World Day of Migrants: The ‘ulysses’ who come from Africa | Future Planet


It was seven o’clock on a hot afternoon in Lepe, Huelva. Haya Fofana, a 30-year-old Malian, was a little late for the meeting. The following week he had to go to work in Lleida and he needed to organize. In September, the high season of employment in the field in Huelva ends and many of the seasonal workers are forced to move to Spain to continue generating income throughout the year. Lleida, Albacete or Jaén are, then, some of its destinations.

Fofana arrives at the day center of the Association of New Citizens for Interculturality (ASNUCI) greeting friends and acquaintances. This place is the meeting point of many of the farm workers in the city: a Little África in Lepe. A space from where you can call your family, watch TV, shower or relax outside of that plastic place they call home. Most of them live in shacks, forming makeshift condominiums around Lepe in which the precarious buildings blend in with the brownish soil.

Group of foreign farm workers receive Spanish classes at the ASNUCI day center.
Group of foreign farm workers receive Spanish classes at the ASNUCI day center.Clara González (AGARESO)

In a room that serves as a meeting center, a wardrobe to store various donations and an office to attend to legal issues, a relaxed conversation arises about the harsh situation experienced by migrants who have arrived in the territory irregularly. Seydou Diop is one of the most recognizable faces of #RegularizationYa, a state movement through which it is intended to carry out, for more than a year, a Non-Law Proposal (NLP) in which regulation without conditions is guaranteed. for all those migrants without papers. Both he and Haya are conscientious, level-headed, and without a hint of anger. Haya speaks from the experience of a person who arrived at the age of 17 in a boat and has been trying to regularize his situation for 13 years, stumbling upon a bureaucracy that traps him in a vicious circle in which papers become an optical illusion. And suddenly, in the course of the talk, a theme prevails: mental health.

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“We are really used to facing complicated situations, but the things that we experience every day in this country affect us a lot psychologically,” says Haya. The solution that they find to their discomfort is to make a pineapple and support each other: the friend becomes the psychologist who tries to keep you from throwing in the towel.

We are really used to facing complicated situations, but the things we live day by day in this country affect us a lot psychologically.

Haya Fofana, who arrived in Spain at the age of 17 in a boat

Joseba Achotegui, a psychiatrist specializing in migration, tells by video call that in 2002 he realized that migration had changed and coined the term Ulysses syndrome to refer to chronic and multiple stress: “People read the Odyssey and are enraptured by Ulysses and in front of their house they have an immigrant who has done twice as much as Ulysses.” Haya is one of thousands of them in Spain.

“Ulysses spent his days sitting on the rocks, by the sea, wasting away with crying, sighing and sorrow, fixing his eyes on the barren sea, crying tirelessly …” (Odyssey, canto V, 150).

Psychological consequences after emigration

Ibrahim Bah is a tall and slender 27-year-old Guinean man. Undoubtedly charismatic, with a reflective speech that captivates. More than two years ago he had to flee desperately from his country. He did not know what the journey would bring, however, he was sure that darkness was going to settle on him as night comes to the end of each day. He remembers, with a lost gaze, the moment his life changed and the story became a reflection on human cruelty.

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Politics changed his life. Before arriving in Spain, he was a law student, the son of a wealthy family from Guinea Conakry. His father, a senior officer in the Army; his mother, a political opponent. Ibrahim ended up in jail, according to the account in the book that he was writing those days Three days in the sand. His fate was signed, it seemed. But a friend of his father frees him and manages to escape from his country. After a long journey, on a boat, he knew that paradise was not waiting for him when he got off it.

Ibrahim Bah talks about his life and the journey to reach Spain.
Ibrahim Bah talks about his life and the journey to reach Spain.Antonio Grunfeld (AGARESO)

Ibrahim and Haya seem happy. They have a house, a job and some papers that are getting closer and closer. Some unusual achievements compared to many of his colleagues and residents in Huelva who work without contributions, without paying overtime and with constant shouting from the bosses, according to their own testimonies. However, they still cannot sleep, their thoughts are lost in the immensity and they have not yet found the way to build their new inner self, the one that assumes their situation.

Insomnia, migraine or stress are common characteristics that the Achotegui psychiatrist has been able to observe in migrants who have been passing through his office since the eighties. The Ulysses syndrome It could be summarized as the body’s natural reaction to extreme stressors: forced loneliness, social exclusion, the struggle for survival, fear or constant violence, especially for women, are some of those pointed out by the specialist. However, only 15% of migrants who pass through the psychiatrist’s office suffer from this syndrome; Most of them learn to carry it alone and simply rely on their friends, just like Haya says.

Ibrahim and Haya seem happy. They have a house, a job, and their roles are getting closer and closer. However, they still cannot sleep and their thoughts are lost in the immensity

Like so many immigrants who arrive in Spain irregularly, Haya and Ibrahim also felt and feel the threatening eyes of a society that reminds them and that marks them as illegal. As if living and surviving were a crime. And at that precise moment the right to emigrate vanishes. And as second-class citizens who sit down, work and let the days go by. They are simply on loan in a country that does not recognize them, but for which they generate wealth with tireless effort and without a shred of rights.

Culture and activities, keys to mental health

At the time of this report, Haya was building her place and helping others find it through ASNUCI. He organized activities and was part of the board of directors who worked tirelessly to achieve a minimum quality of life for his colleagues. Ibrahim, on the other hand, relied on culture; dancing, theater, and writing help. The Guinean was then beginning in his new facet as a writer, in the book mentioned above, where he narrates in detail his entire story, worthy of a fiction film. Both, focused on supporting other migrants and educating those who have in mind to undertake the hard journey of migration about the reality: that Spain is not the promised land.

Haya Fofana, sitting in the back street of ASNUCI, has been trying for 13 years to regularize his situation in Spain.
Haya Fofana, sitting in the back street of ASNUCI, has been trying for 13 years to regularize his situation in Spain.Clara González (AGARESO)

That people participate in their community, contribute things of value and feel useful is essential for mental health, point out Nerea González and José Rodríguez, from the psychological area of ​​the NGO Ecos Do Sur de Galicia. Both they and Achotegui are forceful in stating that people with Ulysses syndrome they are not sick and do not have a disorder. “Mental health should not be stigmatized,” they point out from Ecos Do Sur. “Their life has completely changed and they are trying to find a way to adapt to all the adversities they have to overcome on a daily basis. Grief is part of life ”, they add.

The Ulises they continue to be active and autonomous people, with very heavy personal, work and family burdens. Haya has been separated from his family for 13 years trying to make up his reality so that they do not suffer for him, and sending money that he sometimes finds it very difficult to get. Ibrahim tries to remove the anger of that boy who appeared in Spain without having decided that turn in his life and who has continually encountered people who have tried to take advantage of his situation.

Now that mental health is beginning to sound in public speeches, it is time for the migrant community to be included as well. The lack of interest or specialization is one of the main problems that migrants claim to find in people who want to help, but do not have the tools to do so. For Ecos Do Sur and Achotegui the solution is clear: eliminate the ghetto cities that limit their interaction, integrate the displaced into society and achieve greater specialization in migration in the psychological and public health sector in Spain. For Ecos Do Sur it is important to remember that the migratory process is part of our lives, to a greater or lesser extent: “Each one of the inhabitants of this globalized world may one day become an Ulysses.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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