“Traffic! Traffic!” Ahmed Ibrahim Sa’eed heard someone yell in Arabic, jolting him from the depths of sleep. It was early morning. He sat up and looked around, disoriented. His eyes focused on the person yelling: “Traffic.” It was his friend from Sudan standing by the door of his tent in Calais, trying to wake everyone up. The opportunity they had been waiting for had at last presented itself.
Ahmed was one of the first to run out. He dressed in such a hurry that his shoelaces were still undone as he stumbled into the cold morning air. He was shocked to see so many camp residents pouring from their tents and into the alleyways leading to the highway. As he and hundreds of other camp residents ran along the muddy, unpaved roads past the overhead bridge, the unofficial gate of the “Jungle” camp, all he could think is: “This could be it.” November 25, 2015, could be the day he finally managed to sneak into the back of a cargo truck bound for England.
I spent five days with Ahmed in the now-demolished Calais Jungle in the final days of 2015. Like tens of thousands of African economic migrants, Ahmed risked his life in search of a dream. His hopes were fueled by an unshakable belief that he was meant for more than his homeland could offer him. He was among the lucky ones. Too many of his fellow Africans paid for their ambition with their lives.
The Only Way Out
In 1992, when he was two years old, Ahmed’s family fled clan violence, lawlessness and famine in Southern Somalia. They went to Ethiopia and Djibouti before they relocating to Hargeisa, capital city of the self-declared independent state of Somaliland.
After seceding from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland established a somewhat functioning government and reopened schools. But with no economy to speak of in the capital and competition for seats at the few functioning universities in the region fierce, Ahmed decided that staying in Hargeisa was out of the question. He was far too ambitious to resign himself to the meager realities around him.
His hopes were fueled by an unshakable belief that he was meant for more than his homeland could offer him.
At 20 years old, Ahmed left Hargeisa, his family, and relative stability for an uncertain future in Sudan. However, four years later, that feeling Ahmed dreaded most – the feeling of stagnation – crept up again. He graduated university with a bachelor’s degree but little else to show for his efforts. The generally high unemployment rate in the country was far worse for a young Somali immigrant with no connections to the elites of Sudanese society, where access to jobs tended to be concentrated.
Ahmed tried many times to immigrate to other parts of the world legally. He wanted to continue his studies and complete a master’s degree, so he applied for various scholarships at universities in Germany and Romania, with no luck. He also tried to travel legally to Cairo, where he had several friends, but the Egyptian embassy in Khartoum rejected his visa application.
With his attempts to migrate legally frustrated at every turn, Ahmed made the decision to do what countless other young African men have done before him: he decided to go to Europe by any means possible.
Seeking Ordinary Dreams
In November 2015, Ahmed arrived at the Calais Jungle. He had been on the road for five months, during which he crossed six countries and a sea. His destination had always been Britain.
In France, the process of obtaining asylum can take upwards of two years, and if his claim is rejected, which happens often, he would be deported from the country. To make matters worse, for that entire period he is waiting for a decision on his asylum claim, he would not be able to go anywhere or do anything except eat and sleep, and perhaps go to a language school for a couple of hours a day if he is lucky.
Ahmed told me he did not travel all this way to trade stagnation in Somaliland for stagnation in Europe. At least in the Calais camp, he lived with hope. Even if rare, the chance of escape was ever present.
Ahmed referred to himself as “mustaqbal raadis.” It is a Somali phrase that roughly translates to “future-seeker.” Ahmed is candid about why he had come to Europe. “I was not fleeing war or conflict,” he said. “I just wanted a better future.” In Ahmed’s eyes, the only way to secure the future he has been seeking since he left Hargeisa is to sneak into one of those U.K.-bound cargo trucks.
As I listened to Ahmed talk about his hopes and dreams, I was struck by just how ordinary they are. There is no denying that the migration crisis in Europe is extraordinary. But take away the extraordinary numbers of refugees and migrants who marched across the continent – take away the daring acts of desperation, strip away the hyper-polarized politics – and what’s left are ordinary people with the most ordinary yearnings: safety, freedom, jobs. The basic stuff of life.
Many months have passed since I said farewell to Ahmed at the gate of the Calais Jungle. Since then, the camp has been demolished and all the residents who used to call it home have been scattered all over France. I have tried several times to contact Ahmed through the email account he gave me, but I have yet to receive a reply. I have also searched for him on Facebook, but there seems to be no sign of his existence. At times, Ahmed feels like a ghost I somehow willed into being.
As I go about my daily life half a world away, I often wonder what has become of him. In these fleeting thoughts, I imagine him in a new life. Maybe he managed to make it to London after all, and is living the dream that had sustained him throughout his long journey. It is highly unlikely, but I find comfort in the fantasy. In another scenario, he is living in Helsinki where he told me he might travel to if his efforts in the camp proved futile. But in all likelihood, Ahmed, like most of the former residents of the Calais Jungle, is now living in a temporary migrant center somewhere in France – a fate he always dreaded.
Wherever he is, I hope he is safe. I hope he has at last found the stability and sense of home that has eluded him almost all his life. I hope he finds the cherished, fragile dreams that propelled him so far away from home.
This is an edited excerpt from Maps of Exile by Hassan Ghedi Santur, from “Mediterranean” a collection of fiction, poetry, photography and reportage, published by Warscapes Magazine and UpSet Press and available on Amazon.