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Opinion | Aug 10, 2018

The Heart-Wrenching Tales Of An African Illegal Immigrant In Europe

Life as an illegal immigrant: Sleeping at the central train station in Rome
Life as an illegal immigrant: Sleeping at the central train station in Rome

It's hard for many Africans in Europe, to tell Africans at home the truth about the hard living conditions in Europe. In the midst of suffering, many Africans in Europe take pictures sitting behind a table covered with bottles of beer, creating a false impression that they live in comfort and luxury.

I share my stories to warn Africans that Europe is not paradise, a perfect place of riches, peace, and happiness. After reading this story, any African who wants to come to Europe must think twice.

As a child growing up in a strongly religious family, I was taught that everything which is opposite to the teachings of the Holy Bible, including laziness is a sin. I tried my best to live a clean life. We were taught to believe that Israel, Jerusalem, and other Biblical countries were all in heaven, without a slight knowledge those countries were all on the same earth we are living.

When I left my family looking for a job, I tried to be sincere and prevented doing anything wrong which could land me in jail. I read that jail changes people’s attitude to be good or worse. But I wasn’t interested to know the positive or negative influences of jail on people. My only interest is never to be there because it’s not the right place for me. Did I ever succeed?

In the year 1990, from Lagos, Nigeria, I made a transit in Rome, on my way to Germany. In Rome, I was detained at the Fiumicino airport. The Italian immigration regularly does that to many foreigners, especially Africans.

Like a tourist, I walked around the airport lounge without a room to sleep and food for three days. On the third, I was really starving, so I approached one of the immigration officials and said to him that I am hungry. He looked at my face and asked me “Am I your father?” Then he walked away.

Without knowing what the officials have in store for me, I handed over an application to them as a journalist, therefore, they can't take me home. Since I have some of my publications about my profession on me it worked. On the fourth day, from nowhere came one of the immigration officers, he said to me: “Your application has been accepted, today the police will come to take you to Rome.” I was shocked beyond expression.

The good Samaritan didn’t only deliver the unexpected message, but he pulled out from his pocket a number of notes and said to me: “I don’t want my colleagues to see me giving you money, buy some food to eat at the airport.” I didn’t take the money. I told him: “This important information you have given to me has taken all the hunger away, thank you.” He walked away with his money.

On the fourth day, the police came, just as the officer told me and took me in a police car to the city, Rome, and left me there to fight for my survival. Without anywhere to sleep, I passed all my nights at the Central Train Station. Among other Africans, we watched a big television screen during the day to forget our misery, then in the night, I go to sleep at my hiding place. The police and the workers at the train station never discovered the place I slept.

After some time, I discovered places where I could eat every day without paying for food. I could take my bath and take some clothes. One of such places was at ‘Via Dandolo.’ Daniela, the head of the Caritas (Charity) at Via Dandolo, was a very good woman, but one of her female workers was a very bad woman. A thief. Since we had no address, our letters passed through the Caritas at Via Dandola and this woman took the opportunity to steal money from our letters.

I caught her twice, so I wasn’t surprised when I lost the 10 pounds a friend sent me from England, but I didn’t tell Daniela about it. In the Caritas, where we ate, we witnessed the constant abuse of young boys, especially from North Africa, by the Roman Catholic priests.

Through the Caritas, I had my initial lessons and attended classes to learn Italian. I was one of the best immigrants who could write and speak the language fluently, yet my life was miserable because I was still sleeping at the train station.

All my friends, some from Nigeria and Sierra Leone, who couldn't survive the hard living in Rome decided to return to Africa. As if they were my blood brothers, I pleaded, asking them to stay but all of them ignored me and left Rome.

The only one left, a Sierra Leonean, decides to return to his country as well. That hit me hard. After persuading him to stay, I was totally defeated to give up when he told me that when he was leaving Freetown, his wife was pregnant. He left back to Sierra Leone.

In Rome, I was robbed, admitted and operated at a hospital, but the nurse refused to touch me, because of my color, thus; every morning when on duty, she calls someone to attend to me, but she had time for every Italian patient at the hospital.

I was once sitting in the hospital’s garden after the operation, when an Italian old man, one of the patients came close to me, looked at my face and said to me: “Marocchino motaccizoa.” – an insult, after mistakenly taken me as a Moroccan. I didn’t say a word.

In Rome, I intercepted an Italian thief who has stolen the wallet of one of my friends. While in a scuffle, trying to take the wallet from him, the police who were passing with their vehicle mistakenly thought I was robbing the Italian, therefore, they pulled a gun on my head, spreading my legs apart and told me to put my hands on the vehicle.

Fortunately, the one whose wallet was stolen after the hot chase arrived on the scene. I told the policeman, the wallet belongs to him. The Italian thief said it's for him, yet he couldn't tell the officers the contents in the wallet. After interrogation, the police identified the owner and the wallet was given back to my friend. Right in front of us, the thief faked a cry and he left.

Then all of a sudden, as if it was announced on the radio, all the immigrants in Rome, without accommodation, discovered an abandoned Pasta factory called ‘Pantanella.’ Pantanella is notoriously known for all criminal activities, including drug peddling and crime, similar to drug cartel zones of Mexico. One needs strength, courage, heart, and braveness to survive at that place. Italians think they are brave, but many of them dare to pass Via Casilina, the street Pantanella is located in the night.

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Life at the notorious Pantanella, the ex-pasta factory

That was the place I lived and worked as a toilet cleaner for thousands of immigrants, using six containers as toilets, to raise money to feed. I was employed by the Muslim head at the place. It’s terrible and frightening to live at Pantenella. It wasn’t a prison, but the place, I think was tough like Alcatraz, because of the criminal activities many illegal immigrants engaged in feeding.

The abandoned factory accommodated both soft and hardened criminals from various countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Africa etc. I lived in Pantanella for four months, and the Italian government tired of the crimes going on in that abandoned Pasta factory ejected all the foreigners.

But the Italian government did something great for the African immigrants. Something we weren’t expecting. The government paid for two weeks stay in a hotel for all the Africans, with the ultimatum that before the two weeks expired, we should find a place on our own to live.

Through a very good sympathetic woman called Nana, (she died in Rome a few years ago) I got a job as a houseboy to serve one journalist called Claudio Lavazza, working at television station TG2, belonging to the former Italian Prime Minister, Sylvio Berlusconi.

He provided me with accommodation and paid me well. Besides, he gave me the new version of Fiat Cinque Cento (500) to drive. It may be likely that I was the first black man in entire Italy to drive the new Fiat Cinque Cento when it freshly came out. I met other journalist friends of Claudio, including Michele Cucuzza.

After serving Claudio Lavazza for three years, I decided to leave Rome finally. After three years in Ghana, I flew from Accra to Germany and left the country to join other Ghanaians in Amsterdam as an illegal immigrant.

Life in Amsterdam, Holland
In Amsterdam, I lived in a notorious neighborhood called Bijlmer, known for drug and arms trafficking. It’s a home for illegal immigrants. The blocks had ten floors. On many occasions, illegal immigrants resisting police arrest jumped to their death. The news of Bijlmer never ceased appearing in newspapers. Investigations revealed that as low as 200 Euros could get one a gun, crime in Bijlmer, therefore, was abnormal.

The man I lived with at Bijlmer, deals in fake European and American passports. I was scared to death. I knew if I am arrested it will not be good for me as a well-known journalist in Ghana. Within three days through a pastor of a church I was attending, I relocated.

A week after leaving the place, police invaded the apartment of the fake passport dealer and arrested everyone. It was the biggest news in Holland. "Fake passports which look like original," was the front page headlines.

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Amsterdam: Photo by Joel Savage
Those arrested were jailed five years each. I escaped my first jail sentence because of my good decision. If I had been caught with them, the police wouldn't have believed that I am not part of the gang. My quick thinking saved me.

The church pastor was able to find me a widow, a member of the church to accommodate me. With five children and a broken washing machine, I used to wash all her children's clothes with my hands for the free accommodation. It was the toughest task to do in regards to the number of clothes to wash.

In her house, I experienced the symptoms of breaking down. I wasn't happy about the living conditions, thus; to avoid depression I escaped from the woman's house. Without any place to stay, I went to the old house where the fake passport dealer who was then in prison operates his business. I realized that after the police smashed the door to arrest them it was left open without repairs.

Afterall, the police have arrested the people and now in prison, besides, all the fake passports have been taken away, therefore, the police have nothing special to do there. That was my thought. That place secretly became my sleeping place for three months, sneaking in to sleep only at night without anyone seeing me going in and coming out.

Holland is a country which has sent many illegal immigrants to Africa. Many of the illegal immigrants deported were caught on train, trams or metro without tickets. Some were caught riding on stolen bicycles. I wasn’t ready for deportation.

To prevent deportation, I went on foot to many places throughout Amsterdam. Some of my journeys were long and tedious. Some could take me between two to three hours. On many occasions, I picked up broken parts of bicycles from the bush or roadside, brought them home to fix them.

Despite all my efforts to steer away from crime, I thought I was free but I wasn’t. After four and a half years in Amsterdam Bijlmer, I was still illegal. I met a lady who promised to help me get my papers. She took over five thousand dollars from me.

Unknowing she was a criminal preying on illegal immigrants. When the immigration police invited us for my documents, I was arrested and thrown behind bars. The woman knew I will be deported because that was what had happened to all her victims.

The police told me who she was. She has never been jailed for her previous crimes; she therefore never ceased to prey on innocent victims. Behind bars, my deportation to Africa was very close. I was given three square meals daily and shower once a day.

But one day something wrong happened to me. No shower and I wasn't fed for the whole day. Instead of protesting, I was quiet until the next day. When I was served, I asked them why they did that to me the previous day. The officer who thought I was joking, later found out that I was speaking the truth.

According to him, I was very quiet so the officers on duty failed to realize that someone was in the cells. Because of this particular error they made, they handed back my passport to me and set me free. Patricia Josephine Feliksdaal, the con woman, thought I have since been deported. When her son saw me in his mother's house, he went for a gun and pointed at me.

He warned me he is going to blow my head off. There were three holes in one of the doors, he bragged, they are bullet holes and very soon that's how my body will be. I said to him, "let your mother give me my money before I leave." He was infuriated and hurriedly came right in front of me. The mother knows her son more than me, she wrestled with him and took the gun from his hand.

I wasn't surprised because, in Bijlmer, the most violent people often caught by the police are from Surinam and the family of Patricia Josephine Feliksdaal is from Surinam. This was a serious case, I should have gone to the police station to lodge a complaint but in Holland, like every European country, an illegal immigrant has no rights. I will be deported.

I visited a friend who lives in one of the rooms on the upper floors, when going home, instead of using the main front door, I decided to use the back door. Right under one of the concrete steps, a young Surinam boy was defecating.

As soon as he saw me, he pulled up his trousers without cleaning his stinky anus. I was mad. I asked him, "are you a human being or an animal?" Just as violent many Surinam people are, the same some of the young ones are very disrespectful. He attacked me verbally.

"If you don't shut up, I will report you to the police," I said.

"Let's go to the police station, I don't care," he replied.

I thought he was bluffing, therefore, I accepted his challenge and both of us left toward the police station which was very close. I will never ever forget this drama until the time I will go down into my grave. I don't know if the young boy had seen on my forehead boldly written 'an illegal immigrant.'

At the police station, we climbed the steps together up to the point of opening the door to enter the office without any fear of this young boy retreating. I am now going to put myself in trouble as an illegal immigrant because of a shit? I was the one who retreated and said goodbye to the young man to avoid deportation.

“Whatever I went through as an illegal immigrant in Europe, sleeping at the central train station in Rome, detention in Amsterdam and what I’ve seen in my life had made me what I am today. I am now a Belgium national living in Antwerp, with my wife and three children.”

The full story is now published in the book “Overseas Chronicle-The Rome and Amsterdam Experience is available at

My books are intriguing, emotional and astonishingly plausible witty, suitable for film producers. I am happy to be a journalist and a writer to share my story. Think twice as an African planning to enter Europe after reading this story.

Joel Savage
Joel Savage, © 2018

Joel Savage is a Ghanaian-Belgian journalist and author. The accredited press-card holder of the Flemish Journalists Association once contributed regularly to the features column of the Daily Graphic, The Mirror, Ghanaian Times and the Weekly Spectator. The writer currently lives in Belgium.,

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