my wish now is to do a master’s degree in Germany, I dare not go the ‘temple run’ or embark on a desperate ‘backway’ journey anymore. I am now a preacher against irregular migration. I am an active volunteer of the Migrants as Messengers (MaM) project in Sierra Leone. Recently, within the framework of MaM, I organized a one-day town hall event to raise awareness of the dangers of irregular migration at my former college where I got dropped out and later decided to leave for Europe through dangerous irregular routes.

SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth