‘In the Spotlight’ # 1: Boneh

‘In the Spotlight’
12 months. 12 stories. 12 opportunities to meet a migrant.

As part of the ‘Share the Journey’ global campaign, Caritas Cyprus will be presenting a monthly online feature will delve into the intricacies of migrants’ journeys on their way to the island of Cyprus. Each story featured under the general title ‘In the Spotlight’, aspires to convey notions on necessity and at times difficulties of these journeys, all the while getting to know a plethora of nationalities, cultures, ideas and people.

‘In the Spotlight’ # 1: Boneh

It’s within the premises of the Caritas Cyprus Migrant Centre adjacent to the Holy Cross Catholic Church in the centre of Nicosia that I first came across Boneh.

He was loosely wearing a pair of bright red headphones around his neck and showing a photo of a young girl on the screen of his cell phone.

From afar, I can just about make out what he’s saying:

“This is my daughter; she was three years old,” he says.

“I’m so sorry,” replies a lady standing in the middle of the room.

“She died at home on the 1st of August.”

Boneh arrived in the north of Cyprus on February 29 of this year, where he was enrolled to begin a diploma in Tourism and Hotel Management at one of the universities.

Yet, four months later, a lack of funds along with an innate fear of returning home to Gambia lead him to reach out to the crossing and seek refuge from his ambiguous fate.

As he conscientiously told to me; it was tension during a community football match back home that took the life of his wife and consequently urged Boneh to flee his homeland.

“Every time we play community football, it’s always tense,” he begins as he introduces himself as the captain of his team.

“At the last match we played, I scored a goal and we were winning 1-0 after the first half. We went for a break and when we came back for the second period, we scored a second goal,” he describes.

“But the opposing team said that it was not a goal, while the referee whistled that it was. They said that they would stop the game and that it was a final match… this is how the tension started… supporters entered the field and started fighting with the referee and two of our players… a lot of people were fighting and a lot of people where injured.”

“The police came to calm the tension and eventually everyone went home, but as the leader of my team and because I scored the first goal, I didn’t know that I had some enemies,” he adds.

That evening, Boneh went home to his wife and daughter where he showered, changed clothes and was picked up by a friend to go and have a drink.

“I left my wife at home watching TV,” he recalls.

“But while I was in my friends house, I was told that four people had gone to my house to attack me. Fortunately they didn’t meet me there. But they found my wife and asked her where I was,” he pauses.

“They started using abusive language, she got scared, and then they started insulting my parents as well as her parents, and then she talked back to them, they attacked her; they started beating her. She fell to the ground. She was shouting.”

“They couldn’t reach me, so they attacked my wife. We took her to hospital but by the time we got there she was already dead.”

As stories go and unaware, some of Boneh’s teammates decided to set light to one of the opposing player’s home, an incident for which Boneh was arrested.

“We explained everything to the police but me and my friend were taken to the community police station for one week. We were beaten. We were tortured. We told them who beat my wife but because they were people from the former government, there was no justice, nothing came out of it.”

It was a week later that Boneh was granted bail. And by coincidence, it was during his jail sentence that Boneh received his acceptance letter from the university in the north of Cyprus.

“My dad told me that they didn’t have the money for a flight ticket to Cyprus, but that it wasn’t safe for me to stay in Gambia; they had killed my wife but the target was me.”

At his father’s advice, Boneh made his way to bordering Senegal where he stayed for five months awaiting for his father to make enough money to put him on a flight to safety.

“In February I bought a ticket from Turkish Airlines, in transit to Istanbul; to Cyprus.”

“There I did one semester and I ran out of money. I knew I couldn’t go back to my country and I couldn’t stay in the north illegally, so I took my passport, went to the police and explained what happened.”

As an asylum seeker, it is while Boneh awaits his interview with immigration that his mother sadly informed him that his daughter passed away under her care.

“On the first of August, according to my mum, my daughter was admitted to hospital because she was sick. When my mum woke up to check on her in the middle of the night she was already dead. She died from Malaria, she was three years old,” Boneh repeats to me once more looking down at the photo on his cell phone.

“I think of the life I was leading before, when I was in Gambia. I was working, I was playing football, I was living a happy life. I was with my wife, we were cooking together, we did things together, we helped each other, we had a child. We were supporting each other,” he reflects.

It seems somewhat surreal that back home, Boneh was working as a volunteer in a health, promotion and development organisation where he would visit different communities in the aim of identifying people suffering with tuberculosis, Malaria and other diseases in order to guide them to hospitals to have screenings and tests done.

I subtly try and change the tone of our conversation and eventually ask him about his headphones.

“I run,” he tells me as he takes his headset off his shoulders.

“Running helps me to free my mind,” he adds as he describes his discovery of the Pediaos footpath he uses to do his running; a place where many of us, as Nicosians, revert to clear our minds from the daily grind, each for our own, specific reasons.

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London