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Migrants building life in Spain face 'emotional toll' after deadly journey, says author Ousman Umar

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By Graham Keeley
Migrants arrive on Spanish soil after crossing the fences separating the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco, in Melilla, Spain.
Migrants arrive on Spanish soil after crossing the fences separating the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco, in Melilla, Spain.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Javier Bernardo   -  

Surrounded by the bodies of other migrants who had been abandoned in the Sahara Desert by traffickers, Ousman Umar thought he was going to share their fate.

Against the odds, he survived and after a desperate journey, he finally made it to Spain where he became a successful businessman with a masters degree from Esade, one of the world’s top business schools.

Ousman Umar
Umar met Spain's King Felipe VIOusman Umar

This son of a village witch doctor met King Felipe VI of Spain last week.

His story is the stuff of dreams for tens of thousands of migrants who struggle to reach the promised land, Europe.

However, Umar works to convince would-be migrants not to risk their lives to come to Europe but to stay at home and build futures for themselves.

He set up an NGO, Nasco Feeding Minds, which has bought nearly 400 computers for schools in his native Ghana to give children there a chance through education to choose their own future.

He works with banks and other businesses giving inspirational speeches to executives in Spain and other European countries.

“I want my story to give a voice to all the migrants who died (trying) to cross the seas, who suffered beatings like me in Libyan prisons, so that people in Africa do not try to do what I did,” Umar told Euronews.

“Charity is useful when something really bad happens but it is never going to solve the problem at source. What is needed is people make their own successes in their own countries.”

He added: “I am a rare success story, but I wish I had never done this. It is too tough; the emotional toll is too much.”

Umar has set up Nascotech, a company which provides work for 14 people in Ghana. He hopes in five years, scores more will join.

Spain, like Italy and Greece, has long been a doorway to Europe for migrants from Africa and elsewhere.

Over 132,000 people arrived in Europe in the nine months up to September 15, either by crossing the Mediterranean or by land, according to the International Organisation of Migration, a UN body.

More than 2,000 people are believed to have died during the journey, many drowning in the Mediterranean, the UN migration body said.

Umar’s remarkable story is unlike the experiences of most migrants who struggle to reach Europe in the hope of a new life.

NASCO Feeding Minds
Umar's NGO provides computers for students in Ghana.NASCO Feeding Minds

When Umar’s mother died during his birth, elders in his remote village condemned him to death for being a ‘bad spirit’ but his father intervened to save his life.

Curious to see the world outside Ghana, he left his country aged 13 and headed through Niger towards Libya. Traffickers left him and 40 other migrants to die in the desert, but he survived by drinking his urine and on meagre rations.

When he reached Libya he found work but said he was regularly beaten by police.

He saved up $2,000 to pay more traffickers to take him across Algeria, Morocco and eventually to Mauritania where he boarded a flimsy boat which took him to the Canary Islands.

Eventually, he made it to Barcelona when he was 18.

After two years living rough on the streets, he was helped by a Spanish family who supported him through school and from there he studied for a masters degree.

I am a rare success story, but I wish I had never done this. It is too tough; the emotional toll is too much.
Ousman Umar

His story is a world away from that of Ahmed, who works on a farm ringed by barbed wire and guarded by barking dogs.

He found this cash-in-hand job on the outskirts of Gava, a nondescript commuter town very different from the Gaudí architecture and popular beaches of nearby Barcelona.

Like many before him, Ahmed left his life in Morocco in hope of a better life in Europe.

His journey began when he made the dangerous journey in an inflatable boat from Morocco to the Canary Islands. He finally ended up in Barcelona where there is a large Moroccan community.

Odd jobs followed but after three years he does not have official papers, meaning he can only be paid in cash.

“It has not been easy, but it is much better here than in Morocco. I am paid more and can send it back to my family at home,” Ahmed told Euronews. He did not want to disclose his full name.

Tensions over migration

Modern Spain came late to mass immigration. In 1998, there were just 1.2 million foreigners but by 2010, this number had risen to 6.6 million in a population of 47 million.

Last year, the figure rose to 7.2 million, with most coming from Latin America, Romania and Morocco.

The far-right Vox party, which is the third largest force in the Spanish parliament with 52 deputies, opposes illegal migration. Its level of support shows there is some opposition to new arrivals among Spain’s otherwise tolerant society.

In the first nine months of this year, 23,197 migrants arrived in Spain, compared with 28,729 in the same period last year, a decrease of 19.3%, according to Spanish government data.

Nuría Díaz, of the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid, an NGO, put the decrease down to better cooperation between Spain and Morocco.

“What I can say is there has been a fall in numbers after Spain and Morocco made agreements on greater cooperation on security,” she told Euronews.

This cooperation came under the spotlight in June when at least 23 migrants died in a mass break through in Melilla, one of Spain’s North African enclaves, but aid groups claimed the death toll was higher.

AP Photo/Javier Bernardo
Migrants run on Spanish soil after crossing the fences separating the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco in Melilla, Spain.AP Photo/Javier Bernardo

Spanish authorities failed to uphold domestic and international law in returning to Morocco nearly 500 migrants following the crossing at Melilla, the country’s civil rights ombudsman said in an interim report published last week.

Despite tensions over migration, analysis has found that foreigners will be Spain’s future as the number of native-born Spaniards is expected to fall from 84.5% at present to 63.5% by 2072, according a recent report by the National Statistics Institute (NIE).

Spain’s low birth rate of 1.27 children per woman means between 2022 and 2036, 5.5 million children are expected to be born, according to projections by the INE, or 14.2% less than in the previous 15 years.

However, at the same time it is expected the overall population will rise from 47 million to 51 million by 2072, thanks to the children of migrants who have higher birth rates.

Martiza Lopez Alejos is a perfect example of the Spain of tomorrow.

The Peruvian cleaner gave birth to her daughter Angela in 2016 almost the same day she gained Spanish nationality.

She had been living in Spain since 2007 but spent the first three years working illegally but she was granted a contract by an employer and registered with authorities.

“I am happy to be living in Spain. There are better jobs here and less corruption than in my country. It is where I want Angela to grow up,” she told Euronews.