The window to a piece of heaven

Mahmud saved his life on a shaggy boat in the Mediterranean. But his desire to try again persisted.

Mahmud Abdul, 17 years old, looks through the window at his bedroom Shobra Sandy, Egypt. © Albert González Farran, IOM

I met Mahmud when he was 17 years old. It was on morning in October when I met him wandering outside Shobra Sandy, a lost village in the north of Cairo, Egypt. Now Mahmud, if everything went well, must be 21. Perhaps he still survives in the village with poorly paid jobs; maybe he is in an European city; and perhaps, if he was very lucky, he is with his relatives in France. But he may also have had bad luck crossing again the Mediterranean.

That morning of October, Mahmud explained to me the second opportunity that life had given him months ago. The Red Cross rescued him when the boat with which he left Alexandria was shipwrecked near the coasts of Thessalonica, Greece. But he also admited he wanted to try once more, or maybe as many times as necessary, to get out from the hole he believed in. As friends and relatives constantly sent him messages from France explaining the magnificent things that happen there, he did not want to miss them either.

On that first failed trip by the sea, Mahmud’s family paid nearly $ 3,000. Mahmud risked his life in a broken ship, loaded with 500 passengers, when it had capacity for only a hundred. The organizers of the trip, he remembers, were armed and under the effects of drugs. He couldn’t refuse to jump in. They had promised a trip to Italy, but instead they changed their direction to Greece. On the way, already on the high seas, a handful of passengers died, who were thrown into the water as they stopped breathing. But neither did the boat endure the overweight. It sank a few miles from the coast.

Once detained in Thessalonica by the Greek authorities, and due to his status of an unaccompanied child, the UN facilitated his return to Shobra Sandy, to go back to the tasks on his father’s farm and save for a new attempt. “Life is boring here, every day is the same,” he complains by showing the room that he shared with his three brothers. From that poorly-ordered room, full of socks and untidy mattresses, Mahmud glanced at the window. The lower half was covered by the wall of the neighbor’s house, raised just a few meters from his. But in the upper half, a blue and glittering sky was showing up. It was the same sky that he saw while drifting along the Mediterranean and the same that welcomed him in Greece. Surely it is also the same sky as there is in France.

I asked him to freeze, to keep looking at the sky through that window, to take a very relevant portrait for a project on immigrants in Egypt. The soft light on his face gave him an appearance of irrational hope. At that moment, I was convinced he would cross again the sea and he would put his life in risk for his piece of heaven.

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