At the age of fifteen, Ismail Drammeh left home in Gambia and set out on a long journey over land and sea. He ended up in Italy and eventually found work as a model. He talks about his remarkable journey:
I come from the poorest village in Gambia, Mabally Koto. In 2014, when I was 15, I left my village to seek a better life. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my family.
I crossed the border into Senegal, where I found odd jobs to save up enough money to keep travelling. After about three months, I travelled to Mali and, from there, to Burkina Faso and then Niger. At each stage of my journey, I would stop and look for work where I could. Sometimes, I worked in the fields. Other times, I unloaded trucks. I wasn’t always paid.
When I got to Niger, I called my mom for the first time in several months. She told me that she thought that I was dead.
Libya: “I had to hide all the time because I was afraid of being assaulted”
I crossed the desert towards Libya, a journey that took 11 days. At one point, the driver said the car had a problem and turned around. We were left with nothing and spent the next four days walking.
Finally, we arrived in [Sabha]. As I had done before, I spent a few months there working so I could pay for the next leg of my journey. But Sabha was worse than anything I had ever experienced. I had to hide all the time because I was afraid of being assaulted. Finally, I made enough money to travel to Tripoli, where I immediately started looking for a boat.
I met two people, who brought me to the countryside to work in the fields. I worked hard all day, then they threw me in prison. I managed to escape but they caught me. While they were dragging me back to prison, a boy in uniform – I’d say he was 11 years old at most – stabbed my leg with a knife. I wasn’t given any kind of treatment. I had to cover my leg with sand to get it to stop bleeding.
I crammed into a Zodiac rubber dinghy with 110 other people. On the second try, we waited two days in the sea. We had nothing. At one point, I drank seawater. Finally, an Italian boat arrived. They gave us food and medical care.
“I see my future in Italy”
I arrived in Palermo, Italy on August 24, 2015. [Because I was still a minor], I was placed with Comunità Alloggio Casa di Ina, in Termini Imerese [one of Palermo’s municipalities]. There were six of us minors from different countries, including Nigeria, Pakistan and Mali.
The people there welcomed me and enrolled me in junior high. I learned Italian in school and in the community. When I got my junior high certificate, I enrolled in a technical school specializing in the hospitality industry.
Coming to Italy changed my life. Everything that I know, I learned here. I just started an internship as a waiter. At the same time, a friend put me in touch with the fashion world and I started getting modelling gigs. I’ve walked the catwalks in Palermo for some of the biggest brands. My dream is to do both. If I become a model, I want to be a model who knows how to cook, a model with a frying pan in his hand.
Last year, I obtained the status of “protected minor”, which is good for two years. I’m 19 now and I’m protected until I am 21. After that, I hope to get papers that will give me the permanent right to work in Italy. I don’t want to apply for asylum here because I want to be able to travel back to the Gambia to see my parents.
I’m in contact with my parents. They are happy for me – happy that I have a diploma, good work prospects and friends.
I am a little bit worried to see [Matteo] Salvini [the head of the anti-immigration party Liga, which got 18% of votes on Sunday] rising in influence so much. But I have both friends who are foreign, like me, and Italian friends. Everybody in Termini Imerese knows me. For the time being, I see my future in Italy.