Naomi Iwelu was able to reach Italy but not before enduring unimaginable trauma and violence.
Twenty-five-year-old Naomi Iwelu is now settled, living in a room in the centre of Catania, Sicily. Here she recounts the robberies, betrayals and rape she experienced on her journey from Benin, Nigeria.
It was her mother’s death, four years after her father’s, that prompted Naomi to quit school and leave Benin in 2018. As the eldest of six children, all now orphans, continuing her education beyond secondary school was an impossibility.
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“We couldn’t afford the expenses to continue my studies,” Naomi tells Al Jazeera, “so I started working in bars, restaurants and cleaning.”
However, the family’s living conditions deteriorated. Leaving Nigeria to start a new life in Europe became an ever more considered option.
“I got in touch with a friend who was living in Libya at the time,” she says. “We had attended the same school, but we had lost contact with each other. I found her contact on Facebook. She was the one who convinced me to leave Nigeria and said that she would help me to do so.”
Naomi was told the trip would cost about 4,000 euros ($4,370), far more than she could raise.
“I asked my boyfriend at the time for money to help my sister. I lied to him,” she says. “That’s how I sent the money to my friend in Libya, and that’s how the journey started.”
She set out as part of a group organised by the contact her friend had provided. Today, she struggles to remember the number of people, only that there were “a lot”.
“We spent two weeks in the desert,” she recalls. “There was barely any water for us, and many things happened.”
Prompted for details, Naomi becomes silent, speaking volumes.
Eventually, she arrived in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, where she stayed for six months, finding cleaning work in a local man’s house.
One day on returning home, Naomi found two local men waiting for her.
“They were holding a knife. They threatened me and asked for money. But I did not speak Arabic well. I did not understand. Then they ordered me to undress. That’s how they both raped me,” she says.
Despite the experience, Naomi had no option but to continue her work, eventually raising the money for her passage to Europe.
“The journey was extremely hard. There were many of us in a rubber dinghy,” she says, describing how she had been sick throughout the crossing.
After reaching Lampedusa, the Italian doctors who examined her told her she was pregnant.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant. It was so painful for me,” she says. “I wanted to study, and for that, I had to get [an] abortion. I didn’t want the baby.”
Naomi was eventually able to secure an abortion, and now, having graduated from an Italian school, she works in a restaurant a few steps away from Via Etnea, Catania’s central street.
She remains in regular contact with her family in Nigeria and sends them what money she can. “I miss them a lot, but I don’t want them to make the same journey as me and experience what I experienced,” she says.
This article is the fifth of a five-part series of portraits of refugees from different countries, with diverse backgrounds, bound by shared fears and hopes as they enter 2024. Read the first, second, third and fourth parts here.