For the Lost in Europe National Geographic project we follow the route that migrant children travel through Europe. We are reporting on their arrival in Italy in Sicily, their transit through France and their final destination England. These journeys are tough. We see injustice, we speak to people and children in fear. Sometimes angry, sometimes sad, but very often optimistic.
And one of the most optimistic people I have met this year is Ahmed Mohammed, whom I had the privilege to interview in London. We met in Tottenham, a large district in North London. He has lived there since he arrived in England as a 14-year-old boy. Without parents, without family. All alone, in the largest city of Europe.
Now I am a fanatic football fan and I am easily impressed when someone can kick a ball, but Ahmed has managed to kick it to the highest level. “This is Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, one of the best stadiums in Europe, and in the world”, he said, when he gave us a tour in the stadium. As a huge Ajax fan, I laughed, but also realized how important this club is to his life. This boy, who survived as a 14-year-old unaccompanied minor in London, is now a semi-professional footballer at Tottenham Hotspur! What a winner. That shows there is hope. “So, the next step is to become a professional”, says Ahmed, now 24 years old. If it is meant to be, that might happen right about now.
Ahmed lived with a British foster family. “I was fortunate to do my work experience for school at Tottenham. I never left the club since. When I was 15, I worked for the Tottenham community, helping local residents to find work. I was giving workshops like how to create a great CV, helping people with their interviews and getting them into jobs as well. After two years, Tottenham offered me a job. You know, they were like, ‘we've known you since you were young. We have a job for you’. And that was it. Now I also work on a Premier League project called Inspire. We work in different schools with kids from schoolyears seven to nine.”
Humans in their strength
With Lost in Europe, we frame our stories in such a way that the invisible presence of minor migrants in everyday society is captured, without endangering them personally. We can only do this by portraying the minors we meet as humans in their strength, not as vulnerable persons or as dangerous outsiders. This requires something other than dramatic black and white photography.
We are therefore working with photographer Ahmet Polat and graphic journalist Dan Archer. Graphic design ensures a safe and creatively attractive product. The graphic journalist draws reality in photography on the spot, so that we not only come to get something (information), but also give something back (personal drawings). This also gives the photographer the confidence that the children will remain unrecognizable.
The story doesn't end there
While mapping the route migrants take through Europa, together with photographer Ahmet Polat and graphic journalist Dan Archer, we met so many people. In Sicily, Ventimiglia, and especially in Calais, many of the guys we talked to, had whispered to me that they dreamed of becoming a professional footballer in Europe. In between interviews, I sometimes kicked a ball with those boys and I thought "Just practice, boy..." But, Ahmed is living that dream. And his story doesn’t end there.
In the evening we met up with Ahmed again. I had prepared for a conversation about the opportunities Ahmed had been given in London. Thinking it was going to be a nicely framed portrait of a Nigerian boy who coincidentally came to live next to the Spurs stadium and who turned out to be an excellent football player. But Ahmed surprised me again: “Beside football and my work for Tottenham I have my own business where I work with refugees and asylum seekers. I try to boost their confidence, their self-esteem and help them to integrate within the community, using my own personal stories to inspire them, as I was once in the same position”.
He continues: “Next to that, I am a peer outreach worker at the Mayor's office. With a group of about 30 young people, we act as an advocate for all young Londoners. We do consultancy project management. If they were to, for example, rollout a new policy or a new project for young people, they come to us for consult.” Ahmed tells about everything he does like it’s all totally normal but I find this extraordinary and his energy amazing. ‘What’s next?’, I ask him. “Well, I'm on the youth forum of the Bank of England as well. That has inspired me to try and make a difference, so if you ask me what's next, I think I might go into politics. Recently I've actually joined a political party. And I am studying in University College London, a politics program. I'm educating myself”. Ahmed looks at me. I am smiling, enjoying this conversation with this impressive young man so much.
Ahmed concludes joyfully: “You never know what is going to happen next. Maybe I’m the next member of parliament for youth. Who knows! But, whether I become a professional football player or a politician, I will continue my charitable work with young people. It's something that I've always wanted to do, to give back to my community. All in all, I am looking forward to the future.”