Kids at work: a migrant in Italy
‘People are talking about me in Gambia,’ Musa Fata says, as he takes money on the door of a basement bar in Naples, where he is putting on his first club night.
It’s true: boys back home are eager to know what life is like in Europe. They tune in to the 24-year-old Afrobeat DJ and promoter’s regular Facebook Live soliloquies on music and fashion, where he shows off his box-fresh sneakers, pristinely ironed clothes and sharply cornrowed hair.
Musa arrived in Italy as part of the great wave of migration that Europe has experienced in recent years. He crossed the perilous desert into Libya where he washed car windows in Tripoli to raise 500 dinar ($360) to pay a smuggler to cross the Mediterranean. In August 2015, as his dinghy drifted off in the wrong direction, he was intercepted by the Italian coast guard and made landfall in Europe.
For two years he lived in refugee accommodation – a former hotel 150 kilometres south of Naples – while he waited for his asylum status to be granted. Rendered invisible without documents, Musa lived in the shadows along with hundreds of other asylum seekers.
Most of the 400 or so residents spent their time ‘sleeping, eating and chatting with friends back home on WhatsApp’ – but not Musa. He focused on trying to make, and save, money. He was determined to keep a ‘stable mind’, even when it became clear that Italy was no land of opportunity, with Italians themselves struggling to find work.
Musa spent his first winter standing on the roadside outside the defunct hotel in the hope that someone would drive up and offer him work. ‘I kept trying every day,’ he says. ‘But only lucky people found a little work’.
The following year he was finally picked up and taken to a restaurant in a nearby seaside town to wash dishes. He worked hard and charmed the owners. They kept him for the summer, but without a contract, making irregular cash payments that amounted to little more than a few euros per hour.
When he wasn’t washing dishes, he would make the long haul into Naples, taking two buses and a train, to buy black-market cigarettes. Ever the ‘entrepreneur’, Musa would sell them, one by one, to other refugees. Although the work was informal, he had a roof over his head and an evening meal thrown-in.
Musa has since been granted asylum. But in the short term, things are likely to get harder. He now shares a double-bed in a tiny street-level apartment in central Naples near the train station. He can work legally, but finding a job is difficult in a place where the unemployment rate for young people hovers between 40 and 50 per cent and many Neapolitans, in Musa’s words, ‘don’t like us blacks’.
The success of a recent party he put on has given some substance to his dream of becoming a ‘big, big, big DJ’. There are only a couple of nightclubs that asylum seekers in Naples feel comfortable going to. One was happy to let Musa organize his first event on a Sunday night and split the entrance fee 50/50. He has plans to promote other Gambian DJs and musicians who have come to Italy as asylum seekers, taking advantage of Afrobeat’s popularity in mainstream culture.
But, for now, Musa has no choice but to be flexible. Whether he is wandering the beaches selling bikinis (one of his many jobs so far) or coming up with another ‘business plan’, the future remains uncertain.
Daisy Squires and Sophia Seymour are the co-directors of the upcoming Hotel Garibaldi – a documentary following the lives of four West African refugees in Italy as they fight back against corruption in the asylum system.