VENTIMIGLIA, Italy—Seventeen-year-old Abdul Maiga, originally from Mali, is tall and handsome with high cheekbones and erect posture. He’s also one of the smarter kids I’ve ever met.
If circumstances were different, he’d be someone’s adored son, graduating from high school and heading to college in the fall, with parents helping him move into his new dorm room.
But Maiga has no parents, no money and no papers. He lives under a bridge on the Roya River with other stateless, trapped, penniless sub-Saharan African males between about 14 and 30 in a real-life version of Sartre’s “No Exit.”
They sit on old mattresses surrounded by cigarette butts, beer bottles and clothing. They spend their days plotting often futile escape attempts from this increasingly depressing town on the French-Italian border.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Today Maiga has to endure the added indignity of being plucked out of this crowd by a privileged white American reporter on a hot afternoon and interrogated as if he were an exotic animal in a run-down zoo.
I’ve traveled here (again) last week, the day after Oxfam released a brutal report called “Out of Nowhere” that accused France and Italy of refusing to help refugees and migrants here and in some cases abusing the youngest and most vulnerable among them.
My visit coincides with headlines in the U.S. about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ policy of ripping immigrant kids from their parents, dumping them into detention centers and calling it Christian.
To find young refugees, I don’t bother going through local officials or NGOs. I also skip the dreary, Red Cross-run “Campo Roya” at the edge of town with its heavy, imperious police presence and bleak rows of Soviet-style barracks.
The true cowboys among the refugees and migrants are half a mile from the lively seaside markets popular with tourists.
Life under the bridge is bleak but here at least they still have a chance of slipping across the border to France and maybe making it to the U.K. They avoid Campo Roya because you get fingerprinted and marked for life as a refugee from Italy without the right to move or work somewhere else.
I ask Maiga and 15-year-old Abdul Sadik of Darfur to walk with me to a seedy Italian café nearby filled with old men watching TV. I also take Xang Pidor, 22, of South Sudan because he speaks good English as well as Arabic.
Sadik, who has sad eyes and speaks only Arabic, landed alone in Sicily a month ago. Pidor arrived alone two months ago after a miserable journey from South Sudan through Egypt and Libya that took five years. His skin is jet black and he smiles as he places his arm next to my pale one on the table.
I have proof of Sadik’s age as he produces his Internal Displacement Certificate from the Sudan. The other two lost whatever papers they had at sea but they were lucky. Maiga says 17 people in his boat died during the three-day crossing from Libya to Sicily seven months ago.
Maiga shrugs his shoulders when I tell him about the Oxfam report describing how badly French police treat young refugees trying to cross into France.
After his life, he said, the French police are the least of his problems.
“Yes, they can be rough,” said Maiga, who’s crossed the border three times, twice by train and once by mountain pass, before being caught and sent back.
“But they’re not that bad. The Italians are awful. They treat us like we are worth nothing and they give us nothing, no way out. But it was even worse where I came from. Do you know what’s happened to me?”
Unlike the other two, Maiga has a commanding presence, even at this rickety plastic café table. His native tongue is Arabic but he speaks French as a result of growing up in Mali. Most surprising is his near-perfect English, gleaned from three years as an orphan doing slave labor in Libya.
I let him talk with a sense of dread. Who will care? Who will help someone like Maiga when even a raft of news stories about babies being torn from their breastfeeding mothers in the U.S. probably won’t change anything.
He won’t let me cut him off, either. “I’m not done!” he said with unusual intensity when I try to ask Sadik a question.
Maiga left northern Mali on foot with his father in 2010 and walked to Algeria. “People were killing each other in front of us,” he said. “My parents split up and my mother took my sister. I don’t even know if they’re alive. I haven’t been to school since I was nine.”
After three years in Algeria they walked into Libya and got jobs on a fruit farm outside Sabratha where Maiga’s father got sick. Because Libyans look down on black people, Maiga said, his father wasn’t allowed in the hospital and instead was given medication to take at home.
He died of a heart attack at 2014 at age 62 and his son found himself trapped at the fruit farm where the owner “made him a slave,” forcing him to work for free.
“He promised my father we would work for him for two years and then he’d give my father land. But he lied and he threatened to kill me if I didn’t keep working for him after my father died. There is no law in Libya.”
Maiga said by sheer luck a local Egyptian man took pity on him and arranged his escape from the farm and then set him up with a smuggler with a boat bound for Sicily.
What strikes me most about Maiga and the other young refugees is how alone they are, with no one to guide them, much less love and take care of them.
But what Maiga talks about most is school. He is angry that he hasn’t been to school since he was nine.
“I want a better life because I’ve never had a better life,” he said. “I’m only here because of the war in my country.”
He looks at me, not as a white savior or even as a white vulture, picking at him for a story. It’s as if he senses that whatever I write won’t help him – but he’s making sure I bear witness to his story because he believes in destiny.
“That Egyptian man helped me and he changed my life so I believe that someone will help me again.”
He taps at his tiny coffee cup with a finger.
“I just want to go to school.”