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A migrant’s journey: Exploring the Pope’s recommended book

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.

Detail of the cover artwork for the book "Little Brother: A Refugee's Odyssey" (Arcade, 2021) by Ibrahima Balde and Amets Arzallus Antia. (Image: Amazon)

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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About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 65 Articles
R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90 and as an instructor for the lay division of St. John Vianney Seminary. He is author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN), Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option (Angelico Press), as well as editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.


  1. The issue of migrants is an interesting one and I don’t think this pope fully appreciates just how complicated it is.

    Our family has been vacationing for two weeks in the area of Perugia. One might think that Italy is a Catholic country. It’s hardly so. We’ve been trying to find a Catholic church that has a Sunday Mass. So far we’ve come up empty handed. I finally randomly emailed multiple diocesan offices in Perugia to get someone to tell me where the closest Catholic church with a sunday Mass was located. It seems that Italians attend Sunday Mass rarely, if ever (but they’re overly represented with bishops and cardinal-electors).

    It also seems to me that Italians are just not having families and reproducing and, like much of Europe and the USA, are having to import workers from North Africa and the Middle East because one of the effects of not having children is a dwindling workforce. So, Pope Francis, cut out the compassion line about immigration and come to terms with the fact that Catholics are contracepting themselves out of existence. So, pope Francis, not only are we talking about moral issues having to do with population but these moral issues are having socioeconomic-political ramifications. But, Synod-on, your Holiness.

    • Birthrates though still much higher in Africa are falling also, so Europe can’t depend forever on African migrant labor-legal or otherwise. Nor can we depend on a never ending flow of Hispanic workers. Fertility rates are dropping in Latin America too. And as their economies develop there will be less future incentive for migration in the first place.
      You’re 100% correct. We need to be talking more about encouraging & supporting marriage & families. Between contraception & avoiding commitments young people face a lonely future. By the time some figure that out it can be too late.

    • A propos my comments above about the state of Catholicism in “Catholic” Italy, the non-replacement reproductive picture of “Catholics” in Italy, and the need to import immigrant labor from abroad because of a low birth rate, I’ve read this: “(In Italy) only 18.8 percent now say they attend Mass at least once a week.”

      I think Pope Francis has a great deal of work ahead of him as a bishop in Italy to help restore the Catholic faith to formerly Catholic Italy.

    • Large percentages of immigrants immediately become long-term public charges or criminals. Those who become employed are merely undercutting the wages of native employees to further enrich the plutocrats. We don’t need immigrants to fill out our workforce. Low birthrates are a serious problem in the West. Third World immigration exacerbates it and causes a whole host of other ones.

      • The Irish overrepresented their fare share of the population of US jails in the 19th Century.
        Most illegal aliens attempt to stay under the radar and not draw attention to themselves or their immigration status.
        It’s true that the cartels’ influence reaches past the border but it takes cooperation from US citizens. You can’t run a successful smuggling operation without both sides profiting. We are the recieving customers and some of us are guilty of money laundering and willful blindness.
        It takes both sides.

  2. Six million Ukrainian refugees and zero refugee camps. This is because of the heart of Polish Catholics who simply brought the Ukrainians into their homes. So why doesn’t Pope Francis simply, and safely, fly all refugees of the world onto ‘Open Borders’, sovereign nation Vatican City State? I figure a two billion Christians tithe to Jesus, out of love for Jesus through the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, would be over a trillion dollars a year to care for all the poor Lazerouses of the world today.

    Once the Sovereign Nation Vatican City State fills up with refugees in need, only then can we have the UN put sanctions on Colonialist Italy to give the Catholic Church back its Papal States (one third of Italy) land which Colonialist Italy brutally stole from the Catholic Church in 1870. Italy doesn’t even have any people to populate the land they stole from the Catholic Church back in 1870!

    Jesus gave the opportunity of Eternal Life to His Followers who will feed the poor out of love for Jesus. Our two billion Christians of today do not want to tithe properly out of love for the least of Jesus Brothers and sisters and choose to just let them die. Rather than being hated by 2 billion non-tithing Christians, through preaching Jesus’ Promise of Eternal damnation to those who do not properly tithe to save the lives of the poor, Pope Francis instead seeks worldly glorification from 2 billion non-tithing Christians, by pointing his finger at the secular world as being the bad guy on immigration.

    Matthew 25:41
    Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    LUKE 16:19 The Rich Man and Lazarus
    “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’

  3. The West no longer knows how to make babies so we have to import them. When the source countries “catch up” to the “enlightened”, “developed” nations, the supply will dry up.

  4. Francis recommends a book about a young Muslim male illegally crashing the border of a Western nation. Count me among the unmoved and unsympathetic. Interestingly, there is no mention as to whether this military-age man supports the imposition of Islamic law on his adopted homeland or how the massive influx of such migrants is turning Italy and every other Western nation into Third World sewers. If Dr. Staudt wants to think concretely about immigration related tragedies, perhaps he will find time to read stories on Europeans and Americans murdered and raped by his noble migrants. You don’t have to dig deeply to find many examples, Dr. Staudt.

  5. Somehow the plight of Christians suffering under Marxist and Islamic dictatorships doesn’t tug on the heartstrings of Francis the same way a story of an illegal Muslim alien pursing a dubious asylum in Italy does. I am pretty sure there are books and articles describing their ordeals. Once again, a puff piece unintentionally reveals something about disturbing the mindset of our beloved pontiff.

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