Moving people story
I fled Mauritania in 2003
Because all the power was in the hands of the Arabs. The other part of the population – the blacks, to whom I belonged – was discriminated and treated as second-class citizens.
Many people were murdered under this regime, and many others fled. I was 20 years old and wanted to build a future. I started a degree in philosophy, psychology and literature. But it was made impossible for me and other black students to fully attend classes and sit exams. We wouldn’t be told what classroom to go to or who was teaching us. We would just wander around the school, lost, searching for our place. No one wanted to help us, management found us annoying and got mad. The police were called and we were locked up for a week. They saw us as ‘revolutionaries’, but couldn’t keep us locked up because we hadn’t done anything wrong. They mostly wanted to scare us, to intimidate us.
I was so angry; I couldn’t let them take this opportunity away from me
At the end of the school year, the story repeated itself. After going to class and studying hard, I wanted to pass my exams. I had signed up and paid for them. But my name wasn’t on the list of registered students. I didn’t get it, I even showed them proof of registration! I was so angry; I couldn’t let them take this opportunity away from me. This was my life I was working so hard for. They just take away your dreams. It is very painful.
I was arrested again and ended up in prison. It was a jungle there. No, a jungle would have been better. At least a jungle has rules. This was just one big chaos – and extremely dangerous. Not even the police dared to enter. It was like the movies, but worse. You had to fight in order to survive. The atmosphere was intimidating, but I didn’t let anyone scare me. I was way too angry for that; I was ready to fight anyone. Nothing mattered to me anymore. I felt deathlike, as if I didn’t exist. What did I have to lose? I was still thrown against the wall by some of the big guys. But I must say I was skin and bones; there was hardly any food, care or hygiene. People with broken bones simply lay there, dying.
I ended up in hospital after I was knocked out. From there, I secretly fled to my parents. They were very worried about me and told me I couldn’t stay in Mauritania any longer. It was becoming too dangerous, for both myself and my parents.
At least here, no one was beating me up
I left on a European cargo ship, with the help of my uncle. My uncle worked in the port, where many Europeans arrived for business. We had to be very careful, no one could know that I was on board. My uncle kept repeating, “Remember: you don’t know me and I don’t know you.” I wasn’t allowed to move or talk, I just sat stock-still in a hiding place. But that was okay, it was so much better than in prison. At least here, no one was beating me up.
France was the only European country I knew. My oldest brother had studied there and still lived there. I was supposed to find him and live with him. But things didn’t work out that way.
In Belgium the ship arrived in Antwerp after two weeks. I heard the engines turn down, and waited another eight hours for my uncle to come get me. Those hours seemed to last forever, I was terrified. Suddenly, I was on my own. I had no idea where I was and did not speak Flemish. Was I in Scandinavia? I felt very sad and alone. I asked several passers-by if they could help me, but was ignored.
That is when I decided to stop dreaming altogether
I decided to go to a bus stop, where I was able to approach a lot of people who were waiting. A man told me I was in Belgium. I knew Belgium! That meant I was close to France. He then took me to the station. I found a French speaker there, who took me to his friend from Mauritania. I could shower, eat and sleep there.
I also requested asylum. I found out afterwards that if you request asylum here, you cannot leave the country. That hit me hard. I still cherished hopes of going to France, to my brother. That is when I decided to stop dreaming altogether. I had been disappointed so often, my dreams never came true. From then on, I would accept whatever life had in store for me.
I lived in the asylum centre for almost a year and a half. My asylum request was denied twice, and I was not allowed to stay in the centre while the third procedure was ongoing. I stayed with several friends, just tried to survive. That is, until I heard about the Sint-Antonius Church in Ghent. Apparently people without papers were allowed to stay there. In order to give my life some meaning, I travelled to Ghent. From the moment I got off the train, I felt so good here, so at ease. It was as if I hadn’t eaten in ten days and then got to eat my favourite meal.
Upon arrival in the church, I spent two hours observing and looking for my place. I stayed there, and helped them with their work and demonstrations in the city. They were calling on the government to regularise people without papers. The efforts were very successful.
Around the same time, I also learned about (social-artistic workspace [editorial note]) Victoria Deluxe. They helped me find housing. Through Victoria Deluxe, I started volunteering, learning the language, editing movies and I did a lot of theatre.
I was able to find myself and my happiness here
And now I have a residence permit since 2010. I continued studying and have a degree in film editing. I work at Victoria Deluxe as a cameraman and as a youth leader. I was able to find myself and my happiness here. I don’t dare to dream just yet – but I do have goals. One day, I’d like to make my own documentary.
If I had stayed in Mauritania, I might have died a long time ago. Maybe it was all meant to be; maybe I had to fight so much to get to where I am now.
As part of the Belgium street art route ‘Sorry, Not Sorry’, our Moving People were placed in different locations in Ghent. On April 26 (2016), thousands of miniature refugees (Tourad, Kassem, Avin, Kassala and Claudine) were scattered in the streets and in public places in Ghent. On May 7 & 8, during the festival, again 500 miniatures were placed.