In 2007, mid-production of a documentary film of mine called Back in a Coffin discussing the phenomenon of illegal migration from Egypt to Italy on what is tragically called death boats, I learned about real human beings, not just a media exaggeration to sell a story to the public.
In a village called Tatoon in Egypt’s Fayoum, a man in his early 30s with a high school degree in vocational education, agreed to be interviewed in front of a camera and tell me his story. He was manically obsessed with the idea of leaving Egypt to Italy by whatever means possible. The desperate young man had already tried twice before, but he was sent back to Egypt by the Italian authorities after he was rescued following the drowning of his boat. He was among those who luckily survived, while others did neither to Italy nor back home.
According to some sources I talked to in the village, a trip like this would cost in 2007, between EGP 30,000 and 50,000. Our fearless young man did it twice and was working on the third attempt, saying to me: “Egypt did nothing for me, and I have nothing here to stay for.”
Another story that I witnessed in a Brussels clinic a few weeks ago, might show us a probable future forecast for the life our fearless Egyptian. If he could make it to the other side of the Mediterranean and was “lucky” to secure a job as construction worker or a cleaning person in Europe for the next 30 years. Lets hypothetically assume that it is the same person I met in Brussels.
A man in his early 60s, extremely physically weak as if he were 80 or 90, being slowly walked into the waiting room by a son in his early 20s wearing a New York cap on his head on a sunless day, like most days of central Europe. The son seated his father and, in a Moroccan Arabic dialect, which I tend to understand no more than 50 percent of, I understood enough to know clearly that the son had to leave the father and go back to work as his lunch break was almost over. And the son simply went away, leaving the very sick father behind.
Later while I was waiting in the same room, as I was only there for a bureaucratic question still unanswered till today, one of the clinic’s employees came to the old man, who I believe was in the last days of his life, and tried to help. The man looked at her to his side and said something in French that I did not understand – neither did the employee, I guess. Then he looked straight ahead staring at the absolute with empty eyes and started to softly mumble in Moroccan Arabic. I still did not understand everything, but he repeated words and phrases like “God, son, a few days, thanks to God and we’re all leaving taking nothing with us.”
A younger Moroccan patient tried to help communicate, but it was pointless. The very sick old man stood up with the help of his cane and slowly walked away, leaving the clinic and ignoring the employee and his fellow Moroccan migrant. He simply disappeared after the door closed, the other Moroccan went back to his seat waiting for his turn, and the lady employee went to check on another patient.
Simply put, life went on and unsurprisingly the universe did not stop mourning the old depressed helpless Moroccan, who I compare so much with what the young Egyptian of 2007 could be in the future. If he had managed to land in Italy’s Lampedusa, survived the detention camp of illegal migrants by the coast, and miraculously let free to access inland Europe in order to apply for a low-skill job that everyone needs, but none wants to do.
Our depressed young Egyptian spent between EGP 90,000 and 150,000 in order to live somewhere else, also depressed but differently. In my opinion, it is actually even worse a life, as he would lose the only thing that could still be positive in his poor village – which is social solidarity and family commitment that many Europeans have no time for.
Ironically, such an amount of money, which could have been more than enough to start a very well-funded small business, he absurdly spent risking his life to the extreme, in order to live as a social outcast in a foreign environment that does not accept him and let him be left alone in a clinic by his own son that is no longer an Arab, nor a Belgian.
Observing Arabs who stayed decades of their lives in Europe, I rarely see happiness. Mainly deep depression and painful nostalgia, wrapped by exaggerated comments on life back home, which they consider “unlivable”. They smartly convince themselves that there was no other option and that migration was the only solution. I think they repeat this over and over to themselves before others, just in order to survive the life they chose for themselves stuck between the two worlds, north and south of the Mediterranean, as if they are still on one of the death boats that did not drown.
Generally, migration in theory is not necessarily a good or a bad choice; it is a significant change in life that can be for the better or the worse. I actually believe that freedom of people’s mobility is good for humanity in the long-term. However, migration on only poorly founded absurd economic reasons is a waste of human life.
Maybe someone, who randomly has passion for marine biology in a country that has no access to a sea, does not need a lot of thinking to decide where to spend the rest of his life. Maybe another person with controversial views in countries such as in the Arab World, where freedom of expression varies between nonexistent to highly violated in the best scenario, has all the reasons to immediately migrate to a safer place and save her or his own life. And yes, Europe with all its imperfections is still relatively the safest place for such kind of endangered individuals. But how many of the Arab migrants to Europe had to do it for political reasons, or to work in marine biology? I believe a microscopic portion of them.
As a side note, under 4% of expatriate Egyptians cared to vote in the last presidential elections, which I assume is an indicator that the reason for migration was mainly economic, not political.
I believe, if I am an apolitical Arab with economic hardship having to choose between staying home trying to survive among my people or migrating to a country in order to dig holes for their sewer system and be left to die lonely by my New-York-cap son, I would prefer to die in my poor village among my people watching a documentary on Europe’s unemployment and failure of the cultural assimilation project.