From Libya’s migrant hell to Italy’s handbag fashion world

A picture shows bags made by migrants at the “Lai-Momo” headquarters, a vocational training program to teach skills in leather bag making to migrants, on Nov. 28, 2017 in Lama di Reno, southern Bologna. The Lama Di Reno project is part of a wider program overseen by the Ethical Fashion Initiative run by the UN and WTO-backed International Trade Center with the aim of creating new economic opportunities in developing countries to help curb irregular migration. (AFP/Miguel Medina)
Updated 07 December 2017
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From Libya’s migrant hell to Italy’s handbag fashion world

LAMA DI RENO, Italy: From forced labor in Libya to a job as a founding member of an Italian fashion start-up, Bassirou has come a long way in two years, thanks to his skills with scissors.
The 26-year-old Burkina Faso native is the star student of a novel project aimed at training asylum seekers in one of Italy’s most emblematic crafts: making leather handbags
And after a 15-month apprenticeship, Bassirou has just become the first employee of a small company set up with the aim of turning the project into a self-sustaining venture.
“It is a great opportunity,” he says of his new career move. “I had done a bit of cutting and sewing back home but that was with cloth, not leather.
“It wasn’t easy at the start, every little thing seemed difficult, but after a certain point, you get the hang of it.”
Bassirou left Burkina Faso in west Africa, and a partner then pregnant with his now two-year-old daughter, in 2015.
He says he fled because he feared for his life in the tumultuous aftermath of yet another military coup in the impoverished former French colony.
Now he is awaiting the outcome of his application for asylum in Italy and is one of some 400 recently-arrived immigrants being looked after by Lai-Momo, a social cooperative that runs the EU-funded leather skills project in the small town of Lama Di Reno near Bologna.
The decision to leave home was not an easy one, Bassirou says, and it is one he might have reconsidered had he known of the horrors that awaited him in Libya, the jumping off point for most Africans trying to get to Europe.


Shocking recent images of slave auctions in the troubled north African state came as no surprise.
“These are things that are really happening in Libya,” Bassirou told AFPTV.
“I had a bit of a taste of it. They put us in a prison. At any time they could come and get us to do forced labor, all sorts of jobs. They never gave us enough to eat.
“All that, it’s slavery,” he said.
Bassirou endured these conditions for four months before the traffickers controlling his fate finally put him onto an inflatable dinghy packed with over 100 others.
After many fraught hours at sea, mostly spent praying it would not sink, the overcrowded dinghy was spotted by a British ship.
“At the moment we were rescued there was a bit of a stampede to get off and the boat started taking on water. In the end they got everyone off.”
The date, March 20, 2016, is etched permanently in his memory. “These are things you don’t forget easily,” he says.
Now he dreams of being able to open his own shop, but the future path of his life remains uncertain, as is the case for tens of thousands like him in overcrowded reception centers across Italy.
Few of them will benefit from the kind of support that has helped Bassirou pursue his education to Italian high school level, or the distraction from the stress that comes with living in limbo.
“Doing this (working), you are going to have positive rather than negative thoughts, you’re thinking that when you’re finished, you’ll have a trade,” he says.


A total of 15 migrants have completed the first round of training and another 18 have just started, including Bassirou’s compatriot, Issa.
The 21-year-old recounts a similar tale about his time in Libya. “I have friends who are still there in slave camps,” Issa says.
Having made it to Italy, he is now relieved to have escaped the frustrated boredom that is the lot of many asylum seekers.
“Before I came here, I was in another house, just sleeping all the time, doing nothing,” he says.
“Now I feel much more relaxed. I have contact with (local) people and I’m beginning to learn the language.”
Not all the apprentices can realistically aspire to the proficiency Bassirou has attained.
As some have limited literacy and numeracy, lessons in cutting have to be preceded by an introduction to basic concepts of measuring and geometry.
“The objective is to provide people with the ability and skills they need to enter the labor market here in Italy, but also in the event of a possible return to their country of origin,” said Lai-Momo’s president, Andrea Marchesini Reggiani.
The Lama Di Reno project is part of a wider program overseen by the Ethical Fashion Initiative run by the United Nations and WTO-backed International Trade Center with the aim of creating new economic opportunities in developing countries to help curb irregular migration.
People like Bassirou say going home is not an option they can contemplate, for now. And Marchesini Reggiani admits that the emphasis on voluntary repatriations can be problematic, given the risks, sacrifices and struggles involved in many migrants’ journeys to Europe.
“For sure, it is not an easy thing to address the issue of return,” he says. “For us the important thing is to give people skills. Whether they can use them here or whether they are refused the right to stay, they are being given an opportunity, let’s say a plus.
“It is clear though that, after the journeys they have made, the ideal solution is to stay here and that’s why we believe giving people the skills to work and integrate is so important.”


‘Blast fishing’ thrives in Libya’s chaos

A Libyan man buys fish from a fishmonger at the Fish market in Tripoli on August 4, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 20 August 2018
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‘Blast fishing’ thrives in Libya’s chaos

  • There is still hope as long as some good fishermen respect the trade and go out at night with nets
  • The practice has its critics, including marine biologists, fishermen, and even religious leaders

TRIPOLI: Residents of Tripoli’s seafront wake up most weekends to loud blasts: fishermen using dynamite to maximize their catch, regardless of the damage they are causing to marine life.
Dynamite fishing, or “blast fishing,” has flourished — with impunity — since Libya’s 2011 uprising that left the country awash with weapons and explosives.
The Mediterranean country has since descended into chaos and violence, with two rival administrations struggling to impose the law and a myriad of militias vying for control of its oil wealth.
As a result, protecting fish stock and the environment are not a priority for the authorities, experts and officials say.
Haytham Ali, a newly-married teacher, lives less than 50 meters (yards) from the beach in the capital’s residential suburb of Hay Al-Andalous.
“My wife and I enjoy the peace and quiet of Friday mornings in our garden by the sea, but the explosions... as early as 7 am remind us of all that is wrong in this country,” he said.
Mariam, a 64-year-old widow, said the blasts frighten her grandchildren when they come to visit her home near the water.
“My whole house and my old windows shake with every blast... and I have to reassure my grandchildren that it’s only people fishing, not NATO bombs all over again,” she said, referring to the uprising that was backed by the Western alliance.
Dynamite fishing and the use of explosives without a permit are both officially against the law, but dynamite fishermen appear to be immune.
They even post anonymous videos online of sea water being propelled high into the sky and dozens of dazed or dead fish left behind on the surface.
“We hear (the blasts) but no one can do anything about it,” said Bannour Abu Kahal, head of the fisheries department in Garaboulli, east of Tripoli.

Some marine biologists, fishermen and fishmongers, and even religious leaders have tried to speak out against blast fishing but to no avail.
Using dynamite to catch fish “depletes the fish stock in the sea,” said Mokhtar, a fishmonger in central Tripoli, who declined to give his surname.
“This practice is not correct or healthy for the consumer” because it stuns the fish and shreds its skin, he said.
The explosives, known as “gelatine” in Libya, “kills the fish, the fish roe, larvae and sea plants,” said Fathi Al-Zaytuni, a fishmonger who uses nets for his catch.
The explosive devices used in Libya are mostly home-made and have caused dozens of deaths and injuries, according to media reports.
Lana news agency reported in March that three men from the same family died in a blast in the eastern city of Sirte as they were preparing bombs for blast fishing.

Sheikh Sadek Al-Ghariani, the country’s disputed top religious figure, has also waded into the controversy.
“If this type of fishing is banned by laws that regulate fishing, or if it is prejudicial to man and the environment, then it should not be practiced,” he said in a fatwa, religious edict, issued in 2013.
Abu Kahal, the fishing director in Garaboulli, urged “concerned authorities, especially the coast guard, to do their job and put an end to this kind of fishing.”
On a warm and humid August evening, retired fisherman Abdelrazag Al-Bahri, 72, sat at Tripoli port counting the few fishing boats heading out to sea to catch sardines.
“There is still hope as long as some good fishermen respect the trade” and go out at night to haul a catch the traditional way with nets, he said.
He said traditional fishing in Libya had mostly been the work of Egyptians and Tunisians but they had fled the country, with few Libyans now willing to replace them.