After a perilous journey to Europe, a migrant learns his fate
TOREKOV: For more than a year, Girmay Mehari dreaded his 18th birthday next February. The teenager escaped from an Eritrean jail two years ago after he was sentenced to an indefinite term for evading national service or plotting to escape the country. The police never spelled out the charges.
With money his brothers raised in New York and Israel, Girmay smuggled himself across the border, travelled thousands of miles through the Sahara, and made it across the Mediterranean to Italy. He arrived in Malmo, Sweden’s third largest city, in September 2015, one of nearly 35,000 migrant children to settle alone in Sweden that year.
In many ways, the luck that buoyed him through his gruelling journey has endured. He arrived in Sweden just before Europe’s borders slammed shut. Today, he lives with 10 other children in a quiet village called Torekov, in a villa that was once a bed and breakfast. Nearby are the pristine Swedish beaches immortalised in Ingmar Bergman’s film, ‘The Seventh Seal.’
The scars on Girmay’s skin, from illness and torture he endured in Libya, have largely faded. He has grown about 4 cm in 12 months and has put on weight, thanks to the Coke he guzzles throughout the day. He has dyed the top of his hair a flaming red and learned a bit of Swedish. But his future long remained uncertain.
When he turns 18 in late February, he will become an adult in the eyes of Swedish law. That change of status, Girmay thought, could hurt his chances of getting asylum.
Questions kept him up at night. Would he be forced to move to an adult shelter — Could he continue to go to school — And most worrying, would the slow slog of his asylum application grind to a halt the day he becomes an adult.
Girmay was not alone. Uncertainty pervades the lives of most migrants. So many people have sought asylum in Western Europe in recent years that even the most welcoming nations, like Sweden, have tightened their rules.
In Girmay’s case, a year elapsed between his first intake interview and a second, more probing one that decided the outcome of his asylum request.
Girmay arrived in Sweden when the refugee crisis was convulsing Europe. As many as 153,000 refugees, about a tenth of them unaccompanied children, arrived on Italy’s shores last year. Girmay was one of them.
When a rescue boat brought him to Messina, Sicily, Girmay was emaciated. He had not had a decent meal for months, he said. Sores had erupted on his body from the scabies he contracted in a Libyan jail. Italian authorities brought him to a refugee camp in Verona for treatment, Girmay said. That day, the two teenagers ran into a Nigerian woman who took them in, fed them, and lent them her phone.
Girmay called his older brother, Habtay, in Tel Aviv, who then reached out to another brother, Tesfom, in Albany, New York. The older siblings told Girmay to take a local train to Milan. He spent the next week at a shelter,preparing for the last journey. In Milan, Habtay sent Girmay 750 euros ($780) through a hawala money-transfer agent. Girmay used the money to buy a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, a Nokia phone, a SIM card and a train ticket for Munich, Germany.
In December, Girmay received an envelope from the Swedish Migration Agency. It said that they granted him the right to live and work in Sweden for the next five years. — Reuters