The following stories were originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2022 and have been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
This is a series of in-depth interviews with refugee and migrants’ family members who stayed behind — the events from their perspectives and the emotions that migration evokes for them. Sharing the stories of a mother who remained in Venezuela, a father in Afghanistan, and brothers in Burkina Faso, Kenya, and Tunisia, their stories are of success and failure, their concerns, the dangers of migration and the mixed emotions that accompany the departure of their loved ones.
Failed onward movement to Côte d’Ivoire: “We even had to send him money.”
I have brothers who left a long time ago, long before the security crisis. But the one who left recently, my big brother, that was only a year ago. He had to migrate to get money so that we could eat, the family was in crisis. So he left to look for work in Côte d’Ivoire to help us to feed the family.
He left here with nothing, he had only the clothes he was wearing and nothing else. He left his wife with eight children here so you can imagine. It’s stressful for everyone. I contributed 105,000 CFA francs (about $160) to enable him to migrate. At first, we were really optimistic that once he arrived there, he would be able to find a good job and help us, but unfortunately, he is having a hard time. We even had to send him money.
He spent almost all his money because of hassles on the road. We knew that he would have to pay on the road, but we didn’t know it was so expensive. He arrived with only 15,000 CFA francs in his pocket because of the harassment by the police. And we were obliged to send him money until he found a job. He hasn’t even been able to send money since he left.
During the migration we didn’t communicate too much, it was when he arrived in Bobo Dioulasso that he called us and that was it. Since his arrival until now, I am in regular contact with him. On average once a week we manage to call each other. Even this morning we communicated.
We had no choice. Even if he doesn’t make it, we think the decision to go to Côte d’Ivoire was right. The rest as you know is God’s will and we have not lost hope. One day we think his turn will come.
It was a migration for the benefit of the family. But for the moment it is me and the other family members who help his family eat. If he earns something in Côte d’Ivoire, we can all benefit. We discussed that me and our elder son would stay to look after the family because we knew that if we migrated too, the whole family would be broken up.
He wants to come back but he can’t. His work is not profitable and if he comes back what will he do? There are too many difficulties. His wish is to return home, not here in Ouagadougou but rather to our village in the northern department of Arbinda. But as our village is occupied by armed groups, it is complicated.
It is better if he stays there in Côte d’Ivoire. Maybe he will find a job that will bring him a good income, which will allow him to support his family here in Ouagadougou. If he comes back here, he will have expenses. Even I, who am here, have plans to migrate.
Migration is not a good thing in my opinion. What is good for us all is our village in the Sahel region. There we used to farm, raise livestock, and we managed to feed our families with dignity. Otherwise here in Ouagadougou we have no home and no work. Often you can make it through the day without having 1,000 CFA francs, even though you have a large family to feed.
Migration is not the best solution, but when you have no choice, you can’t just sit back and do nothing. We go to other countries hoping to find work. If our region of the Sahel was at peace, we would not move, but alas…
Migration is like that: you can earn well or not earn anything, that’s life. But a man has to make an effort to provide for his family and if he can’t find work here, he has to migrate in order to hope.
The authorities really need to work on facilitating migration. It’s impossible to travel without our law enforcement agencies robbing you of your money on the road. Often, even in other countries, it is better than here in Burkina. Even though you have your national identity card, the police will take money from you. In Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, if you have your documents, it’s better than here. But here in Burkina, you have to pay. This is a real problem for us. The Malian police are a bit more flexible than those in Burkina. In Burkina, our soldiers act as if they don’t know us.
Finding success in South Africa: “My brother felt he had no option but to migrate.”
At the time, people came to my father, and said “Oh, why do you allow him to go very far from you?” This was stressing my parents. Later, when he settled there and started to provide money for my parents, then the same people were happy, they were even telling their sons to go there and find some jobs.
He has not returned to Kenya since he left, except for a period after a relative here died. At first, he went to a rural area in South Africa. Now he is in Pretoria.
When he left, we were very worried, the family prayed for him. We thought he would never come back and that we would never see our brother again because we had always heard that South Africa is not a very good place. People died, so many people that we knew died. Even on the journey, people can die because of hunger and insecurity. We thought that he would also go and die there. So I was very tense. At that time, there were no smartphones, we used to use a public telephone, where you put some coins, we called from there. We didn’t really know how he was living there. And there was a very poor communication between us since there was no telephone. But now, currently we talk to each other, we know how he’s living there, the situation he’s facing, everything.
One of his families, his first wife and his seven children, are still here in Garissa. After some years, he took another [Kenyan] wife and he’s living now in South Africa with his second family. He has five other children with the second wife.
Now his business is working well, and we are happy about that. He still supports his family in Kenya. The first two kids are studying and he’s the one paying their tuition fees. He also sends money to my father, but not regularly. He sends every five months or six months. But for his wife, it’s every month.
These days we talk on WhatsApp once per week. I have no network in the village, but when I am in Garissa, the town, I can speak to him or talk to him regularly.
He has a plan to come back to Kenya with his [second] family after his children finish secondary school in South Africa. I would like that so much! It would make me and the rest of the family very happy. We want him to be part of us.
All in all my brother’s migration was a success. It was a positive idea because he earned money, he provided, he supported his family, and his father, his parents, and his wives and children. The best thing about people migrating is when they find money. But the disadvantage is that the person is away from his family. Maybe that person may fall sick, and he has no family to help him.
These days, it is very easy to migrate or to go to the other countries. Because there aren’t any dangers while travelling. You can travel by aeroplane or something like that. But before it was difficult. And now you can even access the one who is migrating, and go visit.
Many people I know are thinking of migrating to find work and I am even helping them with my plans. Some of them are pastoralists who lost their cattle and want to go to cities in Kenya or to other countries, most often South Africa, to provide for their families. But I have no plans to do so myself. I want to stay here in Kenya.
Those without family, say men between the age of 23 and 30, who are no longer in school, they prefer to go far away, make a lot of money, and then to have a wife. In order to marry, they will come back or stay there. And those with family, because of their family and their kids, they want to go to the nearest cities here in Kenya or the nearest countries to provide for their family.
And also women, those women who are the main providers for the families, maybe because their husbands die, or they are divorced. Those women want to go to the nearest cities to find a job to earn money. But younger women, those who are not yet married, are under their parents. They are not allowed to go very far; they will stay with their parents.
Sweet sorrow in South America: “I miss my children but I’m happy and at peace with them being abroad.”
My youngest son decided to emigrate seven years ago when he was 19. Being of legal age, he did not ask for permission. He only announced that he would leave the country. As I knew I had raised him well, I let him go. My three children are well prepared, academically and for life, to understand how to do their things, work, and have a job. They know how to live.
I accepted his decision with pain because he was the youngest. However, we supported him in living the life that he had chosen to live. I belong to personal growth groups. I’m a therapist, and that holistic knowledge helped me a lot to believe things were going to be alright. This helped me after all my children left the country, and I was left alone after having a house full of people.
Two years after my youngest son left, my oldest son decided to go to be with him and keep him company. One might say, “those who stay suffer because they remain,” but the one who goes is alone in another country. I am here with my neighbours and family, doing things in my comfort zone.
My environment sustains me. I will always miss my children. However, I will not manipulate them to come back, because everyone chooses how they want to live. Two months ago, after nearly seven years since my youngest son left, and just as I was thinking I would never see him again because he’s so independent, he came back to Venezuela as a surprise for my birthday.
We had already experienced living in the United States, all five of us, the whole family. So, we knew what it was like to live outside your country. As adults, my three children made their own decisions to experience it in another way. The situation in Venezuela pushed them to make these decisions. For them, leaving was a social, political, and economic decision.
I feel proud of them. If my children were in another situation, I would be worried, but the truth is, I’m happy and at peace with my children being abroad. I miss my children. I’ve felt bad, but I don’t tell them, as to not worry them.
Some people might say, “hey, your three kids left you,” and you are left thinking, “Did I raise them so badly?” But other people say they are [sufficiently] educated to live well.
Technology has helped us a lot because almost seven years have passed. I saw how my youngest grew since he left as a skinny little boy with his child’s face. But with video calls and those things, when he came back, I realised the only thing I missed was hugging him. My brother left many years ago when he was 19 years old. We sent each other letters when he went to Miami, or he called, but we didn’t really know if he was alright. Now [with my children] we do; we can even see where they live with video calls.
I feel satisfied and grateful to God because they are experiencing something they chose to live. Everything, from eating, to waking up in a new house, to going to work, to deciding what they want to do for work. It’s satisfying.
I see my children doing well. They have work, are busy, and have friends. The positive aspect of their migration is to see them fulfilled every day, as human beings, professionally. The ways they grow, seeing them satisfied. Now I see my youngest, how he behaves, how he has changed his diet, and how he sees things. It pleases me.
The negative experience of their migration is that I miss them at moments like birthdays, New Year’s Eve, and Mother’s Day. One day, on my birthday, I got a video call and cried. But then, I said to myself: “No!” After that, I decided to call them before, or we talk after singing “Happy Birthday”, because I prefer to choose how I want to live my experiences. I avoid things that will hurt me, and I choose the lovely, nice, and positive part of my children’s migration.
Sometimes, I tell myself that I am weird to be positive. But I must keep living and think everyone is where they want to be. We must keep living, missing them, or not missing them. If my children are well, I am calm.
“You choose the path you want to experience” has been the key for me to see things differently from others concerning migration. If someone tells me they want to leave, I wish them all the best. I tell others to live the whole experience to the fullest. Even if it is good or different because nothing is good or bad, it is different according to each person.
Taking flight from the Taliban: “My home is empty without my sons.”
We decided to send my son along with his younger brother to Pakistan or Iran. The situation at the Pakistan border was very bad in those days and no one could cross the border, so we called some relatives in Herat and tried to find a trusted smuggler to take them to Iran, but in Herat, the situation was the same. So, after consulting with more relatives, we sent them to Nimruz and from there, they paid some smugglers and went to Iran. Now they are living in Tehran without documents. My eldest son is working as a simple worker at a construction site and my younger son is working at a tailor shop.
I miss them both a lot. They were the light of my house and with them gone, it’s like my house is dark and silent. But I am sure our decision was right. Every day, we hear that some young people disappear and their bodies are found later in the desert or wells. I had no choice but to send them away even though it was really painful for a father to send away his two dear sons to a foreign country.
At the time they left, all the roads were under Taliban control, and they were looking for former government soldiers. People even say that they had biometric devices from the Ministry of Defence and they were using them on roads to check travellers and passengers, to identify who was working with the previous government. But God helped my sons and they reached Nimruz safely. From there, they contacted the smuggler who we found for them before and with their help they went to Iran. But we were afraid that if the smuggler knew that my son was a former soldier, they would give him to the Taliban militia, so we told the smuggler that my son is just a simple worker and wanted to go to Iran for work. Still, we were worried because we had given them some money and it was really dangerous to have cash with you on the road. People killed each other for 100 afghanis (about $1). We called them all the time. Their mother and sisters spoke to them every night on the phone.
They said that they were beaten by Pakistani militia in Mushkel and sent back to Afghanistan, and they had to depart again the next day. On the Iran border, they tried to cross four times, but every time, they were arrested and beaten by Iranian border police and sent back to Pakistan. When they were caught by Pakistani militia, they beat them very badly. I was very worried for their health and knew what they were going through. But I couldn’t tell them to come back. I just told them to bear all the hardships and trust their God and try again. Believe me, I couldn’t sleep until they reached Iran. Finally, they managed to cross the border and go to Tehran on their fourth attempt.
For now, they are safe. However, as they don’t have any documents, they are afraid of being caught and sent back to Afghanistan by the Iranian police. So, they are thinking about going to Türkiye, and from there to Germany. People say that in Germany, if you have proof that you were a former official or soldier, they will give you refuge. They are working now to save some money. I want to sell our house in Mazar to pay for their journey, but they don’t accept this and tell me that we should keep our house. They are going to work until next spring and then try to go to Türkiye.
I prefer that they go to Germany and rebuild their lives there because Afghanistan has ended for them. There is no place here for them here, and if they come back, the Taliban will kill them. If the Taliban don’t kill them, there is no work or future for them. It is really difficult for a father not to have his sons by his side during the days of hardship, but I am fine as long as they are safe.
I am still on my feet and can work to bring bread for my family, so I don’t expect them to send money home, they have to save their money for their journey. But their absence is really difficult emotionally. My family is not the same as before. My wife cries in hiding, my daughters feel the lack of support. They love their brothers, and they always used to walk with their head up high on the street and in their school because they knew that their brothers had their back. But now, they are imprisoned in the house, feeling that they are left alone.
My home is empty without my sons. My wife, my girls and me, we don’t feel joy anymore, there’s no taste in the food anymore, it’s like the world is suffocating us. My girls say that we have to leave for Iran to be with my sons. But I cannot do that. Because I do not dare take my girls on a journey with smugglers through the deserts and mountains, where anything can happen to them. And I cannot take them through the border to Pakistan or Iran. I thought about getting a visa. But even if I did get a Pakistan visa, how can I cross the border? The moment they put my passport in the machine at the border, my biometric information will pop up and they will know that I was a military man in the previous government and then, God knows what will happen to me. For now, we have to stay and see if the situation gets better. If not, then I might find some relatives to take my girls to Pakistan or Iran. But I have to stay here to take care of our house.
Migration is not a bad thing, all people in Afghanistan have migrated and there is no shame in it. Every family in Afghanistan has at least a son or a father in migration. If they want to say that my son is an escapee, then half of Afghanistan are escapees.
I don’t know when I can see my sons again. If they happen to find their way to Germany or Türkiye, then it is for sure that their mother and I won’t see them for years and that causes us utmost suffering.
The greener fields of France: “My brother always wanted to live in Europe.”
My brother, the eldest of four siblings, migrated eight years ago, when he was 24. He had studied at a language institution here in Tunisia and graduated at the top of his class in Italian. He was therefore awarded a six-month exchange scholarship. Such an opportunity for travel was why he took the language course.
Once he was selected for the scholarship, he made it clear to me and our family that he was going to stay in Italy even after his papers expired and that he was going to settle there. Although my parents were rather worried, they agreed with this decision and before he left and they tried to put him in touch with acquaintances in Italy to help him once he arrived.
My brother always wanted to live in Europe, despite his excellent academic record and abilities, and not in Tunisia, for two reasons: the better economic opportunities there and the more free and secure lifestyle. My brother likes to wander around and discover new ways of life. In Tunisia he always said he was limited and not fully fulfilled.
At the time we agreed, but of course we were concerned. Not so much about the trip itself—we were sure that he was safe and comfortable and that he would not encounter any risks because he left legally with papers and by plane. It was the next part that was difficult for us: we were a bit worried about the situation after he arrived in Italy. We didn’t know where he was going to stay after he left the legal accommodation provided by the scholarship. We didn’t know how he was going to earn money after spending the €1,000 my parents gave him at the beginning. Even in the first six months, my father tried to send him some pocket money, but it was not possible to send money from Tunisia.
We used Skype a lot at first. He used to talk to my mother every day when he was legal. Then, when his visa expired and he lived in a flat in Italy, the calls became less frequent. For two years he worked illegally at night in restaurants and bars. One day he was attacked in Italy and robbed of €300. He rented a bed in a flat with a partner for €200, but at the time of payment he had to pay €800 instead of €200 euros to avoid being kicked out of the flat.
Also, in Italy he encountered problems of racism in the streets, facing verbal and physical harassment. He was arrested once and spent three days in prison even though his visa was valid at the time. Once his six-month visa expired, he spent another year and a half in Italy working without papers “under the table” in restaurants, bars, and hotels.
Then he decided to move to France when he discovered a simple method to falsify his papers. My sister’s fiancé, a Tunisian expat in France, took a risk and coordinated with a French border guard who already did this kind of work for €200 euros to allow my brother to cross in his car from Italy to France.
Once in France, my brother obtained falsified papers through a French smuggler who provides documents. With his “legal” papers he was able to find a job in a hotel kitchen. Afterwards, he transferred to the reception area as a receptionist as he speaks five languages. Now he is working on getting legitimate papers, the procedure is ongoing.
My brother managed to visit us this summer (2022) and bought his own car. He sends money to my parents regularly and he sent me money when I needed it. He even sent my parents to Mecca once.
We are used to his absence now and we don’t find it a problem to call him at any time.
At the end of the day, it was certainly the right decision for his future given the opportunities he received. With time, we all understood that migration is the best solution, especially with the limited work opportunities in Tunisia and the economic situation, which is more and more difficult to live with. The best part for me is seeing my brother thrive and be happy and seeing him support my parents.
Now my little sister is already looking for ways, legal or illegal, to join my brother in France. I am also motivated to leave. Elsewhere is better than here. I have a migration plan, but I will choose the safest way. Many of my neighbours have already left or are preparing their own trip.
My parents are fine here, they visit my brother, and they understand that the future is not guaranteed in Tunisia.