1:30pm. It’s almost the end of the lunch break. I am on a sidewalk just a few metres from the Place Al Joulane in Rabat Ville. The tram passes by slowly, stops to allow cars to cross, before proceeding to its next stop. People walk past, each in a hurry to get to their destination.
A toddler plays on the pavement as his mother, seated a few steps away, keeps an eye on him while begging for money from passers-by. She extends her palm towards an approaching woman and then digs into her pink jacket to keep the coin she’d just been offered.
Susan* has been begging on the streets of Rabat for the past four months, to sustain herself and her son Blessed. Hers is not an isolated case, as the Moroccan capital has seen an increase in the number of illegal immigrants begging for survival, over the past few years. Most of them come from various countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, but some are Syrian refugees fleeing from the unrest in their country. For many of these Sub-Saharan Africans, Morocco is just a transit point, their destination being Europe, where they go in search of a better life.
It is not Susan’s first time in Morocco. Her first encounter with the Royaume Cherifien was in 2003, when she arrived from her home country, Nigeria. She would eventually spend four years in the Kingdom before finally gaining access into the Spanish capital, Madrid. “I did not have my papers but I made it to Madrid, where I was able to find work. In Morocco, I did not have any chance to work and life was difficult”, she revealed. For Susan, getting into Europe was a dream come true and together with her husband, they were able to make enough money to survive on.
Their illegal status, however, meant they could only get barely decent jobs while hiding from the authorities. After four years of living and working in Madrid, Susan and her husband were arrested on their way out of a bank and sent to a deportation camp, where they engaged the services of a lawyer to plead their case. After 39 days at the deportation camp and a lost case in court, they were deported to Nigeria. “During those four years, we tried very hard to get papers so we can stay peacefully in Madrid and get better jobs. We spent a lot of money -over 5000 Euros- but we were still denied legal residence”.
I had been standing beside Susan as she narrated her story, both of us keeping an eye on Blessed as he tested his recently acquired ability to walk. Moved by her story and wanting to hear more, I sat down on the low brick wall beside her.
Is the grass always greener on the other side?
Deportation did not stop Susan’s quest for a better life. She returned to Morocco in 2012, with hopes to get back into Spain, joining her sister who was lucky to obtain legal residence in Madrid. Up until her arrival in Rabat four months ago, she lived in Oujda in the extreme North West of Morocco. “We lived in a forest, where we put up tents and it wasn’t safe at all. The cold was unbearable, so I decided to come to Rabat. I found an apartment in Sale, which I share with other people in the same situation”. She gave birth to her son, Blessed, in Oujda but the little boy was denied a birth certificate because Susan could not afford the hospital bill.
Like many other children of illegal immigrants in Morocco, Blessed’s future looks bleak. With no identification papers even in the country of his birth, he remains one of the 230 million children who do not officially exist, according to UNICEF. This means Blessed could not reclaim his rights and enjoy the benefits of being a Moroccan citizen, one of which is free basic and secondary education.
A new directive from the Ministry of National Education in October 2013, provides access to public and private institutions of formal and informal education for immigrant children in Morocco. Children like Blessed now have the opportunity to go to school, but the conditions may not be met in many cases, given the absence of some of the documents required for inscription. For some parents, as is the case with Susan, this information is news to them. “It’s the first time I’m hearing of this provision. I haven’t heard any of my friends and neighbours talking about it either. It is good and will help some to educate their children free of charge”. Asked whether she will enrol Blessed in school, Susan tells us that she prefers to send him to a private school in her neighbourhood in Sale, where her friends send their children to learn.
Femi, her neighbour, has a 6 year old daughter who goes to this school, started by a fellow Nigerian. “We pay DH100 every month and the children are able to learn in English. Also, they are not afraid to go to school because they don’t get mocked and called names as is the case in the streets”. For parents like Femi, the safety of their children is worth the fee paid every month. Equally, this Nigerian-taught school ensures that their children learn in English and do not have to struggle with learning Arabic, which is the language of instruction when they enrol in the public schools.
A man dressed in a well-pressed suit approaches us. I cannot see him for I have my back to him. He hands a one-dirham coin to Susan and nudges me on the shoulder. I look up and he hands me a coin too, smiling. We thanked him as he went on his way. I handed the coin to Susan and we resumed our discussion.
Susan doesn’t mind sending her son to a Moroccan school for free. After all he was born here, even if unaccounted for officially. However, she does not see the benefit of him learning in Arabic and would rather he study in English. “I’ll like him to learn French too, because that one is international and will benefit him more than Arabic. When his father comes we will decide”, she said. Her husband is set to return to Morocco, joining his family as they continue to find ways to get back into Spain.
A passer-by walks past, pauses to play with Blessed and then hands Susan a 1 dirham coin. She smiles and thanks her, drawing Blessed closer, with a faraway look in her eye. Just then a black 4X4 stopped in front of us. The traffic lights had gone red. The driver and his friend in the passenger’s seat lean forward to look at us. The latter lifted his hand and pointed to his ring-finger, his way of asking Susan if she was married. She pointed to her son and they smiled. He gestured in my direction and Susan told him I was also married. I was used to these approaches, having dealt with about three on my short walk from the taxi-park to Susan’s spot, so I had averted my gaze as soon as I noticed the car. The lights turned green and they drove off.
Susan looked at me and smiled. “See what they do. Even when I walk in the streets, carrying Blessed on my back, they stop me to ask if I want fuck-fuck. They think we are all prostitutes.” I commiserated with her, while reminding her that we all suffered the same problem and it always took a lot to remain composed in the face of the perversity.
“I prefer to stay in the streets and beg so I can provide for my son. There are some women who accept their demands, but their living conditions are not better than mine. I’ll beg and use what I have to pay my rent and take care of Blessed. I’m just waiting for what God can do for us here. Hopefully, Blessed will go to school and become a great person”, she tells me.
A wish that all parents have for their children, even when the future looks bleak and there is little hope. Susan and her neighbour, Femi, are only two of the many Sub-Saharans who risk their lives, live in difficult situations and sometimes resort to desperate means for survival, while they wait to journey into greener pastures.
“I pray he brings you many blessings”, I said to her, smiling.
After a moment of silence, I thanked Susan for her time and for sharing her story with me. As I walked away, I remembered to be grateful for the little I have because many are in worse situations and would consider themselves blessed to have what I may consider little.
For Susan, Blessed and many others in the same situation or worse, I continue to use my voice even as I grapple with my own struggles. Service to humanity gives my life much more meaning and I encourage you to reach out to the next person. It might just be what they needed to get through the day. It was for me. Susan and Blessed were my blessings today.
What are your thoughts on illegal immigration and the risks taken by these immigrants to reach this Eldorado that is not all it’s cut out to be.
(*) – not her real name