“He emigrated because he wanted to help me bring up his brothers. He never came back!” By these simple words, Abdel Aziz Al Sayed, father of one of the illegal emigrants’ victims on their way to Italy, summarizes his son’s short journey. He didn’t know that when telling him goodbye, it was actually their last farewell.
Ezbet el Tobgui is situated a few kilometres away from Menya el Qamh, city of the Charqia governorate. This is where Ahmed Abdelaziz Al Sayyed came from. The young Egyptian was killed in Milan in an altercation with five persons of Peruvian nationality. Ezbet el Tobgui is a town of Mitte Soheil known for having provided the biggest parades of illegal emigrants to the Italian Peninsula.
Ahmed was hardly sixteen years old when he left his village. He returned there three years later, feet first, in a wooden box. During these three years, his close relatives have suffered a lot, hoping to improve their standard of living. The father had sold everything. He had even got into debt in order to enable his son to set foot in the Northern Shore of the Mediterranean.
The Italian police had captured Ahmed but since he was underage, he had not been repatriated. Two years later, after having been trained and found a job, he informed his family that he will soon be sending them money to reimburse the debts they had undertaken to finance his journey. “We have waited to improve our conditions all these years. God has decided otherwise”, says the wounded father who lost his son, gone forever, without even being able to touch his child’s face with his hands, right after having heard his voice on the phone.
Swimming against the tide
As soon as one enters Mitte Soheil, one can smell the Mediterranean. “Mitte” means “village” in old Egyptian while “Soheil” is the name of a star that, they say, when it rises up into the sky, it accelerates fruit ripening and moderates the climate toning heat waves down. We are 100 kilometres away from Cairo in a village of the Menya el Qamhah district, the first on the agricultural Route along the Moueiss Canal.
Eyes are hooked on the North here: 80% of the young people of this village of 55,000 souls have caressed the dream of leaving towards the shore of opulence, Milan, and have indeed tried the migration adventure. Caught between the National Democratic Party’s devil (in power) and the Muslim Brothers’ deep blue sea (Islamist opposition), relatively popular at Charqia, many dreamers have renounced to any hope of change. Some of them had to roll up their sleeves, brave the high breakers and swim against the tide, looking towards a new horizon. Not less than 7,000 youngsters of Mitte Soheil and its surroundings have already gone to sea, looking for a better life, a life that respects their humanity.
El Sayyed’s mother says: “My son is 29 years old. He’s married and a father of two children. Besides him, I have five other children. Since they have stopped exploiting the half-feddan (a feddan = 0.42 hectares) that he rented, my husband works as a simple day agricultural labourer. No land belongs to us. Our life has become very difficult. Like many others, my son has therefore considered going to Italy. We sold our buffalo and my husband had to go into debt to be able to complete the necessary amount for the trip. We have no news since he has left us. We have been living in deep sadness for the past two years. His wife doesn’t know what her future will be.”
In order to reach Mitte Soheil, we had to be watchful while travelling dozens of kilometres, trying in vain to avoid the plenty of potholes found all along the road. The road seemed to be difficult but is it more arduous than the one leading to Milan, the one the village children take so assiduously since the early 90’s?
There are more than one illegal migration channels to Europe here. The most important one is the land route that enables to enter Libya where the journey continues, at sea, destination to the Island of Malta or to Italy. Another one goes through Jordan, departure point to Cyprus, Greece and Turkey.
Libya, “warehouse” for migrants en route to Italy
In spite of the precautions taken by one of the village’s plumber, his role of “illegal emigration broker”, through a network of Libyan and Egyptian contacts, is an open secret. “It usually costs 30,000 pounds”, says Hany who has failed three times to complete his journey to the Italian territory. “This broker had set up the departure date at Al Salloum (an Egyptian and Libyan frontier in the North) and from there towards Tripoli in Libya. He has asked the passengers who had embarked a bus that had to leave form Al Ataba Square in Cairo to contact him as soon as they arrive at “The Green Mountain”, a coffee shop in the Libyan capital city. Then he would give them the “Egyptian delegate’s” telephone number. This is the name we give to the intermediate smuggler!”
Saïd, 24 years old, another village youngster continues the story: “Young Egyptians are ‘stored’ in Libya before being transported to Italy. I myself, have been ‘stored’ there for a month and a half with more than one hundred persons. Not less than twenty five of them came from Mitte Soheil”. The emigration candidates only received “a piece of bread and a little piece of cheese” to eat. They also had to hug the walls and avoid making waves before departure time.
Hany carries on: “We stayed 20 hours at sea, squeezed against each other like canned sardines. On the boat, the space of each one of us hardly enabled us to crouch down.” He remains silent for a moment and then carries on: “We arrived off the Italian coasts. There, the coastguards drew us alongside. As we were advised in Libya, we claimed to be Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese etc., nationals of unstable states, hoping that our requests for asylum would be accepted!”
Mitte Soheil, the modern rags of an old village
Hossam, 25 years old, has already lived the experience of exodus or expulsion. He narrates: “Over there, irregular immigrants do odd jobs, work with cleaning contractors, in pizzerias or painting in the building industry in exchange of a daily salary that can amount to 15 Euros. They send the majority of their income to their families at the village, to finance projects that help them improve their standard of living”.
From Mitte Soheil to Milan, the waves of migration do not cease, strongly affecting the lifestyles and the rural traditions of the village. Today, it’s not easy to smell the fields of wheat. Although agriculture and trade, small industries such as confectioneries and turneries, remain the main activities of the entire district, the village economy has recently undergone significant changes. High buildings stand up on agricultural land abandoned by their owners because they have become little profitable. A farmer who refused to tell his name says that the government has done “enormous efforts to deprive farmers of their daily bread.”
The village’s colours, its smells and the villagers’ clothes have changed. The ample
is not the traditional costume par excellence anymore. Modern clothes have supplanted it, sometimes in a grotesque way. It seems to be a real parade, the houses of those who had been at sea, stand high in the sky, something which until now was quite unusual in Mitte Soheil. They display explosive colours and an architecture that contrast with the simple style of older houses.
Certain emigrants have introduced laptops and other electronic games at Mitte Soheil. Nowadays, in the village streets, it is not impossible to assist the performance of a child trying to impress his mates with a new toy brought to him from wonderland. The Euro has imposed its power here, stoking appetencies and greed. Its use is quite common. Amidst this display of new wealth, the houses of those who refused to go at sea are the shameful symbols of a bygone era.
The journey to Italy: fortune or misfortune?
The traditional system of values has changed dramatically at Mitte Soheil which shows a new face with Europeanised features. “We no longer respect the elders”, complains Gharib, one of the village elders for whom the power of money has become a tyranny. The “new rich” living in Italy are at the origin of a conspicuous display of pomp occurring on the occasion of wedding receptions and even on funerals.
The cost of labor, eager for these expatriates’ Euros, has increased together with prices of goods and even marriage dowries of young girls. Now, the village has its own language schools (1) as those who have obtained their residence permit after marrying Italian citizens, hope to send their children to pursue their studies in Italy. A young man who wanted to remain anonymous says: “My Egyptian wife knows that I have another wife who’s Italian. She treats her very kindly when she comes here.” The Egyptian wife knows perfectly well that she’s her rival’s obligated, the Italian one is so to speak the “golden goose” figure.
The contradiction between the judgments made by Mitte Soheil’s inhabitants on this experience is palpable. Here, the mourning continues to surround the houses of those that have been swallowed by the sea, those who have left for a journey with no return. Others are still waiting for the miracle coming from the same sea.
Two faces of the same coin. Those upon whom fortune has smiled, display an air of triumph. Some of them, so mesmerized by splendor, have built pools on their terraces and new holiday resorts that have replaced the Moueiss Canal. They boast by speaking in Italian, thus indicating their social status and reminding that they are among those who had left towards the North.
On the contrary, the others complain of the exorbitant cost of living. Expats have dramatically contributed to the raise of prices, particularly agricultural land that is traded at 15,000 pounds per square meter (2,000 Euros), i.e. double the price of the land in surrounding villages. “We have the feeling that we’re like strange animals in our Europeanised village!”
Here, at Mitte Soheil, those mothers who have lost their children mix with other mothers who still aspire to change their condition. Here, danger, like fortune is a game and a boat that is left to the waves can be a promise of life of death. The idea of leaving is an obsession for the majority of youngsters. For them the question is: “to be or not to be” or as Mahmoud, 23 years old and soon leaving the village, states, “Succeed or perish!”
Translated into English by Elizabeth Grech
(1) In Egypt, the expression “language schools” describes a private educational system where programmes give a lot of importance to foreign languages.