Nigerian migrants struggle to reintegrate after Libya ordeal

More than 14,000 young Nigerians have returned to their home country through the United Nations Voluntary Return programme, after living in hell in Libya. (AFP)
Updated 17 September 2019

Nigerian migrants struggle to reintegrate after Libya ordeal

  • In Libya, prospects of crossing the Mediterranean vanished, after a tightening of European Union immigration policies
  • Many suffer long-term mental and physical health problems as well as social stigma on returning to Nigeria

BENIN CITY: Emerging from her ordeal, Gloria considers herself “privileged.” Last year, the 26-year-old left Nigeria with four other women, dreaming of a better life in Europe.
On a tortuous journey, three of the five friends died before reaching Libya, where the two survivors were stranded for almost a year. Now only Gloria is back home in Nigeria.
She dreamed of being a fashion designer but now sews synthetic tracksuits in a shabby workshop in Benin City, southern Nigeria, for 15,000 naira a month ($41.50, 38 euros).
“After transport, the money is almost finished,” she says.
Still, she adds quickly, she “thanks God for having a job.”
Her employment is part of a training program, set up by southern Edo State, the departure point for most Nigerian migrants.
Gloria is one of nearly 14,000 young Nigerians to have returned from Libya since 2017 under a United Nations voluntary repatriation program.
She and the other returnees quoted in this story asked not to be identified by their real names.
She is “not asking for too much,” just a roof over her head and to be able to eat, Gloria tells AFP.
But she blames herself for daring to dream that life could be better elsewhere and believing the smugglers’ promises that they would reach Europe within two weeks.
In Libya, prospects of crossing the Mediterranean vanished, after a tightening of European Union immigration policies.
Many spend months, even years stranded in Libya, sold as slaves by their smugglers.
But once back home in Nigeria, life is even more difficult than before: saddled with debt, struggling to find work, broken by their treatment at the hands of the traffickers and by their failed dreams.
Human Rights Watch highlighted the “continuing anguish” that returnees face.
Many suffer long-term mental and physical health problems as well as social stigma on returning to Nigeria, the report released last month said.
Government-run centers tasked with looking after them are poorly funded and “unable to meet survivors’ multiple needs for long-term comprehensive assistance,” it added.
Edo State has set up a support program which is rare in Nigeria.
The state hosts some 4,800 of the nearly 14,000 returnees — most aged 17 to 35 and with no diploma or formal qualifications.
Under the scheme, they can travel for free to Benin City, Edo’s capital, stay two nights in a hotel, receive an hour of psychological support and an about 1,000-euro allowance.
It barely moves the needle for those starting again but is enough to stoke envy in a country where state aid is scarce and 83 million people live in extreme poverty.
Showing potential students around, Ukinebo Dare, of the Edo Innovates vocational training program, says many youngsters grumble that returnees get “preferential treatment.”
In modern classrooms in Benin City, a few hundred students learn to “code,” do photography, start a small business and learn marketing in courses open to all.
“Classes are both for the youth and returnees, (be)cause we don’t want the stigma to affect them,” Dare said.
“It’s a priority for us to give youth, who are potential migrants, opportunities in jobs they can be interested in.”
According to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, 55 percent of the under-35s were unemployed at the end of last year.
Tike had a low paying job before leaving Nigeria in February 2017 but since returning from Libya says his life is “more, more, more harder than before.”
Although he returned “physically” in December 2017 he says his “mindset was fully corrupted.”
“I got paranoid. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t sleep, always looking out if there is any danger,” he said, at the tiny flat he shares with his girlfriend, also back from Libya, and their four-month-old daughter.
A few months after returning, and with no psychological support, Tike decided to train to be a butcher.
But, more than a year since he registered for help with reintegration programs, including one run by the International Organization for Migration, he has not found a job and has no money to start his own business.
“We, the youth, we have no job. What we have is cultism (occult gangs),” Tike says.
“People see it as a way of getting money, an excuse for getting into crime.”
Since last year, when Nigeria was still in its longest economic recession in decades, crime has increased in the state of Edo, according to official data.
“Returnees are seen as people who are coming to cause problems in the community,” laments Lilian Garuba, of the Special Force against Illegal Migration.
“They see them as failure, and not for what they are: victims.”
Peter, 24, was arrested a few days after his return.
His mother had borrowed money from a neighborhood lender to raise the 1,000 euros needed to pay his smuggler.
“As soon as he heard I was back, he came to see her. She couldn’t pay (the debt), so I was arrested by the police,” he told AFP, still shaking.
Financially crippled, his mother had to borrow more money from another lender to pay off her debts.
Peter’s last trip was already his second attempt.
“When I first came back from Libya, I thought I was going to try another country. I tried, but in Morocco it was even worse and thank God I was able to return to Nigeria,” he said, three weeks after getting back.
“Now I have nothing, nothing,” he said, his voice breaking.
“All I think about is ‘kill yourself’, but what would I gain from it? I can’t do that to my mother.”


For Iman Jodeh, being Muslim and a progressive Democrat go hand in hand

Updated 31 May 2020

For Iman Jodeh, being Muslim and a progressive Democrat go hand in hand

  • Iman Jodeh, the Democratic nominee for Colorado’s House of Representatives District 41, speaks to Arab News

NEW YORK CITY: In the 1980s and 1990s, Colorado’s Muslim community was made up of fewer than 30,000 people, and there were only five mosques in the entire state.

“It was really small, but we were happy,” said Iman Jodeh, the Democratic nominee for Colorado’s House of Representatives District 41.

Ever since she was a child, on the first day of Ramadan, Jodeh has sent teachers a letter, written on the mosque letterhead, saying: “For the next 30 days, Muslims will be fasting. So if your Muslim students seem lethargic by the end of the day, please understand why.”

Today, there are over 100,000 Muslims in Colorado.

(Photo: Supplied, Iman Jodeh)

“Those Muslims are starting to make up a big voting bloc, a big portion of our legislators’ constituency. And it is incumbent upon those legislators to make sure they are listening and taking into account the views of the constituents, regardless of their race, creed or religion. And I constantly remind them of that,” Jodeh told Arab News by phone.

The Democrat hopeful grew up in the shadow of two Gulf wars, and shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Afghan and the Iraqi wars. She remembers the anonymous phone calls at dinnertime threatening to kill her father Mohammed, and recalls her mother, who wears a hijab, being frightened to leave the house.

“It changed my life. In the wake of 9/11, I was a sophomore in college and had not declared my major yet. Two days later, I was a political science major and, again, speaking to crowds having to defend my religion.”

Being a first-born, first-generation American, with perfect English, understanding the cultural nuances of America, I had to walk that line of also understanding the Arab heritage and Islamic culture and nuances, and marrying those two to be able to communicate the need of being an Arab Muslim American woman.

Iman Jodeh

Jodeh, a trained political scientist, spent the years following those events advocating for the Muslim community and the Middle East, “the most misunderstood region of the world, and the people who call it home.” She taught about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Denver, held cultural events about the region and discussed Islam.

The most effective results, according to Jodeh, came via her non-profit “Meet the Middle East,” which invited Americans to take an “educational immersion journey” to the region to meet various stakeholders there, from Arab Bedouin to Palestinians living in Nablus, and both right-wing and left-leaning Israelis.

The travelers were invited to spend time in Jordan, Egypt, and sometimes Iraq and Morocco.

“From the Berbers of Morocco to the Kurds of Iraq, all these cultural and regional nuances must be understood before you can even attempt to understand the complexities of the conflict, and the kaleidoscope that make up the Middle East,” Jodeh said.

(Photo: Supplied, Iman Jodeh)

“There are things we can highlight to prove to the world that the Muslim world is one of the most fascinating places to be: There are nine women heads of state in the Muslim world, and the US has yet to see our first. It was Arabs and Muslims who discovered contagion; Arabs and Muslims who discovered latitude and longitude.

“Some of the first and oldest libraries were in Alexandria and Baghdad. And one of the oldest universities was in Morocco, founded by a woman.

“The more we can show that to Americans, the more we’re going to see further understanding and commitment to ending violence in the Middle East, as well as asymmetrical policies from the US and how we look at the region.”

Jodeh said her love for Palestine is ingrained. She was never introduced to it. She did not have a first language: It was Arabic and English her entire life. She was never just American. She was Palestinian American.

I am running to make the American dream a reality for everyone. The American dream has become harder and harder to realize. It is not a trite or cliched phrase for me. I am someone who is the product of a family who came here to realize that dream and with the cost of living, the lack of health care, our climate being threatened, our lack of criminal justice reform, civil rights being accosted... These are all things that are hurting the American dream. This is un-American, this is not the Colorado that I want to see.

Iman Jodeh

“This is my identity, I will never abandon this narrative, because I feel I have an obligation to all Palestinians everywhere to advocate when I can.

“The age of learning, that renaissance period is coming. But we have to get through our dark ages before we can get there. And, unfortunately, that is what we are witnessing today in the Middle East. And it’s heartbreaking.

“But the majority of people in the Middle East are under the age of 35, people like myself. We are just learning how to step outside dictatorship and implement something that we have known our entire lives to be true, which is democracy.

(Photo: Supplied, Iman Jodeh)

“Democracy is not a concept that is new to the Arab world. Shariah law has paved the way for democratic processes like social welfare,” she said.

To Jodeh, being a Muslim and a progressive Democrat complement each other. She gained her knowledge of Islam from her father, a Palestinian immigrant who co-founded the largest mosque in the Rocky Mountain region, and took his daughter with him when he taught or gave speeches on Islam. That put her in contact with scholars whom she still consults today.

In Aurora, a city she calls home and “one of the best and most diverse cities in the nation, a true reflection of America,” Jodeh has been working at the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, where she speaks, often as a Muslim voice, on contentious bills, such as Equal Pay for Equal Work.

(Photo: Supplied, Iman Jodeh)

“I testified that, 1,400 years ago, God came down with a verse in the Qur’an: ‘I never fail to reward any worker among you, for any work you do, be you male or female — you are equal to one another.’

“It was ironic to me as a woman following a religion that is often deemed as primitive, that this was prescribed to the people 1,400 years ago.

“In Islam, there’s a chapter in the Qur’an called ‘Al-Nisa’ or ‘The Woman.’ There is not a chapter called ‘The Man.’

“What’s beautiful about the Qur’an is that it grants women rights not granted to women in the West until the 1920s,” Jodeh said.

“The fact that those rights were laid out for women so early on is proof of the sanctity of a woman in Islam: Her right to divorce, to own land, to take part in government, to own her own business. These were all things that have been practiced and continue to be practiced.”

The Democratic Party primaries in Colorado will take place on June 30.