“My name is Tijan Bah, I’m 27 years old and I come from Sierra Leone. I arrived in Italy by boat in 2002. I was 12 at the time.” By that age, Tijan had already experienced various traumas, from hunger to the death of his loved ones and last but not least, a dangerous sea crossing to Europe.
Tijan’s story is one of liberation and courage. He lost his family when he was seven during the civil war in Sierra Leone. “One day our village was attacked. My father was killed and my older brother taken away to be a soldier. My mother took me to a reception centre in Guinea, then went back to fetch my sister,” he said. After three days, Tijan ran away from the centre and lived on the streets: “We worked, and sometimes we would steal food, just trying to survive each day.”
Tijan’s journey took six years, passing through Mali, Ivory Coast, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia, where he boarded a boat for Italy. “There were many of us, some died before we even set off. I lost consciousness and came wound up in Italy,” he continued. He landed at Mazara del Vallo in Sicily and was transferred to a reception centre in Palermo. “There was no registration, there were more than 200 of us and we slept together in the same bed. I was still young, among lots of adults and so, after a year, I ran away.”
Tijan spent time in Milan and then four years in Naples, working as a farm labourer in summer; in the winter he picked tomatoes in Foggia and worked in the citrus plantations in Rossano Calabro. “Now I know I was exploited, but at that time I was ok. It was very cold in winter, but we were always with other people, we didn’t go hungry and we didn’t have to steal,” he said.
Life changing journey to Rome
In 2006, Tijan took the train to Rome and the trip changed his life. A woman took him in, he said she “saved his life”. At the age of 17, the juvenile court assigned him to the reception centre in Torre Spaccata and then he was transferred to another centre, the Città dei Ragazzi in the capital. “There my life changed, I began to go to school. We did everything ourselves, we had a tutor, money to live on, workshops. We had everything, there I found a home.”
In 2007 Tijan managed to enroll in a course for barmen organised by the Faro (Lighthouse) Foundation in Rome. After an apprenticeship at a bar in the Monteverde district, he received a contract for three years, enabling him to search for his family in Africa. “In all the years I spent in Italy I never lost hope,” he said. With help from an Italian family of lawyers, Tijan discovered that his mother was still alive and set off to look for her in 2010. “I managed to find her in Gambia. I built her a house with help from a fundraising campaign. I go to visit every year and make it possible for my little brother to study.”
Tijan also met his future wife in Gambia and the couple married in 2014. She was able to join him in Italy via family reunification and they had a son in 2015. “The Faro Foundation is my family,” he said. “Had I not done that course for barmen I would never have been able to do all this.” Last year, Tijan was granted Italian citizenship. “I feel 100% Italian. The colour of my skin doesn’t count, this is how I feel inside, I feel integrated, I don’t feel different.”