From desert ordeal to masters degree: migrant offers cautionary tale

Ousmann Umar may seem like a role model to fellow migrants, having built a successful new life in Europe after making the dangerous journey from Africa. And yet his sole message to peers today is "don't do it".

From desert ordeal to masters degree: migrant offers cautionary tale
Photos by Pau Barrena / AFP

The Ghanian in his 30s has just completed a masters degree — after surviving a five-year trek across his home continent followed by a perilous boat crossing to Spain. 

But he's also actively pursuing a campaign to discourage others from following in his footsteps.

“I went from being almost illiterate to studying a master, it's like I won the lottery,” Umar, dressed in a blazer, white shirt and moccasins, told AFP in the seaside town of Badalona near Barcelona. 

But “today I wouldn't do it again, it's too hard,” he said as he gazed at the Mediterranean Sea, where thousands of migrants have died trying to reach Europe.

“I am only 0.01 percent. (Many others) die along the way and of those who arrive, only one percent manage to integrate into European life.”   

Having already founded an NGO promoting childhood education in Ghana, Umar recently launched a project with migrant rescue charity Proactiva Open Arms that aims to convince his compatriots to stay at home.

Ousman Umar (L), and the founder of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, Oscar Camps. Photo: Pau Barrena / AFP

Over the past three years, the group says it has rescued nearly 60,000 migrants from the Mediterranean. Umar recalls the ordeal of crossing the Sahara desert without water, the mistreatment he suffered in Libya and Algeria and the death of his best friend along the journey to Europe.

“I will always carry this burden. That is why I don't want anyone to go through what I did,” he said.


Dodging death

Umar said death has played a key part in his life since he was born in Fiaso, a tiny village in Ghana's rainforest. His mother died while giving birth to him, which in Ghanaian culture means that the child is “cursed” and must be killed.

He escaped this fate thanks to his father being the local witch doctor. But when he was nine years old, Umar was sent to live with a distant uncle who taught him to be a welder.

He eventually decided to go to Europe when he was around 13.    

The search for a better life quickly turned into a nightmare when the human traffickers abandoned him with 45 others in the middle of the Sahara desert.   

Umar said he walked for 21 days, surviving by drinking his own urine while many of his companions died along the way. By the time they reached Libya, there were only six of them left.

“The biggest grave is not the sea, it is the desert,” Umar said.

'Born again'

Members from Proactiva Open Arms, try to calm refugees and migrants during a rescue operation off the coast of Libya in 2016. Photo: AFP


After working in Libya for several years, he made it to Mauritania where he boarded a boat packed with migrants bound for the “promised land” — Spain's Canary Islands. 

Along the way he lost his best friend Musa, whose boat sank during the crossing.

“I vowed I would never return to the water. It was total anguish, I don't know how to swim and I thought I could die at any moment,” Umar recalled.   

After a short stint at a migrant reception centre on Fuerteventura, he was sent to Barcelona where he had dreamt of living ever since he watched FC Barcelona on TV as a child.

He slept rough for a month before a couple with three children took him into their home.

“I was born again that day,” he said 13 years later.

'Russian roulette'

Umar learned to speak Spanish and Catalan, completed high school and last week finished a masters degree in international cooperation at Barcelona's prestigious ESADE business school.

During this time, he made living repairing bicycles, earning enough to pay for his studies as well as those of his brother who is still in Ghana and runs Umar's Nasco education charity there.

Founded in 2012, Nasco acquires computer equipment and provides training in new technologies at five rural schools in Ghana to provide opportunities so youths do not need to immigrate.

The founder of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, Oscar Camps. Photo: Pau Barrena / AFP

The plan is to send migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by Proactiva Open Arms to give talks at the Nasco-backed schools in Ghana about the ordeal they faced trying to get to Europe.

“We want to explain to them before they leave what they can expect during this long journey, from people from their country whom we rescued,” said Proactiva founder Oscar Camps.

“Ousmann says he won the lottery. But in the lottery, if you don't win, everything remains the same. This is more like Russian roulette,” he added.

By AFP's Daniel Bosque 


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.