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The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The dangerous journey to a better life

The dangerous journey to a better life

The scariest part was looking out into the never-ending emptiness of the ocean.


The future was so uncertain but the need to leave in search for a better life, get a job and provide for her family could not have been more certain. Where would Mariam’s journey lead? Nobody knew. She just needed to get out of Morocco. The hard way. The only way.


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Nearly 13% of all foreigners in Spain are Moroccan immigrants, and Mariam is among them. Thousands of people come each year to Nador, on the coast of Morocco and risk everything to dangerously migrate to Europe in small zodiacs in search of employment opportunities.


Mariam* was born in a small town called Tanougha near the city of Beni Mellal where she lived with her seven brothers and sisters. They barely had enough money to buy food for their family. Her parents used to be a nomads, which were people who would travel with their tents and animals from town to town in search of good pasture. They settled down in Tanougha because they had too many children to continue living a nomad life and just after they settled, Mariam was born. They’re went from traveling with animals to growing crops in the outskirts of their town.


If she’d stayed in Morocco, she would have a harsh future. It would be impossible to find a good job. If she would start a family, her children would not have an education like she did not. Being a woman in Morocco also did not help. So she decided: she had to leave.  She would go to Malaga and find a good job and send money back home to her family. She does not know what job she will have, she does not know with whom she will stay, she does not even know if she will make it across. She does it anyways.


Some of her cousins planned on leaving Morocco soon, and she decided to join them on their risky trip. Everybody supported this idea of her going to Spain to provide money for herself and her family, regardless of the potential consequences that could follow; including death at sea.


Mariam had a long journey ahead of her. She got up early for her seven-hour bus ride to the Nador, the coast in the north of Morocco. She was scared. For the police. For her life. When she finally arrives in Nador, she went with her three cousins to a small, two-story house where she needed to hide out with 40 other men and 4 other women until the coast is clear. They stayed for 15 days inside of the house, not daring to show their faces outside.


Portrait of Mariam; Photo by Elena Zettelmeyer
Portrait of Mariam; Photo by Elena Zettelmeyer

It was the middle of the night, someone shook Mariam awake. The coast seemed to be clear. They moved quickly. It was too dangerous to be spotted getting out of a truck at the coast so they had to walk for two hours to where the zodiac is waiting. This was it. There’s no turning back now. Everybody rushed onto the 9 by 1.5-metre zodiac. There wass no time to lose; they needed to leave before sunrise.

“I was scared for my life. The whole time on the boat, I did not have space in my head to wonder where I was going to work, what was going to become of me, because the only question going through my head was ‘will I live?’ Nothing else. The most important thing I had to do was survive,”  Mariam said.


The engine roared. The boat floated away. Behind her was everything she ever knew and loved. Her country, her family, her home. Will it all be worth it? There was no food, some people might have some nuts, but no more than that. It did not matter, really. Nobody had an appetite anyways. Everyone was seasick. There was no water, but if someone was really thirsty, they tried to drink the sea water, but that made them vomit even more. Water was starting to fill the boat, and they took turns dumping the water into the sea with buckets.


“It was terrifying. The beaches were made of rock, not sand, and you could hear the waves brutally hitting them. They seemed so loud. That’s all I could hear. We were lifted into the boat one by one and had to squeeze together to make space for the next person,” Mariam said


They had been at sea for 12 hours and had two more to go, but they needed to stop before land was visible to wait for the sun to set and for them to safely arrive in Malaga unspotted by the police. Everything had run smoothly so far – as smooth as it could be – but that soon changed.


“As we were waiting, we suddenly heard a whistling sound. It was the boat. A lady somehow had the insane idea to wear stilettos on the boat and had punctured a hole into it with her shoe. Everything was hectic. The only thing we could do to save ourselves was to call the police so that they could rescue us, even if it meant we had risked everything for nothing. A man tried to close the hole with some chewing gum. Another man set his sweater on fire and waved it in the air in hopes that the police would see it and rescue them. Others were frantically shoveling the water out with some buckets. Nobody knew how to swim. We could not afford life jackets. If this boat sank, 45 people would be dead. Just like that,” Mariam said.


Miraculously, they made it to shore with the help of a piece of chewing gum, and had not been caught by the police despite the frantic message, but now the police know that they were illegally in Malaga, and will look for them. They have to split up and hide.


Mariam, along with her three cousins and 6 other passengers are on their way to find shelter and hiding; both not easy to get. They spend three days sleeping in avocado farms during the day, and running and stealing avocados and oranges at night. They made sure they would not get spotted. “I had scratches running up and down my arms from jumping fences and running through thorn bushes which were inevitable in the Spanish mountains”, Mariam said looking down at her folded hands.


Luckily, one of Mariam’s cousins knew a Spanish man who owned an olive ranch, and where they could find work in the olive season. They were in luck. The Spanish man was kind, and let them stay at his ranch for one month in return for Mariam’s cousins working for him. Mariam never left the house. For months, she had to live with the constant fear of getting caught by the police. For 3 more months she was looking for a job all over the place; in Olias, in Ventorro, in Velez, Malaga and again in Olias, until finally, she found an opportunity. “At this point, I’d take what I could get. I was desperate,” Mariam said. The Spanish man who owned the olive ranch knew a lady who knew an elderly german couple living 2km north of Olias who were having trouble finding a girl to clean and cook. This was her chance, and she took it.


“We were having a lot of trouble at the time finding the right girl to work with us. Nobody really suited us, but when I saw Mariam sitting in the kitchen the first time we met, somehow I knew this would not be the case. She looked sure of herself and confident although she had just entered into this new culture she did not even know existed with a confusing language she did not understand.” Winfried, the German man said.


Mariam has been living with the german family for 13 years now and has become a part of it. She not only helps them with cooking and cleaning, but also with the care of the animals at the villa. The german family has also helped her when she has gone through difficult life.


“It was a shock. Everything was different to my culture and manners. They had a different way of cleaning, cooking, eating, speaking and I had to learn everything from scratch. We never used knives or forks let alone washing machines in my town. There have been many bumps in the road, but it was all worth it in the end” Mariam said, sitting in the very kitchen she had been as she met the german family.


Mariam’s journey has made her stronger.  She found a new life between two cultures, and she is now building a new house in her town in Morocco, where she hopes to someday move back and be closer to her people.



*All names have been changed


By Elena Zettelmeyer

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