On Wednesday morning, Hannah and I left from Atocha station in Madrid for Algeciras, Spain. This port city is located on the southernmost tip of Spain, about an hour-long ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco. For us, this area is of incredible importance: oftentimes, migrants, desperate to gain access to Spanish soil, either swim or boat across this strip of water to escape famine, war, or poverty in their homelands.
We spent Wednesday night right on the water – out of our window were hundreds of ships ranging from barges full of cargo to sailboats and tourist ferries. Our greatest problem has been the severe absence of restaurants, shops, or cafes where we can walk, do work, and grab a bite to eat. I suppose the urban life in Madrid has spoiled us a bit… Nevertheless, we have made excellent use of the local grocery store and have shared many fun hours watching soccer games while munching on baguettes and cheese.
Yesterday, Thursday, we boarded a ferry to Ceuta, a Spanish exclave right across the strait from Algeciras on the African coast. Typically, Ceuta is the lesser-known city near Tanger, a resort town that appeals to tourists with its beaches, lavish shopping, and exotic culture. Ceuta, while also offering these things, has a much darker side. This small town is the primary destination for African migrants moving north toward Spain. It is here these individuals find a middle ground from which it is hard to escape: turning back would mean returning often to a life of strife and hardship; moving north they face deportation, alienation, and slim chances of assimilation into Spanish culture.
We found it fitting that the city’s motto, often seen on government buildings and signs throughout Ceuta, is “Todo por la Patria,” or “Everything for the Homeland.” To the majority of Ceuta’s residents, the very concept of “homeland” is a melting pot of cultures where race, religion, and socioeconomic differences collide.
After settling in our hotel (and taking a brief nap) we began our walking tour of Ceuta in search of the few offices we had written on a sheet of paper. Addresses, contacts, and phone numbers were practically nonexistent. We had at our disposal a small map and our limited ability to communicate in Spanish with the people we encountered. It is important to note that Ceuta, since it’s situated in Morocco, has a very significant Arabic population. Linguistically, the mixture of Spanish and Arabic was unlike anything we have encountered. But, that is for another research project!
We traveled between pizza parlors, hospitals, government buildings, grocery stores, and police stations. We walked through residential areas, marketplaces, and fairs along beaches, marinas, and military fortresses. Finally, after being unsuccessful in finding our first two offices, encountering a severe septic breakage at the Cruz Roja (or Red Cross), and being sent in a million different directions, we were blessed to find a police station and a taxi driver who knew exactly where we wanted to go. So, Hannah and Lashlee, sweaty, thirsty, and tired, traveled 20 minutes outside of Ceuta proper to our most significant challenge thus far: the Centro de Estancia Temporal de los Inmigrantes (Temporary Shelter for Immigrants), also known to locals as CETI.
The minute we turned off the main road, it became very clear that the CETI office was not located on any map or tourist guide. It was isolated on a hill above a beach on the outskirts of town, appearing more like a military facility than a shelter. The shocked look from the main guard upon seeing our taxi was our first sign… maybe we were in a little over our heads. But the driver continued on. We began to see groups of African men walking up and down the small road leading to the facility. Some carried groceries, others were just passing time. Hannah turned to Lashlee and said, “Lash… I don’t know how I feel about this.” Lashlee didn’t say anything. This hesitation paid off as soon as we arrived at the main gate – Hannah pleaded with our taxi driver to wait for us. “15 minutes?” she asked. He replied, “10.”
Ten minutes turned out to be more than enough. We walked to the steel gate where, on the other side, a larger group of refugees slowly turned from their conversation to watch us approach. A female guard stood up from her post, looked at us, and said nothing. Lashlee began to explain who we were, what we were doing, why we were there. The woman yelled into the guard station and out came a man, who gruffly addressed us and Hannah quickly began to explain, again, why we had come.
The hardest part about this moment was seeing the very people, whom we have been researching at a distance for months, standing right on the other side of the guards, watching us and listening to what we had to say. Two young college girls… and we had come to research their lives. Looking back, we wonder how that statement may have made them feel. It’s so difficult to convey compassion and empathy while still proving our official purpose. We had to convince them (in only 10 minutes) that we are worthy to hear their stories. The task is difficult enough on its own, but the Spanish government’s red tape makes it completely unrealistic. The guards sent us on our way with instructions to obtain “authorization.” We are finding more and more that this may not even exist.
Although our interviews have not occurred quite as we predicted, we have learned more through simple observation and, quite frankly, failure, than we imagined. We continue to see that this issue remains something hidden and unspoken within Spanish culture. Tomorrow, we begin our journey to Valencia, where we hope to see yet another city’s treatment of African migration into Spain. Our project is beginning to transform into something much greater than just healthcare provisions and immigration statistics. It is a deeply personal project that affects all aspects of life. We cannot be sure what to expect, but we know that it will be something quite new and, most likely, another adventure.
Gracias por leer y todo su apoyo.
Hannah y Lashlee