On August 10, Pope Francis posted on X: “With sorrow I heard about the news of the shipwreck involving migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Let us not remain indifferent to these tragedies, and let us pray for the victims and their families.”
For many of us, these frequent accounts of migrant tragedies can remain abstract. The Pope has made the immigration crisis of central focus of his Pontificate, calling everyone of goodwill to show mercy to our fellow human beings, who, for many reasons, are caught in the perilous search for a new life.
To concretize the crisis, it helps to look at one person’s experience of migration from Sub-Saharan Africa. On May 24, The Pillar’s “Starting Seven” reported on a gift the Pope gave to the Italian bishops:
At the end of Monday’s gathering, the pope gave each bishop a copy of the Italian [translation of the] book Fratellino (Little Brother), which recounts the migrant Ibrahima Balde’s journey from Guinea to Europe, as transcribed by the Basque poet Amets Arzallus Antia. The pope has frequently cited the book, believing that it encapsulates the ‘Via Crucis’ experienced by migrants around the world.
I picked up the English edition of Little Brother: A Refugee’s Odyssey (Arcade, 2021) to see why, apart from hitting one of his dearest issues, the Pope cites this particular book and gives it as a gift.
As the title suggests, Ibrahima, a young Muslim man, undertakes his odyssey in search of his little brother. He faces what seems to be certain death numerous times as he makes his way across the Sahara to the North African coast and, once there, must escape enslavement. Why would he do this, even for a brother? When he was 13, his father died, leaving him as the head of his family. He had found employment working in trucking in the region but left this behind, feeling responsible for finding his younger brother, who had made this perilous trek. And to his great anguish, Alhassane did not make it across the Mediterranean in his overcrowded raft. Stuck along the coast in limbo, Ibrahima eventually makes the journey himself, finding the passage his brother sought.
Throughout his journeys, one of his greatest burdens is loneliness: “This is very important for me, to experience closeness. But at night, all the people I knew were gone, and I remained alone” (18). In caring for his family as a teenager, he was “learning to carry a heavy load,” even if that meant leaving them behind (33). Along the way, people intervened at just the right times to help him with the burden, beginning with Tanba, a Catholic truck driver who took him and began teaching him about trucks.
He also met enemies — those who robbed him, trafficked him, enslaved him and put him on a raft with only a small chance of survival. Which was worse, “the endless desert” or “Libya . . . one vast prison”? (53, 70). And, for both, “it’s very difficult to get out of there alive” (70). Through desert, prison and ocean, Ibrahima survived.
After his excruciating physical and moral suffering, including the loss of Alhassane, Ibrahima’s life lost meaning.
But for me, here, while I’m asking for asylum, I have nothing to do. I don’t have work, I don’t have friends, and so I don’t have anything new to put into the cupboard. All of my memories stay there, in that cupboard, fixed. And every day, they attack me. (94)
Telling the story seems to be his way of sorting things out, and he does so through the help of a newly found friend, another compelling aspect of this book. Although Ibrahima speaks Pulaar, along with some other dialects and French, the book came out in Basque, with Antia, an improvisational poet, as scribe. The book bears a poetic quality with a simple and arresting style, written conversationally. Although it begins with the inscription, “Little brother, I will tell you my life,” the brother addressed seems to be the reader, listening to the painful passage of the migrant.
There are many international political and economic factors driving immigration. We also find criminals taking advantage of these circumstances to exploit people, especially through human trafficking. These forces capture the lives of innocent people, many of whom simply want a better life and the ability to support their families. What are they to do when, like Ibrahima, they say: “I want to follow a path that will help us all, because back there, we have no way forward. I looked. There isn’t any future” (35).
Like the Basque poet Antia, we, too, can see those caught up in the tragedy of immigration as a friend and brother, a person who shares our humanity and with whom we can trace the perilous odyssey of this life. Ibrahima sums it up so well:
People are silent, no one ever says anything, but you can look into their eyes and assume that there is something else, inside them, something that can’t escape … what I want to say is someone’s story. Someone’s dreams and mistakes, all mixed up. And that, that other thing, remains silent, very silent, inside each person. (122)
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