Isabel’s story

December 2016

Isabel is 17 years old and comes from Libya. At the time she told this story (November 2016) she was staying in the family transit shelter in Ventimiglia, Italy.

We come from a town near Sabratha in Libya. My father is a business man and my mother is a writer. I have a younger brother and sister. When I was little our life in Libya was good. The best times were when we were together as a family. We went to funfairs and travelled on holiday together. We went to Egypt to see the Great Pyramid and the museum. We lived in an apartment  and we had a small house by the sea. Both my sister and I went to a good school and we had a lot of friends. I learnt English from listening to songs and watching movies. I love to write poems and to sing. My sister is the same. She had a radio programme with other children who made it together. It was called Love Children

My parents  divorced when I was seven years old and my father married someone else. But we did not mind. My mother would not let us feel bad about it. She did everything to make us happy, she was like mother and father at the same time.

Our family liked Gaddafi. Maybe he was not so good , but people could go out at 4 am on the street and be safe. There were no killers, no guns and food was much cheaper. He was in control. He was a strong man. I met him when I was 10 years old at a festival. I had written a poem for him and recited it at the Festival. Then I went to see him and the bodyguard tried to stop me. But he said to come over, and he put me on his knee and told me how beautiful I was. He was playing with my hair and he asked: do you want something from me? Tell me, and I said: no. I am too young. And I said: I love you and he said: I love you too.

In my opinion Gaddafi was good. All of Africa loved him and all of Africa lived in Libya, because we had food and no one was poor. Nigerians, Gambians, Senegalese, they all lived in Libya. On the journey here I met a Morrocan man. He told me: ten years ago I said to everyone, I wont leave Libya, it’s a  beautiful life. But after the War he wanted go. It is the same with Sudanese people. They wanted to stay in Libya because they were living a beautiful life. Libyan people respect all the religions of the world. And my mother liked Gaddafi. She told me he made schools and he gave her and other women an education and made them open minded. She had a chance because of Gaddafi.

I liked High School. I had so many friends. Sometimes we sneaked out of class and sat in the garden.  I did well because I was clever I did not need to study too much.

I was twelve when the war began. We saw it with our own eyes. At the beginning we thought guns were just something you saw in movies. But that first night people were protesting. They were shouting in the street: no Gaddafi, no Gaddafi. Then the police came with tear gas. But they did not want to stop, they broke everything there and then they made a fire in the police station. The schools closed at that time and the fighting began. There were bombs. We heard and saw everything. There were bullets coming into our apartment. The bullets went everywhere. One time we were at home and we heard a really loud noise. We were really scared. Two bombs had hit the apartment building on the other side. We were in a corner room so we were OK, but we were scared. You could not go in the street. We saw people killed in the street, so we could not go out. For one month, the house had no water and no electricity. We just had a  small amount of food and water we got from a well in the yard. There were many people in the neighbourhood that I knew that died. Although a lot of people left their houses. But we did not have anywhere else to go. Father did not call to see if we were OK.

After that month we went back to school for a short period. We had missed a lot so we had to work hard to catch up. Then Gaddafi died and the new Government came. I don’t remember a lot of things, it is really complicated. We moved to Tripoli to a friend’s house because there was so much fighting in our area. But my mother decided to return home to get some important documents: our passports and papers, and on her way back a bomb hit the bus and injured her in the stomach. My mother’s friend did not tell us because she did not want us to be sad. But every day we asked her: When is she coming? When is she coming? So she told us: it’s just that she is in hospital, don’t worry. But she lied, because she did not know where my mother was. They were all trying to find her. And then my uncle found her in a hospital in Tripoli. It was empty. There were no doctors, no medicines, it was empty, just dying people. She was there six days without doctors or medicines and her stomach wound was open. They had to cut off  a bit of her gut. They took her to Tunisia to a hospital there and she was there a very long time.

First we went to our  grandmother. Then my father came and took us and we stayed with him for three years. We did not like it when Mum was away from us. My mother is my best friend. She knows everything about me.  My stepmother was not kind, she said stupid things. School was the only thing that made me happy. It was a new school but I made a lot of close friends.  When I was at home I stayed alone in my room.

Then my mum came home. Our aunt made a surprise for us. She invited us to her house and it was empty, then my mum appeared and it was the best moment of my life. We stayed in grandmother’s house in our old town together. It was a new school again, so new friends new things and I missed the old friends, but I had a boyfriend.

Sometimes there was a bomb. Sometimes we heard that someone died. There were always voices saying this person died or this person. That became a normal thing.

But  my whole family had supported the Gaddafi regime and after he died, people started following my mother and wanted to put her in prison. There was no war but people were dying every day. It was really strange. There was fighting and killing all the time and every three to four months the school closed for a bit. They even came into our school with guns on one occasion. We just heard the guns firing. We were sitting in class and when we heard shooting we went down and we saw people with guns shooting in the air. They just wanted to frighten people and had taken refuge in the school. They did not shoot at the children but one girl got hit in the arm and one boy died. The police came and took them, and I called Mum to come and get me.

It got so unsafe you could not go out. Mum stopped work. My grandparents had money in the bank so we used that. We decided to leave last year.  We went to Tunisia to try and get a visa for France, and we went to Egypt to try and get a visa for Germany but they both said: no. So we decided to go across the Sea. That was hard decision. This year I would have been in medical school, my first year. I had a place to study. And I have a boyfriend in Libya, he is so sad I came here

But we had to go. People tried to kidnap my sister. They followed her on her way to school in a black car. She ran from them and went to a neighbour’s house and told him what happened. He took her to school and told my mother to take her to school by car. Then some people captured my brother, some boys.  They made a cut on his leg with a knife, but he ran away. And we thought we cannot live like this, with something happening every day, no police, no government.  The country is a mess. So my mum did everything. She had contact with people, she gave them a lot of money.

The boat trip is another story. It was much too small and there were too many people. There were two Libyan families, one from Morocco and two families from Niger and so many Africans from Nigeria and Gambia and Sudan. And may be there were more than fifty people and after about an hour water started to come in, and we were scared and the man who drove the boat did not know how to drive, and we were following a star to show the way, but it was so dark and the sea was so black and there was nothing near us. Then there was something like a ghost in the water, and it was the Libyan police boat. They came and just took the Libyan families and the Morrocans and left the Africans on the boat. So we were all vomiting and crying and they gave us medicine.  And we begged them: please, we gave all our money, please don’t take us back to Libya. Then I fell asleep and when I woke up I was on an EU boat! My mother told us what happened. She was thinking that the people who caught us were opposed to Gaddafi, and so she was very scared, and she had us, all three children, on her lap. And the police asked her why she did not get a visa and she said she tried,  and she told them she had an operation and needed treatment. Then the police said: these children are not yours, you kidnapped them. And she said no they are mine. And after all this while talking, she saw the EU boat and the policeman said: you want Italy, go on, go to Italy and they put us all on that EU boat!

We  were really lucky. They gave us food and covered us not to be cold. And we picked up many other people. But twenty five people drowned that day. There were helicopters dropping rescue boats to save people from drowning. And a fast boat came to rescue people and bring them to our boat. I took photos of Eva, a Spanish woman, saving people. And then they took us all to a much bigger ship which had 2000 people. On that big ship they scanned us and they took the belts off all the Africans and put them in a waste bin. I don’t know why. On that big boat there was no food, just water for two days and it was really cold. I could not feel my fingers

The boat took us to Augusta in Sicily and they put us in a big tent with 1000 people.  We had to sleep on the floor. We stayed there four days. They took our fingerprints. They gave us  bread, cheese and an apple three times a day. On the third day there the Africans and the Libyans had a fight. The Africans hate the Libyans because some had taken their money. So when my sister was walking an African man threw a bottle of water in her face. Then a boy in another Libyan family was fighting with an African man, and suddenly there was a big fight between Arabs and Africans. And we told the police and they just stood and watched and did nothing. The Libyan boy had to go to hospital and my arm was bruised by someone grabbing me. So we slept outside the tent for two nights. And it was not safe because the Africans were angry and beating  everyone and swearing. And we told them: you must make a solution for this. Then on the 9th of October they brought a bus and took us to Vicenza police station. They asked for our fingerprints again. They said its just for ‘identification’. But later we found it was for ‘protection’.[1] They lied to us and we don’t want  protection in Italy.

Then because we are a family they put us in a good apartment with a kitchen and a toilet and they gave us clothes and a toothbrush and shampoo. And there were two Libyan families and a Moroccan family and four Nigerian pregnant women. But the women made the bathroom dirty all the time. We had discussions about keeping it clean many times but they just laughed at us and didn’t respect us.

And some people came and asked us if we wanted to get asylum in Italy but we said we did not want to do that. Then they invited us to come to the Centre to get clothes and when we got there there was a bad Italian woman there. She was shouting all the time at everyone. She said to the Africans: Don’t speak! Take what I give you! And when my mother came up she screamed at her:

Sit on the floor, respect Italy! you are in Italy! You should kiss our hands and say ‘thank you Italy’, because you were poor and your country had nothing and you came to Italy, so sit on the floor and do not speak!

So my mother said: keep your clothes!  And she said to us: you can stay and take the clothes but I will not, and we all went outside. We had a little money and mother bought us clothes.

There was also a boy called Daniel. He was a real humanitarian. He was good and respected everyone. We all loved him. My mum told him: you are like my son. You are the good face of Italy. And at this time my sister got very sick with a fever. We don’t know why. And. I went back to the Centre at 3 am  and said: she has a fever of 40 degrees and they said: it is not dangerous so don’t worry. And Mum got angry and said: it is not your daughter, you don’t care, this is my daughter. Then a young man from Ghana said he would take her to hospital. She stayed there one week. The doctors said it was a virus, and even in hospital it was up and down, so that is why we stayed  a month there.

Then we bought tickets for the bus and the train. We went to Verona and then took a bus for Nice. The man charged us 60 euro and we saw later it was 37 Euro,  we did not realise he was tricking us. So we got that bus and after five or six hours we  got to the Italian border. The Italian controller came on and asked for our passports, we had passports mum had paid 1000 dollars for each of us in Libya to obtain them. They checked the passports, they got off the bus and took them then they came back and said everything is OK. Then we went two miles more and we could see the French border and at that control we gave our passports again. This time they told us to get off the bus, but they let the Syrians who were travelling with us continue. It was raining and we were soaking wet. The French police  took us to the police office and they were all laughing and saying : I love my job when we catch someone. And my brother and sister were crying and they put us in a room for a few hours then they said : go back this way to Italy. And we walked 200 metres to the Italian Border Police. There was a woman inside. She was a doctor and she was kind. They gave us some sandwiches and some chocolate and water. We were all crying, all of us.  We did not want to go back to Italy. They caught many Africans- young men- and they let them go in the rain. But because we were  women and children they brought us here to the Church yesterday morning.

We will try again. We want to go to Germany. We have family and friends there. My mothers friends are there. They left two years ago. They live a good life now in Germany, a normal life. I want to live a normal life again. I am tired of all these changes. I live with my mother, then my father, then back with my mother, then we cross a sea, then we go to Vicenza. It is so complicated. I want to live a normal life. I want to complete my studies. I want to to be a doctor some day. I want to achieve my dreams. I want a normal life. I had a place in medical school but I don’t want to live without my family. But I don’t like leaving my country. I left everyone I love including my boyfriend. I knew him for 18 months and he misses me and wants me to come back.

We will try on Friday. People say it is possible to cross on the train then because on Friday tourists come from France for market and go back in the Evening. So if we wear good clothes and make up and just sit on the train, we hope to arrive….

Her sister, Diana, joins in: After I get to Germany and have a normal life, I want to work in emergencies and help people because I know what people have been through and I want to help them be happy.

[1] Meaning they are identified as arriving in Italy under the Dublin process and if they seek asylum it must be in Italy.

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