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Eritrean teen finds harmony after desperate journey to Europe

Italy. Eritrean teenager's desperate journey with only her songbook for company

Eritrean teen finds harmony after desperate journey to Europe

After fleeing home, 16-year-old Kokob found solace in music and safety in Europe.
3 September 2018
Kokob tells her story to a UNHCR worker at a reception center for unaccompanied girls in Pozzallo, Italy.

Whenever Kokob began to lose hope during her long and dangerous journey to safety, it was the music that saw her through.

“In some hangars in Libya they would let us sing, in whispers,” the 16-year-old recalls. “In others, everything was forbidden. Thanks to the music, I kept my hopes up along my terrible journey.”

Kokob was just 13 when she left Eritrea and her family behind. She then spent two years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where she made the decision to travel on to Europe. It was to be a journey fraught with danger.

A new report from UNHCR shows that more than 1,600 people have died or gone missing while attempting to reach Europe so far this year.

"I kept my eyes shut for the fear."

The report shows that while the total number of people arriving in Europe has fallen, the rate of deaths has risen sharply, particularly for those crossing via the Mediterranean Sea from Libya, often after a harrowing overland journey. 

New arrivals to Italy frequently report being sold by one armed group to another, being tortured as part of demands for ransom, being forced to pay sums of several thousand dollars, sometimes on multiple occasions, to secure their release. Children like Kokob run the same risks as adults.

Italy. Eritrean teenager's desperate journey with only her songbook for company
The notebook in which Kokob transcribed some of her favourite songs.

“In the middle of the desert between Sudan and Libya the trafficker told me I need to pay additional US$2,200. Later, he took the money and sold me to other traffickers," she says. "After that they requested another US$2,500 and I was moved from one hangar to another, seven in total. Finally, I paid the final US$1,500 for the sea crossing. I spent more than one year in Libya.”

Kokob was lucky. She explains that her grandmother and other family members sold property in order to find the money she needed to pay the traffickers’ ransom and secure her freedom.

The report shows that the total number of people arriving in Europe has fallen.

“They were too afraid of what happens to people in Libya,” she says. “They wouldn’t let me die in the hands of the traffickers.”

Before Kokob embarked on her perilous journey, she bought one item – a memory card filled with music – which would help her through the darkest hours that lay ahead. She transcribed the songs into a notebook so that she could sing along, and added others from the companions she met along the way.

“I learned some melodies from the others. We used to sing together whenever we needed to comfort each other. Sometimes people asked me to lend them the songbook, so they could sing and pray by themselves.”

"People started singing to celebrate.”

The night Kokob crossed the Mediterranean was the first time she had ever seen the sea. Before they arrived at the rickety wooden boat, she covered her precious songbook with plastic and hid it behind her back, so traffickers would not take it away from her. Then she climbed aboard with other 450 people.

“The waves were so terrifying that not only was I unable to sing, I couldn’t even look at the water. I kept my eyes shut for the fear. Only when we saw the rescue vessel, could I finally open my eyes. People started singing to celebrate.”

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency
This little songbook helped its young and brave owner survive the horrors of Libya and the Mediterranean crossing. She's now safe in Italy, where she keeps on singing after her #DesperateJourney


One week after the rescue vessel arrived in Pozzallo, a UNHCR team met Kokob, in a reception centre for unaccompanied girls. She smiled and said she wanted to study. At last, she was looking forward to the future.

Then, she sang the song that came to her in the middle of the Mediterranean, as she was being rescued.

“It’s called ‘The Boat’, and it says: ‘You are my boat, you protected me from the waves, taking me to safe shore. Now I am not afraid of the waves."

Read a news release on the report here.