Champion: I decided to go to Libya and then to Italiya. Hope we will meet in Norway.
Leif: I’m coming with you then. When are you going to do this?
Champion: hahahaha great thanks habibi.
Leif Harum: I’m serious. I’m ready to meet you in Egypt/Libya.
Champion: March first I will do it. It will be awesome if you are with me.
Leif Harum: ok, I’m serious, you serious?
Champion: Do u know how dangerous this way is?
Leif Harum: yea, it’s really dangerous…
Who Is “Champion”?
I first met Champion in 2011 while interning at the United Nations in Khartoum, Sudan. But I had heard about Ashenavi many times before. He had grown up with my best friend John and his parents when they were stationed in Eritrea with the UN.
John’s Granddad told me the story of how he taught him to drive a truck in order to keep him off the front lines when he was forced into military service. And how he was essentially part of the family.
So the first time I met Champion, he treated me as though I were his brother, and we hit it off right from the start. He drove me to work everyday in his Tuk Tuk, we had intense ping pong competitions every night, and he always made sure I was doing ok.
Why Does Champion Want To Go To Europe?
Despite the good times we were having and his constant jovial demeanour, there was always a latent sadness in his eyes.
John’s mother Patty, who we had all been living with, was coming under scrutiny by the Sudanese government and it looked as though she would be forced to leave soon. This meant that Champion would be left alone in Khartoum, a city where Sharia Law can get you 40 lashes for just about anything and race inspired violence towards Eritreans is commonplace.
Ashenavi was tired of living under the threat of persecution for his race and religion, and being extorted almost daily by Sudanese Police for the past 7 years. And since Patty was now about to leave, due to security concerns Champion desperately wanted to leave as well.
When my internship ended and I left to travel Ethiopia, I promised Champion that I would figure out a way to get him out of Sudan and to either Europe or the US. Needless to say, I failed to keep my promise and Champion took matters into his own hands.
February 10th 2014 Skype Session (Guatemala – Sudan)
Champion: U see my sutation leif. Remember when I cry when Patty left us the last time u were here. I don’t have any option now. I dont want to be in Sudan. I don’t want to live with Kidane or any body else. I want to make my own way.
Leif Harum: I know, I know. I’m working on it. I’m serious.
Champion: I BELIVE!!!!!!
In the past 5 years, as a result of the instability created by the Arab Spring and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, more and more political and economic asylum seekers are risking their lives to get to Europe.
There are many different routes that these migrants take but there are just a few that Champion and I considered.
The first route is the safest but also the longest and most expensive. It involves a series of ships and flights through multiple smugglers from Sudan to Brazil. From there you have to hop every border up to the US. The cost is somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand dollars.
The second route is much cheaper but also the most dangerous. It involves trekking thousands of miles through the Libyan desert, and taking a small boat across the Mediterranean to Sicily. It costs around 3 to 4 thousand dollars. As you will see in subsequent interviews, many black Africans are killed by Libyan nationalist groups, sold into slavery, die due to heat stroke in the desert, or drown when their boats capsize.
February 11th 2014 Skype Session (Guatemala – Sudan)
Leif Harum: I feel like there has got to be another way besides going through the desert though. Can’t we hide on cargo ships from Port Sudan? What about Filmon? He did it that way, didn’t he?
Champion: U know how much it costs?
Leif Harum: 5 to 10,000 no?
Champion: Hahahahaha. That is so cool of you, but it’s hard for me. Ur white, I’m black and I am scary not like u.
Leif Harum: That’s not true, don’t say that. I think we should try and get the ships to brazil, like Filmon did. It will be safer. I will make up a plan. You try and figure out more details. Costs, route, and all that stuff.
February 12th 2014 Skype Session (Guatemala – Sudan)
Champion: Hey habibi. i coudn’ t find a way to Brazil. I already made a deal with the guy who takes people to Libya. Don’t waste ur time. Just remember me in ur prayers. Hope to see you some day !!!
(Ashenavi signs off)
What Is Operation African Asylum?
This was basically the last time I heard from Champion. He had embarked on the most dangerous migration route in modern times, the trek across the blistering Sudanese and Libyan deserts, with mid-day temperatures averaging well above 100 degrees, and to the Libyan coast to catch a rickety wooden boat across the Mediterranean sea.
On April 25th we received word that Ashenavi successfully crossed the desert and was now waiting in Tripoli to catch the boat. On April 30th I read a report that said about 5 boats had been rescued by the Italian Navy and brought to Sicily.
Having not heard from Champion and feeling that he might have been on one of the most recent boats, Patty sponsored a last minute ticket to Sicily.
My mission: To rendezvous with Ashenavi, free him from any detention center they may be holding him at, determine the best European country for him to seek asylum in, and escort him there.
My first destination: The notorious immigrant island of Lampedesua.
Check out the video below to see how my search began.