‘I never thought I would see land again’: a teenage refugee tells her story

In this extract from We Are Displaced, 16-year-old Sabreen describes her journey from Yemen and onto an overcrowded fishing boat across the Mediterranean

Sabreen was 16 when she fled war-torn Yemen with the hope of reuniting with her sister Zaynab, 18, and her mother in America. Their mother had been granted a visa 14 years earlier, and Zaynab had recently joined her, but Sabreen’s application was rejected. She paid $100 dollars to travel to Egypt, another $100 dollars to stay there and $2,000 dollars to board a boat to Italy.

The bus ride from Cairo to Alexandria was long. I sat with my cousin Fahima and two friends. We agreed to say that we were sisters so we would not get split up. During that trip, I had to contain my excitement. My friends and I talked about the ocean liner we were about to board – we imagined that we would get three meals a day and have a view of the water as we made our way to Italy. The person we paid for the trip had promised us this.

When we arrived in Alexandria, we were looking forward to a good night’s sleep. We had imagined a hotel room, so we were shocked when we arrived at an empty warehouse with a concrete floor and no furniture or even blankets. This was a mistake, we agreed as we all huddled together. The rest of the journey would be better.

After a cold and sleepless night there, we were ushered on to another bus. The windows had been covered by black plastic, which made it feel as if we were travelling at night, even though the sun shone brightly outside. While I could not see out of the window, I knew from the bumpy and twisty ride that we were driving on back country roads. I felt a bit sick, mostly because the bus was so packed with people that there was no air to breathe. Then I overheard people talking about how dangerous the actual crossing was.

“If we get caught, we will wind up in jail,” I heard someone say. That was when I got really scared. I knew what we were doing was risky, but I never imagined going to jail. For what? For simply wanting a better life? For wanting to be reunited with my sister? It seemed impossibly cruel, but as I listened to these stories in the pitch black, I started to worry that I had made a mistake. If we got caught, and I went to jail, I would never see my sister again.

Three hours from land, the boat ran out of fuel. Someone suggested swim­ming. I have never been so scared

My friends and I boarded a boat with other refugees, from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Egypt. More were arriving as more buses pulled in. A mother approached our boat holding her five-year-old boy. She had to walk over slippery, wet rocks to get into our boat and lost her balance. The boy fell into the cold water. He did not cry, but when the two climbed into the boat with us, I noticed he was shivering. I’d packed an extra jacket for the trip, which I dug out of my bag and gave to him.

We set off in rough waters, the waves crashing up and over the sides of our boat. I stayed huddled with my girlfriends and dreamed of the big boat with the bedrooms and bathrooms and three meals a day.

The man who had carried me to the boat was our captain. He assured us that we were going to a bigger boat, but that did not happen. We were in the middle of the sea when another small boat met us. He told us to get into it. “Where is the boat with bunk beds we were promised?” I asked. He said, “Once we get to the big boat, everyone will have their own room and a shared bathroom. There will be food.”

But when we finally made it to the third boat, on the sixth day, none of that was true. While it was bigger than our fishing boats, it was made to hold only 100 people, and there were 400 of us. We had to squeeze ourselves on. By then, we had eaten all the food we had brought with us and had been sleeping sitting up because there was no room to stretch out. Every morning, I would wake up after nodding off and see the sky and think, Oh, am I in heaven? Am I still alive?

When I saw the third boat, I thought, I’m not going to survive. I was too exhausted to cry. At least on that boat, they gave us beans, tuna and bread. But the beans weren’t cooked, and the bread was mouldy. There was no bathroom, only a box where people could relieve themselves. Every time the boat rocked, the contents would spill on to the boat floor, where we were sitting.

The captain told us we were getting close to the coast. But three hours from land, the boat ran out of fuel. Someone suggested swimming, but none of us had life vests, and I don’t even know how to swim. I have never been so scared in my life.

After several hours of waiting for a miracle, someone saw a ship in the distance. People started shouting and crying. It was a large ship, the one in my dreams.

The Italian coastguard looked for boats like ours because so many refugees were fleeing. That was what the sailors told us as they invited everyone onboard. I have never been so thankful in my life. At that point, we had not had food or water for more than a day. That ship contacted the Red Cross, which sent another ship to rescue us. Meanwhile, the Italians gave us water and food and blankets. They let us use their bathroom, which was so clean that I burst into tears. Those tears continued all the way to Italy as the crew on the ship assured us they were taking us to a safe place.

Within two hours, I saw land for the first time in nine days. I started to sob all over again. I never thought I would see land again. And yet, there it was in the distance.

Spurce: theguardian