A photo essay by Luca Greco
“I live here. I work here. No more discrimination”.
“Justice for Yaya”.
Yaya is all of us”.
These were the only words, repeated like a mantra throughout the procession, echoing through the streets of Ferrara. No flags. No slogans. It was 30 October 2021 and Yaya had just died.
But in these words lies the deepest meaning of the demonstration.
The endless chain of contracts dumps the cost of the capitalist economy on the last, the most blackmailable. And the last ones are the migrants. Contracts of a few days, no training, no security. These workers are used as meat for the slaughterhouse. And like in a slaughterhouse, they die. Crushed by the machinery. This is how Yaya Yafa died: on his third day on the job, crushed by a lorry while working in one of the national logistics centres.
Yaya’s friends demanded justice. They organised the march. A demonstration of migrants in memory of a migrant. In peace with the Eurocentrism that often appears when talking about immigration.
Between a prayer and a song, the procession winds its way through the city. Anger and tears accompany it.
And a plea. One that unites everyone, not just migrants: no more acceptance of degrading working conditions. No more exploitation of man by man.
But why is all this happening? Why does Yaya’s death trigger this desire to come out of the darkness?
The photo essay presented here attempts to answer these questions. The photos should be read as a collective response to the need for justice and truth that Yaya’s death and life bring, interspersed with the words of those who knew Yaya. It is an attempt to tell the story, or stories, of migration from the migrants’ side.
To give a voice to those who cannot normally speak. To shine a light on faces, hands and stories that are usually deliberately pushed back into the darkness by racist and nationalist rhetoric. To be a megaphone: that is the aim of this collection of images and words.
And so Yaya becomes a spark that makes those who knew him want to show themselves, to tell themselves through him.
Here they are, the seeds of Yaya.
I did not flee the war, I came to Italy for love. In Italy, I first worked as a cultural mediator for a social cooperative that dealt with reception. Then I worked as an interpreter and translator for the Prefecture. Through my work, I helped many people to obtain residence permits. During this time, I listened to many stories of migrants: testimonies of minors who crossed the Sahara on foot, stories of men who were imprisoned and tortured, stories of women who were raped in detention camps in Libya. All this gets inside you and does not leave. You cry at every word. And in the end you can no longer translate.
You may ask if I have I been a victim of racial discrimination? Of course I have. I have been stopped many times because of the colour of my skin. Once, while I was queuing to get on a train, the conductor asked only me for a ticket. I refused to show it because he was only asking me. I know that some black people board trains without tickets, but that does not justify a racist attitude. I have my own dignity, which no one can violate.
I met Yaya by chance, at a mutual friend’s place. Yaya’s death was difficult to come to terms with. I still see him before and after his death. I was the one who accompanied his brother to identify the body. Yaya had a desire to live, to work. He had come out of the shelter programme. He had taken the job that killed him to pay the bills, to survive. He was the goalkeeper for our football team. Yaya’s death was a spark. Yaya was an ambassador and his death was an earthquake for the whole African community. My father used to tell me that some people you know all your life disappear without a sound, while others you meet for a moment in your life die and leave an indelible mark. Yaya was that second type of person. And that is why we decided to demonstrate. The whole of Africa was in the square for Yaya.
“I only spoke to Yaya once. I had asked him for a favour and he, who did not know me, had said yes. An old school book I read in Guinea said that good and evil done to others is actually done to oneself: Yaya had done it for himself, not for me. Because he was like that. There was a lot of anger after Yaya’s death. Especially because of the way he died. In the warehouses you work for months on contracts that last two or three days and are renewed from time to time. We couldn’t just go on strike, we had to show our anger. That’s why we organised the march.
It is important that we tell our story in the first person. Only we know what it was like to come to Italy and what it is like to live here.
I had to leave Guinea. In my country, you cannot criticise the president without running the risk of being killed. So I left. And I crossed the sea. Those who have done it know that they never want to do it again: to see others die next to you is a humanly unacceptable experience. By crossing the sea, I decided to take the risk of dying. The boat I was on broke in two. Six people died. Fortunately, I am alive to talk about those people who are now gone. Those who left their family, their culture, their childhood, only to seek new hope on the other side of the Mediterranean. When I saw the uniform of the Red Cross volunteers who went out to sea to save us, I decided to become a volunteer: I did it to try to give back to others some of what I had”.
“I did not know Yaya, but his death has touched me deeply. Yaya lived a life similar to mine, he also passed through Libya and this journey is an unimaginable experience.
From Guinea to Mali, from Niger to Libya. I was locked in a cell. “We will not release you until you or your family members pay”. As I had no one at home to pay for me, I waited. I waited with other people, like a zombie. I could not save a boy from being beaten to death. I tried, but I couldn’t. Lying on the floor, side by side, packed like sardines. In each other’s piss. So we waited. I still think of those who live in those prisons: it is as if I were still there. Single file in front of the barge, one after the other. 100 or 200 people in one boat. I saw the sea and thought: this is where I am going to die. When you see those waves, you know you cannot escape death. They tell you that in three hours you will be in Italy. And after three days you realise that you are just lost in the middle of the sea. Then the dinghy gets a hole and the water comes in. And the boat is sinking. Luckily there was this big boat that seemed to be waiting for us. They rescued us. The NGOs saved us. But not all of them, and I still cry for them, I remember them as brothers and sisters, as members of my own family. That was my journey.
To support myself, I worked in the countryside, picking tomatoes. We were just immigrants. We were exploited and badly paid. There is no consideration for the lives of black people, they see us as animals and think they can do whatever they want with us. I do not deserve to be treated differently from an Italian worker. Any one of us could have died like Yaya. That is why we organised the march. To denounce all this.
“I did not know Yaya. But when he died, I immediately went to organise the demonstration. Why do you ask? Because he is a human being. In Guinea I always demonstrated against discrimination. And I continued to do so here. For me it is normal. Some people are afraid to demonstrate because they think they won’t be able to get papers later. My dream is to fight for the most vulnerable. I see life, not a piece of paper.
We thought about creating a coordination of migrant associations so that we are not invisible. We live here, we work here, it is right that people know we are here. Yaya is dead, but many people work in the same conditions as Yaya, they risk their lives not to die of hunger.
I don’t have papers and I can’t go home, I can’t go to France, according to Italian law I can only stay here. I want to fight against this law because everyone must be free. In life we must not look at the colour of our skin, the most important thing about each individual is their being.
To get here, I travelled for one year and six months through many African countries: Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso. And then I arrived in Libya. I stayed in Libya for seven months and in the end I decided to cross by sea and I stayed there for five hours. At dawn, the boat broke up and 99 of the 122 boys died. Luckily I was saved.
Photos taken by Luca Greco in 2021 and 2022 in Ferrara (Italy)