Ssuuna Golooba was a photojournalist in his native Uganda. But, like many others, he thought he could make a more lucrative living in Europe. His documentary project Surprising Europe was featured on Al Jazeera.
“Although I had a job in Uganda, I could never look after my family and mother as well as I wished on my salary of $150 per month. Most professionals in my country are paid peanuts and this has forced many of them to look for greener pastures elsewhere. Going to Europe seemed to be the best way to achieve my goals.
During the day I worked as a freelance photojournalist for the New Vision and Bukedde newspapers in Uganda. In the evening, I worked in my own small shop in Kampala, the capital. Not many people in my country can earn that kind of money. I was able to meet people from all social classes, I was able to travel around the country, I had access to everything.
But I had it in my mind to go to Europe because many of my friends had emigrated. Some of them came back home with flashy cars and lots of money. The temptation to make it big and the fear that I was being left behind helped make up my mind.
In Uganda, I lived in a small village not far from Kampala. I was able to build my own small house and also had a small car that I used for work. My house was not so good compared to those of the rich people in the area, but it was okay for me. It had three rooms and no running water inside. I had electricity and a landline telephone. I was living there with my wife, daughter and a housemaid who helped us with the domestic work.”
In search of a better life
“A very good friend of mine went to London; he came back 10 years later with everything – cars, machines to make furniture and about $48,000.
I told him that I wanted to go to Europe, but he warned me not to. I thought perhaps he did not want me to develop.
I started to make arrangements. Initially I wanted to go to the UK, but they rejected my visa application. That made me think maybe it would be better to stay in my country. But I could not ignore the small voice within me telling me to go to Europe. I could hear it saying: “This is your time, use it, you’re not earning enough money here, if there are no opportunities in your country go elsewhere. Many people migrated and they have made it, you will make it.”
On the day of my departure, my family organised a farewell party and a small service to thank God for the visa and to ask for protection and guidance. We gathered at my mother’s house where nearly all my family and friends came to wish me luck and to ask me to bring gifts back with me. We roasted three chickens – everyone was excited.
When I hugged my mother for the last time her face was full of happiness. She told me: “Please don’t let us down and don’t forget us. Work hard so that we can also get some happiness. God will bless you and everything you do in Europe.”
I was looking forward to the challenges but as the plane took off, I started to think about where I was going. I asked myself: where am I going to sleep, who is going to receive me at the airport, what food am I going to eat, what job I am going to do? I tried to sleep but was too nervous and began to doubt my plan.
A European paradise
When I arrived in Amsterdam a man took me to the area where most immigrants live. He had arranged accommodation for me in the house of an African man. There were 15 people of different nationalities living there. I had to pay $162 a month to sleep in the corridor.
After three months I called my mother to ask for money because I was completely broke and had nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat. I went to Europe to help my family but now my family had to help me. My mother sent me $337, which I used to pay my rent for two months. I still had no money to buy food and, along with some friends, had to survive off other people’s leftovers. Sometimes church organisations gave us food.
Some of my friends were sleeping in semi-finished buildings, on the streets or on construction sites. One Zambian man spent more than a year sleeping on the streets. “I used to see beggars in my country and I could never think that one day I could be one of them in Europe,” he told me.
I will never forget the Nigerian lady who confessed that she was forced into prostitution. “I could sleep with more than five men a day just to get some money for rent, food and medication,” she said. She told me other women were in the same situation. She said they looked for jobs but wherever they went, they were asked for papers they did not have. Some contracted HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Getting together the money for rent and actually finding a room were two completely different things. Many people were afraid to accommodate us because we were illegal. Those that did let us rent rooms could impose unfair rules, like only allowing us to cook once a week.
My relatives back home started calling and telling me stories of hunger and poverty – demanding that I send money. They could not understand why, two years after arriving in Europe, I was still jobless. Sometimes I told them of the realities I had encountered but they did not believe me.
Many people in my situation were being paid cash for their work, but by doing so, became a target of exploitative bosses. Sometimes you could work for 12 hours and then the boss would say he had no money to pay you. We always had to fight for our money.
We could not openly complain because of the fear of losing our jobs. We lived in fear of the police, thinking we would be arrested and deported empty-handed.
When we got sick there was no money for treatment. It is very difficult for immigrants to acquire medication without papers. The Red Cross doctors can only provide you with paracetamol, no matter what the illness. They give you a letter referring you to a hospital but when you get there they ask for your insurance or ask you to pay lots of money. One Ugandan girl developed a tumour in her stomach, but when she was referred to a hospital, they told her that without medical insurance she had to pay more than $4,000 for an operation.
There were also some good people. I remember one retired Dutch doctor who used to help sick illegal immigrants. I went to see him and was amazed by the long cue of waiting immigrants.
The fear of failure
I missed my daughter and mother the most. I left my daughter in a boarding school when she was only five years old and I saw her again when she was 12. She could not remember me very well although she knew I was her father.
I felt depressed when I received calls from home announcing the death of a family member. Many people passed away during the time I was away.
I was not alone in this situation – many other immigrants were experiencing the same thing. Some had been away from their families for more than 10 years. One Ghanaian called Adrian said: “I have spent 10 years without seeing my family. I left my wife pregnant and I have never seen the child. I fear to go back empty-handed.”
The dilemma facing African immigrants in Europe is that they can barely find work. But returning home is no longer an option because they cannot pay back the money they borrowed for their trip. On top of this, the people who stayed at home want their share of the “riches” collected in Europe. They fear going home with nothing, because their family and friends will laugh at their failure and expel them from the community.
All of this makes immigrants vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination and humiliation. It is far from the “gold mountains” they dreamed of.
Many go from Africa to Europe as fortune hunters with high expectations but little information about the reality of life as an illegal immigrant.
In October 2005, I read an article about the plight of 11 illegal immigrants who were killed when a fire broke out while they were awaiting deportation at a prison complex outside Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
I was shocked, particularly, because I thought such negligent situations could not happen in a developed country like the Netherlands. This was the turning point in my perception of Europe. I could never have imagined that a disaster of that scale would take place in such a wealthy, well-organised country.
It opened my eyes to the miserable situation I was in and I could see that I was trapped between my false expectations of Europe and the unrealistic expectations of my family.
Then I started the Surprising Europe project. I wanted to tell people the problems that Africans face – particularly those who migrate to Europe with the intention of working and becoming rich.
The project is not intended to discourage Africans from going to Europe, but rather to encourage them to weigh up their options before leaving their homelands.