- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

KEBEMER, Senegal

Maimouna Niang lives pretty well for a young mother in a dusty corner of West Africa. Though her house is on a dirt road and a sheep pen takes up half her yard, she has a DVD player, a telephone line to her house and an elegant wooden crib for her year-old son.

What’s missing, she says, is her husband, Cheikh Dia, who has just returned to Italy and won’t be back for a year.

For much of the year, many of the able-bodied men of this town in northern Senegal live in Europe, where they work in factories or sell watches and knickknacks on the street. They spend part of their earnings on food and rent, and wire the rest to their families back home.

Once a month, Mrs. Niang visits Western Union to collect her $400 or so — sometimes more, sometimes less, but always enough to keep her comfortable, she said.

The families here have achieved the better life pursued by thousands of young men who migrated to Europe, first by air, now on hazardous ocean voyages in wooden boats. Yet those in Kebemer speak of long separations, broken marriages and men stuck in Europe for years, undocumented, ever fearful of arrest and deportation.

Europe too ‘cold’

Mrs. Niang, 32, said her husband came home sick on his last visit. “He has rheumatism, and with the cold in Europe, it’s difficult for him,” she said, sitting on a living room couch and dandling her son on her knee. “But here there isn’t any work. Over there it’s better.”

“Over there” is Milan, where the 39-year-old described his life in stronger words than his wife.

It’s “a mess,’ he said when contacted by telephone, adding that he’s “absolutely unhappy.” Mr. Dia refused to go into details, saying, “I just wish I could be there, near my family.”

Most of the migrant men of Kebemer were lucky enough to leave for Europe when it was still relatively easy to fly there and enter without a work visa. Mr. Dia’s theology degree got him work in Senegal, but at very low pay, so he flew to France in 1994 on a tourist visa.

Once in France, he paid a Frenchwoman about $500 to sneak him across the border into Italy. A few months later, an amnesty was declared for illegal aliens in Italy, and Mr. Dia became a legal worker.

Migration on rise

Today, as Europe moves to curb immigration, thousands of Africans try to get in by boat. Hundreds have drowned. Authorities on Spain’s Canary Islands, the nearest European territory to West Africa, say the number of arrivals has doubled to more than 10,000 this year.

Mr. Dia said that even with documents, life is difficult. The car-parts plant where he was working closed just before he left for Senegal on his yearly visit, and he had to find another job when he returned to Italy. He didn’t meet his son until the baby was 7 months old.

Mrs. Niang’s neighbors in Kebemer include a woman whose husband is in Paris and another whose husband works in Florence, Italy.

At this time of year, in this town of about 15,000, “it’s finding the men that’s difficult,” said Mamadou Kebe. He said most of the men come home for a couple months around August; those left are too young, too old, or too poor to leave.

“Here, there’s no work,” he said. “I’m here, but I don’t work.” At 49, he went on, it’s too late for him to establish a life abroad.

The results of success are evident in Kebemer. A two-story cement house with an arched colonnade was built with money from Europe. Nearby, other families live in thatched huts in dirt compounds fenced by woven straw.

Tough lives

Although Senegal, a Muslim nation of about 12 million, is peaceful and relatively well-run by the region’s standards, 54 percent of its people live below the poverty line and about half the population is unemployed, according to 2001 estimates.

But success abroad means difficult compromises and a whole new set of risks.

In Florence, where throngs of African men in brightly colored robes sell watches and bags in the shadow of the city’s glorious Renaissance monuments, Malick Gueye lives a spartan life.

“I have very little spare time, and I have no Italian friends,” he said. “Life is expensive in Florence. There’s no time to go out for dinner, or to go dancing, and if you don’t do this … you stand little chance of making friends,” he said. Besides, he said, he’d rather devote his waking hours to earning money to send home.

Mr. Gueye, 40, is from another northern Senegal town, one of many whose men are in Europe. In Senegal, he taught the Koran, a respected but low-paying job. Like Mr. Dia, he left for Italy more than 10 years ago. He visits his wife and 4-year-old son once a year. In Florence, he shares an apartment with five Senegalese men.

Italy adopted a tough law against illegal aliens in 2002 that threatens immediate expulsion, and many in the community were reticent to talk. Though Mr. Gueye now has working papers, he seemed nervous about being interviewed, refused to be photographed and insisted on meeting in a piazza in central Florence.

At midday in Mrs. Niang’s home, women gather and tell stories of men who have gone bad, or who haven’t succeeded in Europe. One left to study and never returned. Another tried to enter with fake papers and was deported. Mrs. Niang tells of men who sell drugs or cheat on their wives in Europe, or go for a year and stay indefinitely.

“I have a friend who had a visa to go to Paris for two months. He took the train to Italy, and he can’t come back now because he doesn’t have papers. His wife is here, and she had a child just after he left,” she said.

Fatou Mbeigne perches on a bed holding her daughter and says her husband would like to go but can’t, because he can’t raise the $6,000 needed to pay someone with connections to help get a visa.

Opportunities drying

Migrating for work isn’t new to West Africa. Men have always gone to work in big cities such as Dakar, or Abidjan in Ivory Coast, and wives are used to depending on members of their extended families. But many in Kebemer say jobs are fewer now in West Africa.

Nor are they plentiful in Europe anymore.

“I found five different jobs right when I arrived,” Mr. Dia said. “Now, you can go months without finding work.”

“Europe before was good,” said Dame M’Boup, a man with children who was in Kebemer beyond the usual vacation season because he was recovering from a car accident that injured his hand. “But now it’s not good. Everyone is there.”

Mr. M’Boup arrived in Europe in 1987 on a Belgian visa, then sneaked into Italy, where he heard the best jobs were. He now sells watches on the streets of Pisa.

There are about 2.8 million legal immigrants in Italy, according to the Italian Interior Ministry. ISMU, a think tank specializing in migration, estimates that an additional 500,000 are there illegally.

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