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Italy, Syria, South Sudan: fleeing conflict across the Mediterranean

23 May 2015

This year more than 35,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to reach Italy, many of them landing in Sicily. Médecins Sans Frontières, working alongside the Italian Ministry of Health, provides both initial and long term medical and psychological assistance in southern Sicily's Ragusa province.

Dreams of football stardom shattered by war

Seventeen-year-old football prodigy Mohamed fled Syria after bomb killed teammate.

Mohamed had always dreamed of a career in international football. At the age of 17, he was captain of Syria’s national youth team, despite being their youngest player. He was a striker, number 10 in the team, scoring a record 64 goals in 52 matches. But on 15 April he left all this behind, escaping Syria to risk everything on a rickety boat across the Mediterranean. “Where is our star?”, “Our star shouldn’t have left us” and “He’s gone to Germany” are some of the posts on Mohamed’s Facebook page, alongside photos and videos showing his prowess on the football field.

At first Mohamed was so caught up in football that he took little notice of the war. But soon the conflict began to encroach on his daily life. As he took the bus to his training sessions, explosions became more and more frequent – when this happened, he and the other passengers would throw themselves onto the floor between the seats. One day, a bomb exploded on the football pitch in the middle of a match and one of his teammates died. Mohamed realised he did not want to carry on. At the same time, Mohamed’s 18th birthday was looming, bringing with it the prospect of forcible conscription into the Syrian army. “We decided to leave Syria to protect Mohamed’s future,” says his father.

Accompanied by his father and uncle, Mohamed crossed the border to Turkey and made his way to the port city of Mersin, on the eastern Mediterranean. A distance of just a few hundred kilometres, the journey took 24 hours and was fraught with risk. They had to cross the mountains on foot, bargain for transport and avoid human traffickers, all against a backdrop of gunfire and explosions. In Mersin, they found a boat that would take them to Europe: an old merchant ship, into which they were squeezed with hundreds of other Syrians. By day two, the boat had started to take on water. By the time they were rescued, the boat was barely afloat. It was five more days before they landed on the coast of Sicily. Mohamed sits on a camp bed in the migrants’ reception centre in Pozzallo, surrounded by Syrian families. On the wall behind him are pinned drawings, messages written in Arabic, Syrian flags, and a picture of a leaking boat with the legend ‘the death ship’. 

“I hope that European clubs will read my story and help me pursue my dream to play football.”

Mohamed’s gaze is serious and determined; it suggests someone who, despite all the difficulties, will not easily give up on his ambitions. “I hope that European clubs will read my story and help me pursue my dream to play football,” says Mohamed. “I would like to get to Germany and play for Borussia Dortmund, or to Spain and play for Real Madrid. I cannot go back to Syria – I feel like a deserter.” Someone brings a ball. Mohamed starts to dribble the ball before bouncing it on his head, then transfers it expertly from foot to knee to shoulder. A circle forms around him. The onlookers clap their hands and shout encouragement. For the first time, Mohamed smiles.


“I want to study and bring peace back to my country”

Anna, 21, left Eritrea, but one day she is determined to return.

The first time that 21-year-old Anna tried to leave Eritrea, she was still a child. Captured and arrested, she was taken to prison, where she was tied up and beaten. On her release, Anna began to concoct the ‘perfect plan’ to get out of Eritrea. “In Eritrea, escaping is no joke,” she says. “Those who try it risk being executed.” Anna was still only 16 when she succeeded in crossing the border to neighbouring Ethiopia. Hoping to get permission to join her mother in Israel, she stayed in Ethiopia for five years, but her requests were rejected. Finally she decided to leave Ethiopia to embark on the long and dangerous journey to Europe. The toughest part, says Anna, was in Sudan. After walking for 13 hours non-stop, she got a lift on a pick-up truck, crammed in with 25 other people. Her feet and legs felt as if they were paralysed, she says. In the desert, the truck was stopped by traffickers, who forced them to strip naked as they searched them for money and valuables. The traffickers stole everything of value – they even took some people’s shoes, leaving them to continue their journey barefoot. 

Anna holds on tightly to a copy of the Bible as she speaks. She doesn’t cry, but her eyes water with unshed tears. “I was scared,” she says. “I didn’t know if I would make it. I prayed a lot, I trusted in God.” In Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city, Anna bumped into some people she knew, and together they travelled on to Libya. On the Mediterranean coast, she managed to embark on a wooden boat along with 300 others. Just a few hours after setting off, the boat’s engine caught fire. The passengers managed to put the flames out with buckets of water, but the engine was damaged beyond repair. Someone called the emergency rescue services, who arrived nine hours later and took them to Pozzallo. 

Anna sits in the reception centre in Pozzallo. Like most Eritreans in the centre, she knows some words of Italian, but it is thanks to Médecins Sans Frontières’ cultural mediator, Negash, that she is able to tell us her story in her native Tigrinya. “I am alive and I have a lot of faith in God,” says Anna. “I don’t know where I will go – maybe to Belgium, maybe to England – but I do know what I want to do: I want to study Political Science. One day I want to work to bring peace back to my country. I have a very strong desire to go back to Eritrea.”