‘In the Spotlight’ #4: Leemu

Text and photographs by Melissa Hekkers

“The journey is something that I don’t want to talk about,” Leemu warns me as we order hot chocolate sitting outside in the sun, just a couple of days after Christmas.

“There are some things that I witnessed or experienced on the way here [to Cyprus] that I can hardly talk about… those are memories that I really don’t want to remember anymore because they are painful,” he adds.

Leemu arrived alone to Cyprus at the age of seventeen, leaving his grandmother behind in Gambia, his sole family member. Upon arrival, Leemu spent six months at a shelter for unaccompanied minors, a locale that provides accommodation for children under eighteen who travel alone to seek asylum.

“I have to be grateful. [In the shelter] I was given three meals a day and I was sleeping comfortably. I can say that I had everything except one thing,” Leemu tells me as he begins to describe what his first experiences were in Cyprus. “I only lacked access to education when I was in the shelter,” he adds.

Everything Leemu does is driven by his eagerness to further his education, as I recall his life’s motto: ‘education is my life, education is my priority.’

After spending six months in the safety of the shelter, Leemu had to leave. By law, once a minor turns eighteen, they are obliged to leave the shelter and live on their own as an adult.

“It was a new thing again,” admits Leemu. “When I came to Cyprus I didn’t know anybody, and I was taken to that shelter. Now, I had to go out, not knowing anybody again was a challenge and knowing that I wasn’t going to go to school was another challenge,” he explains to me.

“I was wondering what I was going to do when I got out… I asked the officers if I would get a chance to go to school when I got out of the shelter. I wasn’t given a green light about that; they were not sure. The chances of me going to school was 10 percent… I cried in my bed that day.”

Having found a home within the shelter, Leemu was hesitant about leaving and uncertain about what he would find next. Eventually Leemu found a place to stay in Nicosia where he currently resides. “I was young back home but in Cyprus it’s different. I think it’s destiny; it was a place I never knew anything about but it’s the place I got my adulthood and so I call it my second home.”

“I love Nicosia…I have met a lot of people and I have made a lot of improvements in terms of writing, I have a free mind, I associate with people, I attend workshops,” he tells me.

Leemu uses pen and paper to relieve his emotions, his experiences, and his understanding of life itself. Arriving on the island as a minor, it is also while living amongst us that Leemu has matured into an adult, bearing outstanding bravery and drive towards a better future.

“Nothing comes easy in life, and this keeps me moving. Everyone I have met has given me something, advice. I have a list of all these words said to me written in a book that I will never forget.”

“People say that I smile a lot but this is how I get my pain out, this is how I show that although I have pain in me, I really want to be part of society, I really want to work with the society, I want to think positive and aim good for myself and my future family. This is what the smile on my face means,” says Leemu.

“Writing also brings things out which I cannot talk about verbally… when I talk sometimes I cannot complete my sentence because I drop tears but with writing I’m able to; I talk to myself, I speak my secrets and my pain to myself.”

Being smack in the middle of Christmas and New Years Eve, I wondered how Leemu spent his time throughout the holidays, especially without having any family here.

“I didn’t do much, most of my friends where busy, some of them went to spend Christmas with their families, some of them travelled abroad… I was at home but I was writing; this is the thing that keeps me busy when I’m lonely.”

Leemu has clear memories of his Christmas celebrations back home. “In Gambia, because it’s a mixture of Muslims and Christians, we celebrate together, we have parties, we go to each other’s houses,” says Leemu.

“Last year when I was in the shelter [for unaccompanied minors], it was a big hall and they prepared food and celebrated but this year because I’m out, it’s different,” he admits.

“I miss home, that is quite obvious, but right now, the level of my life is far different from where it was and I realised many things, I’ve learnt many things in Cyprus. Even though I’ve only spent one year and some months here, what I’ve learnt is more than the past seventeen years of my life… I see my life as another chapter.”

In discussing other chapters, we begin to talk about the New Year and where that will lead us. Leemu shares that his wish for 2018 is to be recognised as a refugee. Currently, Leemu is awaiting a decision from the Administrative Court of Cyprus on whether or not he will be able to stay in the country. This process can take _____ months and leaves asylum-seekers in limbo until they process is complete.

“With recognition I will feel like I am part of the society, that I can develop myself, contribute to society move on in my life, and help my grandmother… I always think about paying back for the things that Cyprus did for me.”

Leemu has had multiple visits to the Administrative Court with his final hearing scheduled in the New Year and vividly remembers his first experience.

“I was scared because everyone was dressed like a diplomat. I felt I didn’t belong in there. But one thing that I loved about it was that all the people there achieved something through education. This is why they were there and I felt really happy to be in-between them. It really encouraged me to learn because one day I can be one of them and only education can take me there.”

*** Caritas Cyprus is assisting Leemu by providing advocacy services including translation and accompaniment for his court cases. Caritas is also providing social and emotional support as he awaits his final decision.
*** The names of persons interviewed in these short stories have been changed in order to protect the privacy of individuals.

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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