Yahya's escape

After his mother died, the young boy was beaten, deprived of an education and forced to work. One day he found a way out.

Yahya and a colleague tidy up the kitchen at the restaurant where they work in Catania, Italy.
© UNHCR/Fabio Bucciarelli

Yahya didn't know exactly when he'd been born, or how old he was when his father first sent him out with the cows into the arid scrubland of north-eastern Gambia. Four, perhaps. Maybe five.

For the next 10 years, that was all he knew – driving the cattle out of the village at sunrise, breathing the red dust raised by their hooves, swiping at the flies that plagued the animals across 40 kilometres of hard ground.

There was a primary school in the village, but Yahya never went inside. Nor did he go to the mosque. His father and half-brothers were Muslim, but Yahya was the only child of a second wife, a Christian from Sierra Leone. What was the point, his father thought, in sending this boy to school or teaching him to pray? Instead, he beat Yahya and kept him frightened and illiterate.

Sometimes, when no one was watching, Yahya made the sign of the cross. He wasn't sure what this meant. It was something he'd seen his mum do, something he thought might keep him safe. It didn't. When he was 13, his mother died of an unnamed fever. Yahya hid his grief from his half-brothers, who would laugh and lash out if they saw tears. But when he was alone with his cows, Yahya wept.

Yahya poses for a portrait at the restaurant in Catania where he now works.  © UNHCR/Fabio Bucciarelli

Yahya's father had always been violent, but now the beatings got worse. "My dad told me 'You are not Muslim.' I told him 'You never teach me about Muslim'. He told me, 'Maybe I kill you.' "

That was when Yahya, now 15, began to plan his escape.

He waited until the rains came – his father and half-brothers would be sure to sleep late – and fled on foot before dawn. He took two T-shirts and a pair of trousers in a plastic bag. In his pocket, he had five Gambian dalasi – less than one U.S. dollar.

It was pitch black, but by daybreak he had walked across the border into Senegal and reached an asphalt road. The first car stopped. Soaking wet, his sandals slimed in mud, Yahya got in.

Yahya and his cousin Aliou take a selfie on the seafront of Ortigia, where he used to go during his first months in Italy.  © UNHCR/Fabio Bucciarelli

Three months after the car ride, he stepped off a bus in Agadez, Niger. To get this far, Yahya had worked as a garden boy in Mali. Now, he gave what little he'd saved to the smugglers and set off on a three-day drive in a pickup truck across the Sahara. Just south of the Libyan city of Sabha, the convoy was overtaken by men with guns.

Yahya was taken to Tripoli by Libyan smugglers and locked in a basement with a hundred or so men and boys from across sub-Saharan Africa. There was a hole in the floor for a toilet, but no water. "Smell coming in the prison," Yahya remembers. "Sometimes, you don't sleep." The smugglers brought down a ration of stale bread twice a day, and beat the Africans with plastic pipes and the butts of their guns. When a boy roughly Yahya's age complained, the smugglers shot him through the knee.

"In the prison, I see only death," Yahya recalls. But about a month after he arrived, his luck changed. He was taken upstairs to the jailers' house, where he washed dishes, took out the trash and kept his mouth shut. He worked there for a year before the gang took him to a holding cell on the coast. A few weeks later, around midnight, Yahya walked out into the Mediterranean and hauled himself onto an inflatable boat. It was the first time he had seen the sea.

"In the prison, I see only death."

Packed in among 113 people, he watched the lights of Africa recede and vanish. Then there was only darkness, and the sound of the motor labouring through the waves. Everyone was sick. By dawn the wind was dying, and on the second night, "the water, they are silent." A full moon rose and flying fish jumped out of the light. "The moon, the sea, night-time," remembers Yahya. "It is very beautiful."

On the third night, someone saw a ship's light on the horizon. An hour later, the Italian coastguard arrived. Yahya was the first to climb the rope ladder. He fell asleep on deck, and didn't wake up until the boat docked in Sicily.

Still only 16, Yahya was taken directly to a reception centre in Priolo. It's an institution, encircled by a chain-link fence and oil refineries. He might easily have spent years here, the days merging into a numbing glare of sun and boredom. But about four months after Yahya arrived, a Sicilian lawyer named Carla Trommino, concerned by the conditions, set up an initiative to match unaccompanied migrant and refugee children with local families who are willing to help them start a new life. It would be no easy task. Yahya was just one of 5,232 unaccompanied or separated children who arrived in Italy during 2013.

One of those who volunteered was Barbara Sidoti, an academic who agreed to mentor and assist four teenage boys from Gambia and Senegal. In the spring of 2014, she came to Priolo to meet them. One of the four, mute with shyness but smiling at her from across the director's office, was Yahya.

Yahya speaks with his tutor, Barbara, at the restaurant where he works.  © UNHCR/Fabio Bucciarelli

Mostly, Barbara was helping the boys with legal bureaucracy, but whenever she had a free afternoon she picked them up in her old Renault and drove them into Siracusa to show them something of Sicilian life.

Gradually, she realized that what they really wanted to do was cook African food, and by summer she was taking them to her own home so they could use the kitchen. The dishes that emerged were full of flavour and imagination. When the boys didn't have an ingredient, they made do with something else from Barbara's cupboards. This kind of fusion, she thought, was exactly the process by which Sicilian cuisine had evolved. Greeks, Arabs, French – they had all brought their recipes across the Mediterranean, adapting them to the produce of the island until new forms emerged. If Sicily was now going to absorb thousands of Africans, their influence was bound to be felt, sooner or later, in the food.

"If you show Yahya something, he gets it immediately."

That same summer, a friend called with a request for help. He ran a theatre in Catania, with a bar and restaurant. The chef was moving on. Did Barbara know anyone who might like to take over?

Four months later, Barbara had hired a chef, developed a menu, and opened 11Eleven, the first Afro-Sicilian restaurant in Europe. Yahya, whose only experience of work was herding cows, put on chef's whites and began learning the basics of Italian cuisine.

"If you show Yahya something, he gets it immediately," says Salvo Baltico, the restaurant's head chef. "When he arrived he was young, scared and extremely shy. But he wants to learn, and he's an intelligent young man. Now, he's a valued partner to me in this kitchen."

Yahya and a colleague prepare food at the restaurant where they work in Catania.  © UNHCR/Fabio Bucciarelli

For Yahya, the steadiness of the work and the presence of Barbara and Salvo have been profoundly reassuring. For the first time since his mum died, he has found adults he can trust. With their encouragement, he has started to build an independent life in Italy.

In the two years since he was rescued, Yahya has learned to read and write, to speak English and Italian, to operate a mobile phone and to navigate social media. In August 2015, he moved into a private apartment in Catania, not far from his restaurant.

Finding a girlfriend is one challenge that Yahya has yet to figure out. Not long after his 18th birthday, he wrote to Barbara asking if she would choose a Sicilian wife for him. It was hard, he said, to know which girls were good and which were bad. Gently, Barbara explained why this was never going to work. Yahya is still looking, and has reluctantly abandoned the Gambian idea that a suitable match might be arranged. "Now," he says, "my system like European system."

He is adamant that he will never go back to Africa. But when the storms break over Sicily and the island smells of rain-dampened earth, Yahya still remembers his cows out in the bush. Every day, he says, "I think about my mum. If she can see me now, she will not believe it."