negra – Immigrants between Africa and Europe

Barcelona, Spain, 2010

Harragas. Those brave enough to burn the sea – this is just one name given to illegal immigrants crossing the Mediterranean. Despite intensified controls at Europe’s external borders by Frontex more than 230.000 people tried to cross from Africa and Asia to Europe between 2006 to 2011. More than 7000 lost their life. Officially.

This documentary series shows fragments of the lives of some of these men. They found a place to stay in an old unoccupied building in the streets of Barcelona. The word negra is written in big black letters on the wall of the former enterprise. At the time this long-time documentary was shot it was home to more than 60 African immigrants who tried to find a new life in Europe.

The house is also representative of many other so-called squats in the streets of Barcelona which are still inhabited by illegal immigrants.

Negra quickly formed a seemingly secure anchor for many, a temporary community. None of them lived on the street for a long time, they all had heard about the building from friends or other immigrants. The number of people was in constant shift, so were the inhabitants. Some vanished for a time, some disappeared for good. What everyone shared was a place allowing them to live with their own people, sharing the same destinies and the same way of living and creating something like a home. Nevertheless, the house seemed to be stuck between Europe and Africa while neither reaching one nor the other. Days mostly appeared to be the same.

The documentary gives a brief impression of what it is like to come to Europe, legally or illegally. It shows the hopes, doubts and dreams of the residents and reflects a young generation of mostly Senegalese people trying to find a future.

The building was cleared and eventually closed by police in 2012 due to a fire.

Boubacar, 23 (1/2)

“We spent 10 days on the sea with 177 people going from Senegal to Gran Canaria. One person died during the trip. It was one of the drivers. After four days at sea he became ill, we have already been near Morocco. After five days he died. It was the morning when we first reached Spanish territory. We waited for 3 hours, prayed and buried him at sea. The night after a Spanish boat noticed us and brought us to Gran Canaria. We didn’t have any gas left but thank God the Spanish people found us in time. Sometimes, if the wind is very strong, the water is like a mountain that grabs the boat, takes it to the top and then drags you back down to the sea. I remember three people who weren’t able to stand up anymore when we arrived. You have to sit for ten days – at the same place. There you remain, you eat, you go to the toilet. Everything at the same spot. To come here you have to endure a lot. The boat was small, maybe 23 meters long and 2 meters wide. 177 people is a lot for such a boat.“ After 40 days in a center on the Canary Islands he is brought to Madrid. ‚Hola‘ is the only word he knows.”

Boubacar, 23 (2/2)

Boubacar decides to continue to Barcelona. There he is living on the streets for 3 months. “I had a place to stay behind the church at Plaza Espana. I shared it with a Pakistani.“ Eventually he hears about an organization which helps him to learn a little bit of Spanish, gives him food and a place to stay. He soon gets to know other Senegalese people and finally moves to the house. „Here I am living with my own people. Those who have money buy food for everyone. I am here since 11 months now. If I would be alone I would suffer way more. Here it doesn’t matter if you have money or not. People understand you, have the same views and problems.“ But he also worries about the future. “Police cannot throw us out that easily“, he believes. “They cannot just kick us out (…) as long as there are no bigger problems. But here are people from Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Morocco, there are often problems. Also we do not pay rent, electricity or water, we are living here for free. We also therefore do not have any rights. But for many of us this is the only possibility. That is why I want to find another place as fast as possible. If I get work or papers is not in my hand. That is a thing of pure luck. But at the same time this would be the only thing which would make me stop suffering at the moment.“

Saine, 30

Saine comes to Europe in a fishing boat. From Dakar to Tenerife. 65 people joined him on this journey. “It took us 10 days to arrive. Without break. The boat never stops. We had several drivers. When one was getting tired the next one would take over.‘ The trip proceeds as planned without problems. “During the night around midnight the sea is getting calmer. Then the boat is running like a racing car.“

Some days before their departure an accident happens. All passengers died while trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a fishing boat. “We saw it everywhere on TV and the radio. They came from a neighboring village which I knew. But what can you do. What I wanted was to leave that place. I wasn’t too frightened. I just saw myself leaving because everything else also means suffering.“

Amadou, 19

Amadou has to leave Senegal when he is 13. It is the will of his family. His father has died. He is sent to his uncle who lives in Portugal with a visa for family reunification. It’s 2004. Long he cannot stand the situation there. He runs away and finally ends up in Switzerland living on the street for 2 months – until the easy money is tempting. Drug trafficking and money laundries. Soon he is caught and loses his papers and his permission to stay. Finally he ends up in Barcelona, without perspective or money. „I came here because I believed in all the lies they told me“, that the money is lying on the streets. „But here in Europe there is nothing, nothing that holds me here. Nothing.“ But he cannot go back. Because of respect. A big word in Africa. Respect towards his family. If he comes back with empty hands it means shame. So he stays not knowing what will happen tomorrow. From time to time he gets a bit of money from a friend with whom he raps and has some rare shows. That’s all he has. „Life is hard. Accept it.“

Abdul, 27

“…At least you have always food in my country in Africa. Not like here. I don’t have any money. Often I go to a food bank to get a meal because I don’t have any other choice. Five years without seeing my family… even if you get to know a girl there is always this slight mistrust. Does he only do it for the papers? My heart cannot feel anything anymore. Neither pain nor anything else. I had to suffer too many things in my life already. I do not want to talk to anyone about it.

My mother asks me constantly if I am well. I cannot say anything else to her but ‚I am good‘. Life is too hard. I cannot do anything. But I will endure. If one day I will reach the point where I cannot carry on, I will go. But without anything in your hands you also cannot go back home.“

Texts are taken from interviews with the residents of the squat.

The book dummy accompanying this project won the ADC Silver Award in 2013.