Testimonies and experiences with migrants throughout Morocco
June 21, 2012, a day spent in the forest in Oujda….
This morning I woke up at 7:30 to go and meet Sam of the Fondation Orient Occident. We met at the roundabout in front of the university, which is the pathway to the mountains where hundreds of sub-Saharan immigrants reside. We met at 9am because he wanted to talk to me about the immigrant community in Oujda and to also warn me about the risks, not from immigrants, but from the police who could follow us and then go after the immigrants we spoke to. I never, at any point, felt in danger throughout the day. Sam and I spoke in a café, from where we could see the ominous “forest” that everyone talks about, where the immigrants “hide.” As we spoke, a couple Nigerians came up who knew Sam and talked about the good work he did, distributing food and interacting with the community.
He told me there were two Nigerian women who were about to give birth and needed diapers, a bottle, towels, etc. So I went with him to buy them. We took the bus to the medina and along the way, he pointed out a woman, looking like she would give birth at any moment, begging for money from people who drove by.
Sam said that she lived in the forest and that was one of the women who needed supplies. So we went to the medina, bought the supplies, and then walked around to look for her so we could take a taxi to the forest together. We waited for around 30 minutes for a cab and only two pulled over, and as soon as they saw that she was a pregnant Nigerian, they locked their doors. I became so frustrated at the obvious disregard for the precarious state this woman was in: 9 months pregnant, not wearing shoes, begging for money in the streets, in 100 degree heat.
Finally we decided to take the bus. Sam bought our tickets and we helped this woman onto the bus. As she got on, she collapsed in pain, and several Moroccans helped to pick her up. A man got up to let her sit down. I stayed close to her, and I noticed that several Moroccan women asked if she was okay and needed water.
We took the taxi to the roundabout at the university, and Sam left to get clothes that he wanted to distribute to some of the immigrants in the forest. I stayed with the woman, who asked for cold water, and I ran around looking for some. I spoke to a Moroccan in Arabic who was so astonished that I was American and spoke darija, that he gave me the water for free.
Then I ran back to the woman, anxious about leaving her alone, fearing she would go into labor at any moment. “God bless you,” she says. I ask her if she likes Morocco, if she misses home, how she feels, etc. She doesn’t like Morocco or the forest and she misses home. But, she says, the only way to go is to Europe.
Sam comes back, and we wait for a taxi to take us closer to the forest so she doesn’t have to walk. We finally find a taxi driver that is willing to take us. When we get in he gives tissues to the woman because he notices her sweating profusely.
In the taxi, we are silent, and the driver agrees to take us as close as possible to the forest so that the woman doesn’t have to walk so much. She shows the driver the way, and we finally stop and get out. Sam and I pay the driver well for taking us so far, and it is risky, even for him, to be seen driving around a migrant woman and dropping her off in the forest. Thank you law 02-03.
Finally we start walking up into the forests in the hills, behind the university, and I finally see the green tents that organizations have given them as shelter. I see clothes lines and clothes drying, blankets hanging outside. My first sight is a Nigerian camp, where this woman lives. She wants to introduce me to her husband. And she is so thankful that we brought the diapers, bottles, towels, and a little basin for her to wash her baby when he/she arrives. Sam tells her to stop going down to the city and begging for money because she could go into labor at any moment. We ask her if she has the number for the doctor from MSF, and she says yes, and she will call them when she goes into labor. She says the “sans frontier” doctor told her she will give birth at the end of the month—in around 2 weeks.
I see a tent full of women, very young women, all of which are pregnant except one. There were four in the tent. When I sat down with this woman to give her the baby supplies everyone came over to greet me and say “You are welcome here.” Thanks to the fact that I was with Sam I’m sure. I introduce myself to everyone and shake their hands, and by this point there are around twenty people, about half men/half women who look at me curiously. They ask me if I am with the United Nations, and I say no, I am just a student who is very interested in them and their lives here in Morocco. They ask me why I didn’t bring more supplies for everyone—the heart wrenching question. And I say, that I only knew about Mary and Amina, another woman who was about to give birth. Sam says he will come back on Sunday.
I am finally torn away from my inner torment by all some Nigerians bombarding me with questions about where I am from, who I work with, how I can help them, am I married, do I have kids, how old am I, etc. A woman with a skin condition all over her face, catches my attention, not because of the skin condition that was caused by her many months sleeping outside, but rather because it does not mask her beauty. Her beauty for me, comes from the fact that she talks back to the Nigerian “Chairman” who starts yelling at her for some reason. She doesn’t seem to fear anyone or anything. In fact, none of them seem to fear anyone or anything. The police, the racism, living in the forest, barely eating, etc. That’s life, they tell me.
The men are very friendly and charismatic and tell me how much they like Obama and how classy he is, after I reveal that I’m American. Everyone tells me there is a Nigerian child, in the next camp over, who is named after him. This fact brings me back again to politics and disgust, and yet I laugh and can’t wait to meet this this little nine-year old.
Mary asks me to help her count the diapers because she wants to share them equally with Amina. So we count them, 20 for Mary and 20 for Amina.
They all keep telling me I am welcome and they offer me a place to sit on a broken chair that they have tied to a rock. I explain that I am doing research on them because I didn’t think it was good that they had to live in the forest. They nod vigorously and some of the men laugh. I ask the women how old they are: Mary says she is 30, Amina 28(I tell her she is lying through her teeth and she laughs, and says 22), 20, 18, 17, 15. Some of these women are teenagers.
The chairman of this camp has deep red eyes from being hit by a policeman, and he loves my sunglasses and asks to have them. So I give them to him. I joke with him and say they are pink and black, meant for girls. He tells me no no no, you don’t understand fashion, its uni-sex, metro. And he strolls around in what seems like a daily ritual. Most of the men aren’t wearing shirts and wear little shorts because it’s so hot. One among them, the only one fully clothed, tells me he wants to go the UNHCR, and he called them but they won’t help him. He says he lived in Casablanca and went to the UNHCR in Rabat many times, but they never let him in. He says, you are American, you work with them, can you do something? No, I say, I’m just a student, but you should tell Sam, and I’m sure he will try. These people don’t want you to observe them, I think, they want you to offer some kind of hope.
I sit in a tent with a young stunning woman, only 18 years old, who gave birth to a little boy, sleeping soundly on a make shift mattress , only 2 weeks ago. Her name is Jane. The baby sleeps all the time she tells me. Sam talks to her husband outside, who just came up from the university with a book bag in tow. Jane and I talk in the tent, and I can’t get over how beautiful she is. She talks about having a baby, and how she had to have a sea section because there was a problem. Now she is tired, after having the baby, naturally, and she doesn’t leave her tent much.
We move on to the next camp: another Nigerian one, three Nigerian camps altogether. In the second camp I see a young man braiding a woman’s hair and three men and one woman sitting around watching them. They each tell me how long they have been living in the forest: 2 weeks, 4 months, 3 years, 1 year. I heard every time frame.
This camp is predominantly from the Yoruba ethnic group, the third camp seemed to house people mostly from the Edo state. The sense of community, so far from home, really is remarkable. Everyone is so friendly. Everyone says “you are welcome,” and ask if I am Moroccan. I meet Chairman Alex, who is in charge of the third camp. He is the father of the infamous nine year old Barack Hussein Obama. As soon as they hear that I am American, he calls out, “OBAMMMMAAAAA.” And two little boys come running. Obama is nine and has little dread locks. He is very shy. The other boy starts talking to me in English, but I hear him also say “3afak” and “yallah” and then even a little je m’appelle. This child, being raised in the forest in Oujda, was already on his way to being trilingual.
One of the young men had been there for 4 years and watched people come and go. He tried to go to Spain twice but had no luck. I asked him why he didn’t want go home, isn’t home better than this? He said that home is a failure, it’s not possible to go home. Then there were two young boys, 18 and 20, who arrived only 2 weeks ago. They looked bold and courageous, and when I asked them about Spain, they looked like they were ready to leap just at the sound of the word “Europe.” They were new and hadn’t yet experienced how Fortress Europe drains the hope of these people, not all of the sudden and sharp, but overtime…when the hardness of the borders and the police become clearer and clearer each day.
The man who had been there for four years just laughed and said, they will see. Overtime it will eat away at them. Not just the police who set fire to their tents in the forest, or chase them to the border, but the forest. The climb up the giant hill every day to go and beg for food, find water, and the climb back up. The taxis who refuse to take them or the aggressions they endure…it all slowly, but surely, drains away the seemingly endless supply of hope.
You know how when you brush your teeth, it seems like you can always squeeze a little bit more out of the toothpaste. You can twist it and contort it every which way, and there is always a little bit that comes out. That’s what I thought about anyway.
I sat down and played cards with this group. I wrote down all their names, ages, their hopes, why they left, etc. There was also another group of three women, ranging from ages 15-18. They seemed preoccupied with what their Chairman was saying to Sam, talking about the UNHCR. The men wanted me to take photos of them, and they posed for me, many times, in various poses that showed their muscles, their strength, their heads held high.
One of these men asked me if there were police in Spain and if they arrested people. He had heard that once you got past Morocco, it’s easy, and the police will not arrest you and deport you. I told him that, sadly, that happens also in Spain so he should be careful if he makes it there. He looked shocked, then he reassured me that it didn’t matter because he could find jobs. One of the women (18) told me she wanted to go to Norway, and not Spain, because she heard there were no jobs in Spain either. She heard people were nice in Norway. I told her that I had never been but I heard it was really cold. “Cold wouldn’t bother me if I had a house,” she replied. Good point.
There were two men (both 22 years old) that had been in the forest for 3 months. Another (20) for 2 weeks, a young woman(15) for 5 months, another teenager(16) for 6 months, and another (15) for 5 months, a strong courageous looking man (25) for 2 weeks, a more experienced woman (24) for 4 years. The experienced man, age 21, had been there for 4 years.
They will try “any means to get to Europe.” The police come every day and deport them, and they just come back.
How do they live? Begging, saltwater sometimes, doctors who come, sometimes people come to give blankets. “No work, no jobs, no opportunities because there is no free movement.”
There were 3 kids, 4 pregnant women, 4 women, and the chairman said 58 altogether in their camp from the Edo State.
One of the young men pointed out a little sickly dog that was running around (there were many stray dogs running around the forest). He said that we train him to chase the police, “that’s all we need against those cowards…we call this dog elephant because he is so strong…” he laughs, “but he has more courage than the police and that is what matters….you know if you call him an elephant enough, he will think he is an elephant and turn into one.”
I am realizing that I do not give much credit to their religion, which is ever present, though not overbearing. But coupled with the ubiquitous “You are welcome,” I hear a consistent “God bless you my sister.” I have my own personal conflicts with religion, but these are the moments where I feel it is the most genuine. These are people who are religious. These are people who have faith. These people’s faith keep them going. These moments I have spent with immigrants (in the forest but also in Rabat), remind me of the power and beauty of faith.
Sam tells me that they have ceremonies in the forest: marriages, baptisms, etc. They put up decorations and make a fire. They sing and dance and celebrate life.
How are they so strong? I can’t stop seeing it. They have created a whole world here in the forests. They have made a sitting area from stones, broken chairs, and sticks. They have made a home of green plastic, old blankets, and rugs. They have hung wires from the tress to dry their clothes and air out their blankets. A young women sits on a stool and gossips with the young man braiding her hair, everyone sits around watching and laughing.
Sam and I move on to some francophone camps, and a lot of them are empty. The watch man for the Cameroonians says that everyone went down to the city because they were too hot. There is a family in this camp. A man (30) who asks me for some water, his wife, and his two babies who are both only a few months old and can sort of crawl. They are sitting on a blanket just playing. Another young woman, looking like she just stepped out of a night club, walks up in heels and looks at me suspiciously. But she smiles after I smile at her and tell her I like her blue and red hair. She asks for food, and I don’t have any. She says, “alors tu viens demain matin, parce que moi, je vais partir demain.” She is going to leave tomorrow? Where are you going ? She doesn’t answer my question and just sort of repeats and says, I am leaving tomorrow so you better come back to see me. I don’t think where she was going mattered, she just wanted to be going and wanted to make sure that Sam and I knew.
We continue on downhill towards a Congolese community. But then we run into two more very pregnant women coming up the mountain with a little girl. The little girl had on a bright pink dress and was instantly drawn to my bright pink camera, so of course we start taking pictures. The two women, named Amy and Beth, were both pregnant. Beth had a baby on her back sleeping , no more than 3 months old, wrapped around her tightly. She was covered with dust from the climb up the mountain. Amy had a cardboard box full of bread and water which she balanced on her head.
Beth had a live chicken in her left hand and three gallons of water on her right hands. And yes they were tired and sweating. But I would probably have collapsed after 5 steps. These women were strong. Strong doesn’t cut it. That’s what is strange. These women just blow my mind. I take the gallon of water, and I am already dying after 20 minutes of walking up hill with the wind blowing dirt in our faces. And the women just thank me and keep walking. We make it up the hill, and we put the supplies in their tents.
They thank us and then sort of collapse in the tents. They say we can stay as long as we want. Then they tell Sam and I that they were chased by the police today, away from the streets where they were begging. Sam looks alarmed. He says to call him as soon as the police harasses them in any way, he will intervene, or call someone who can. The two women shrug and say they lost his number. They were saying it more so to explain why they were so tired, from having to run from the police, rather than to necessarily do anything about it. But Amy pulls out a phone and puts Sam’s number in it again. Sam tells these two women as well, “don’t go down to the city, stay in the forest and rest, you are in a difficult condition…You must stay safe.”
I see a young man wearing an F.C. Barca jersey, Messi, naturally. And he asks if I am Spanish. I say no, American, and he starts talking about American soccer, but I try to revert back to Spanish soccer, because I know a tiny bit about it. He wants to play soccer for Barcelona he says. He is very handsome, with a brilliant and bright smile. He wants us all to take a picture, he holds me close, we take a photo, and he shakes my hand to thank me. Always a firm handshake. Always.
 This name has been changed to protect the representative’s identity.
 These two names have also been changed to protect their identity.
 This young woman’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
 This representative’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
 Both these names have been changed to protect the womens’ identities.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Fulbright Program , Morocco World News, nor other affiliated organizations
Anna Jacobs graduated from the University of Virginia Phi Beta Kappa in 2010. She studied Foreign Affairs,Government, and French Language and Literature. She conducted research in 2009 in both Morocco and Algeria for her undergraduate thesis entitled “Sub-Saharan Migration in the Maghreb: the reality of race in Morocco and Algeria.”