Mahat describes his journey to safety, the tragedy that forced him to flee Somalia, and the harrowing conditions he endured in Libya before being rescued at sea.
Mahat, 29 years old from Somalia. He fled his home in 2015 and three years later, he found protection in Malta.
© UNHCR/Dragana Rankovic
After escaping from Al-Shabaab in Somalia and enduring two years in Libya, Somali refugee Mahat was rescued by the Lifeline search and rescue boat in June 2018. He now has international protection in Malta. In an interview with UNHCR, Mahat describes the danger that forced him to flee his home, his determination to reach safety, and how even in the harsh surroundings of a detention centre, he used his skills as a midwife to help women deliver their children safely and with care.
“Before the problems at home in Somalia started, I never thought about coming to Europe. But then there were a lot of problems. Every morning there was someone, like my relatives and my friends getting killed. Then I feared for myself and I ran away.”
In June 2018, the MV Lifeline search and rescue vessel requested permission to dock in Malta with 234 people who had been rescued from two boats crossing the Mediterranean. After six days at sea and following a dispute between the Italian and Maltese governments as to where disembarkation should take place, the Lifeline was allowed to enter Maltese port, providing much-needed shelter and relief for all the people on board. The men, women and children saved by the Lifeline crew had risked their lives on a dangerous crossing that many do not survive. Over 2000 people died in the Mediterranean in 2018 alone, and it remains the deadliest sea route for refugees and migrants.
Among those rescued by the Lifeline was Mahat, a 29-year-old man from Somalia. Based on an ad-hoc arrangement between several European States, a number of people rescued with Mahat were relocated to other countries, but Mahat was one of 80 who remained and claimed asylum in Malta, where he has since been granted Subsidiary Protection.
Mahat set foot in Malta that day with nothing but the clothes on his back. For him, arriving in a safe country marked the end of a long journey – a journey that began with the murder of his father in 2015, and which came to an end three years later following a cruel period in detention and a perilous crossing of the sea.
A sincere and determined young man, Mahat tells his story with courage; he has been through things that few could ever imagine. His story sheds light on many of the terrible realities asylum-seekers encounter when they are forced to flee their homes.
In recent years migrants passing through Libya have been increasingly subjected to unlawful detention in harsh, inhumane conditions. With such conditions exacerbated by the country’s ongoing instability, the situation is deteriorating and asylum-seekers continue to fall victim to widespread human rights abuses, including violent and degrading treatment at the hands of smuggling networks. In 2019, UNHCR has urged for the immediate evacuation of refugees from Libyan detention centres, and continues to reiterate that Libya is not considered a safe place, as refugees and asylum-seekers are trapped in the middle of an escalating civil war.
Before arriving in Malta, Mahat was detained in north-west Libya for almost two years.
“In the detention there are a lot of people. It is hot, there is not even a window with air coming in. There is only one toilet, so sometimes you could not get in and there would be a line of almost 800 people. Even the dirtiness; you cannot wash because you are not allowed. And they gave us food only once a day. People start to catch diseases, like scabies… and only people with money were brought medicine.”
“In Libya there is no safe place… even if you go outside they will catch you and put you in another prison.”
Detainees in Libya have been tortured by smugglers and coerced into paying more for the journey to Europe, forced to phone family members and beg them to send money. Mahat was stuck in detention for a while, as he did not have the means to pay.
“I told them I did not have money, and they gave me a telephone to call my family. Because I could not get money they beat me with a piece of metal… Sometimes they used electricity too.
There’s a lot of people who died there but I was lucky, I did not die.”
While struggling throughout his time in Libya, Mahat knew that returning to Somalia was not an option.
Having grown up in Mogadishu and worked in a stable job by his early 20s, his life was suddenly hit by tragedy. He fled his home in 2015, when his father was killed by the armed militant group Al-Shabaab. The murder shocked and traumatised Mahat’s family, and when the armed group targeted Mahat himself, he decided it was time to leave.
“And then [Al-Shabab] told me, ‘Either you work with us or we will kill you.’ So I escaped, instead of them killing me.”
Mahat later learnt that after his family had fled Somalia, their home was burnt to the ground, and he then travelled to Libya with the hope of seeking asylum. Without any money at all, he had no idea if he could ever pay for the sea crossing to Europe or be freed from detention. Yet despite the cruel reality of the situation, Mahat and other detainees remained there in the hope of someday being able to reach safety.
Before fleeing his home, Mahat had been working for three years as a midwife. It was a career he pursued with dedication, and one which provided him with skills that would prove to be beneficial even in Libya. While pregnant women are some of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers in detention, they are nonetheless neglected and not given any medical attention. For this reason, and for lack of assistance from anyone else, Mahat actually had to step in and provide vital, sometimes life-saving support to expectant mothers in the detention centre. He had to make sure that when the time came, they gave birth safely and with care.
Incredibly, as his time in Libya went on, he realised that he had become the unofficial ‘on-call’ midwife in the detention centre. “I actually delivered 15 babies while I was in Libya”, he says, and goes on to tell a particular story of when he delivered a baby boy in detention. It was February 2018.
“The mother was already around six months pregnant when she was brought to detention. Around two months later, she started to feel pain.” When she went into labour, “People were telling her ‘Mahat will help you’… And some women brought her to me.”
With the assistance of two other people, one of them a qualified doctor from Eritrea, Mahat tried to make the delivery as easy as possible. The detention centre would only bring them some basic medical items and makeshift curtains, but only because Mahat asked.
“One day before she gave birth I informed the detention people… I told them that if they wanted to assist her, they can get me some things, and then they gave me a small paper and I wrote down what I needed. We were then given a separate area. Not a room, just a small area covered with blankets around for privacy.”
On this occasion, amidst the difficult circumstances and tucked away in one corner of the crowded detention, a Somali boy named Abubakar was born, and Mahat was relieved to have succeeded in very risky conditions and with no medical team to support him in case there was a complication with the childbirth.
“I was afraid… it is not hospital so if something happens, you cannot do anything”, says Mahat, “God helped me, and nothing went wrong with any of the women I helped.”
Over a year later, Mahat still keeps in touch with the mother. She and Abubakar were also rescued by the Lifeline, and have since been relocated from Malta to start a new life in Portugal. It is thanks to Mahat that Abubakar and 14 other babies were brought into the world safely, notwithstanding the horrible conditions surrounding them.
As time went by, Mahat worried that he would never be freed from detention, but after 18 months Mahat was taken to work on a farm to pay his way to Europe. The farm was outside the detention centre and he was driven there every day accompanied by a security guard. It was hard work, but finally after six months, and having spent almost two years detained in Libya, Mahat received some news.
“Normally I worked in the daytime and then came back at night to detention. Then one night when I got back to detention they told me ‘Do not enter for registration… there are people that are leaving tonight. He told me to get ready…. and I felt so happy.”
It was hurried and sudden, but on the night of 20th June, Mahat boarded a flimsy boat with around 130 other people, with no water, lifejackets or warm clothes. He knew what a great risk leaving itself would be, and was fully aware that many people who make the crossing do not make it alive. “All the smugglers promise is that they will give you a boat, put you on the sea… and then it is either you die in the sea or you’re safe. They do not care.”
“When I was entering that boat, I did not think that I would reach Malta, Italy, nothing. Either you live or you’re dead. Just those two options.”
The sea was calm, so despite being crammed on a boat there were no serious accidents, but everyone on board was waiting in apprehension. Then early the next morning, after a night at sea in complete darkness, they spotted a boat in the distance.
“When we saw the boat far away in the sea coming to us… we talked to each other and said, could they be from Libya?”
Worried they would be turned back to Libyan shores where they would face further violence, there was some panic among the people on the boat. “Some people were not sure what to do. Others wanted to jump in the sea. They were afraid because if the boat was from Libya they would be killed.”
When they discovered that it was in fact a rescue boat, they were overcome with relief and joy. They were then taken on board the Lifeline vessel, and Mahat remembers the kindness of the crew who warmly greeted all people on board and immediately provided them with medical attention, water and food.
“I feel very grateful that they saved me.”
With the deterioration of the weather and in the midst of a dispute between Member States on assigning a port for disembarkation, the Lifeline was allowed to dock in Malta, on condition that some of the people on board would be relocated to other EU Member States.
This was the beginning of a new life for Mahat. He remained in Malta, applied for asylum, and now has international protection.
“When I arrived on the Lifeline ship, I heard about Malta, that was the first time.”
Since arriving in Malta and being granted international protection, Mahat has been working to rebuild his life. He is burdened by memories of a difficult past, but he is trying to get back on track.
He now has a job as a Somali cultural mediator for an organisation that provides services to refugees and asylum-seekers in Malta. He enjoys this job, which allows him to support other refugees, but his dream is ultimately to further his studies. “I want to become someone known by people, a respected person…like a doctor.”
This will not be straightforward for Mahat. Like many other people who had to suddenly flee their countries, he was not able to bring any certificates or documents on his journey. “The biggest challenge here is to get a job. All the jobs ask me for my certificates… but in the fire [when my home was set on fire] I lost everything including my certificates.”
Even as a qualified and experienced professional, he will have to start almost from the beginning; a stark reality facing most refugees who have had to leave everything behind.
At the same time, Mahat maintains his ambition. He has started studying science at MCAST, a higher education institute in Malta, and lives in a shared house with other Somali refugees, where he feels comfortable yet independent. He is getting to know his new home, and spends his free time exploring Valletta and other parts of the island.
A year after he was rescued at sea, he has come a long way. Step by step, but not without further obstacles, he is still looking ahead… Looking towards his future with optimism, hope and determination.
UNHCR would like to thank Mahat for sharing his experiences with us so that we continue to shed light on the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Malta.
Mahat is now living in the town of Paola, in Malta. © UNHCR/Dragana Rankovic
Mahat is working as a cultural mediator but hopes he can continue his studies in medicine. © UNHCR/Dragana Rankovic
*This article was also published in the UNHCR Malta magazine Building Communities.