Abdou Faye is 34 and from Senegal. In 2015 he arrived in Sicily by boat and was accused of people smuggling by his fellow passengers. Tried in an Italian court, he was found guilty and served his sentence, first in prison and then under house arrest. This summer as he completed the sentence, it was overturned and his innocence restored.
Dressed in a pristine white hoodie, jeans and neat trainers, Abdou Faye smiles shyly in the winter sun at Giuseppe Messina’s Casa di Famiglia on the slopes of Mount Etna. "I was never in trouble in my life, before I came here," he confides earnestly.
Even now that he has been absolved, he is keen to point out that he served the full prison time allotted to him and that he has only ever wanted to respect the rules. "I’m not a smuggler, I’m not a criminal, I’m a normal person. My whole life, I swear to god, I have never been a criminal." This is important to Faye. He has not asked for compensation for serving a sentence which turned out to be overturned.
At the Casa Famiglia community, run by Giuseppe Messina, he is called a "hero" by Messina and the other housemates. This is because he essentially prevented 82 people aboard that boat from drowning by reluctantly taking over the piloting along with several others. Faye would never dare call himself a hero though, what is important to him is his knowledge that he is not a bad person. He looks tortured every time the whole episode is mentioned.
"I paid my money like everyone else. The Libyans were piloting the boat. I sat there quietly. At a certain point, they stopped us, they took a gun out and they put it to my head. They said ‘Now you drive the boat,’ they shouted at me ‘If you don’t take over, we will shoot you!’ What could I do? I thought of my children, they are small, I thought of my wife and my mother. Then I thought, I don’t want to die and I don’t want any of us to die. It was for that reason, and only that reason that I took over piloting the boat."
Faye says the accusation almost destroyed him. "Going to prison was not easy at all. I had never done anything so difficult. If I had committed that crime then I could have accepted it but I didn’t do anything wrong and that was the thing that really weighed on me. […] I saved 82 people and then I was still sent to prison and I couldn’t understand it."
In 2017, Messina managed to get his sentence transmuted to house arrest and he moved into the Casa Famiglia. He has been there ever since. The community has supported him with lawyers, food, lodging and friendship. Now it is offering him work too.
'They thought I was dead'
He wasn’t able to call his family while he was in prison, even though he asked the embassy for permission, he says. That meant that for two years they had no idea if he was alive or dead. "My wife was made almost mad with worry, she thought I was dead," Faye whispers quietly, his eyes cast down. When he first called his mother, she couldn’t believe it was actually him speaking, "she was quiet for five whole minutes before she was able to speak."
Faye underlines that having his sentence overturned hasn’t really changed much for him. He knew he was innocent of any crime anyway and he still had to serve his punishment.
"When I found out I was acquitted, I thanked God. Then I thanked the lawyers and my housemates and everyone that helped me. Then I was finally able to breathe again."
A model citizen
Now he just wants to concentrate on being the model citizen he has always felt himself to be. Respecting the rules is important to him; he wants to keep demonstrating how he has come here to respect Italian rules.
"[Matteo] Salvini [Italy’s deputy prime minister] is right in my opinion," Faye says. "I agree with everything he does. There are lots of people who do stupid things and are delinquents. When you arrive in a country you have to respect the rules. I wouldn’t take a pen and scribble on the walls of my own house, so why would I scribble on walls here? Salvini is against people who don’t want to work, who want to just arrive and create trouble. That is what he is against and I think he is right!"
After a long journey through Africa, he thanked God when he arrived safely on Italian soil. He was saved by the Italian navy in international waters after several days at sea. "I was scared at sea, there were people who were crying, the sea was rough. We were all men in my boat. I can swim, but not very well. Our boat wasn’t very big - about 10 meters long perhaps and there were 82 of us crammed on board."
Detention in Libya
Prison in Italy was a challenge, but in Libya, the unofficial detention he was submitted to was much worse. He was held for 15 or 20 days, 20 men in a small room with no sanitation and only one meal a day. "When I arrived in Italy, my skin was destroyed," he says, confirming he was suffering from scabies.
"That shows he wasn’t a smuggler," says Sicilian journalist Alessandro Puglia who was one of the first journalists to write about Faye’s case and bring it to international attention. Puglia lives nearby and pops into the community often, helping to tell the inhabitants’ stories and show them the way through the system.
'I love cooking'
After the interview, Faye goes off to work, as an assistant chef in the community restaurant Terraviva that Messina and his wife run to sustain the community. "I love cooking, that is my new career," explains Faye, cheering up when he shows how useful he can be. Back in Senegal he was a tiler "but you can’t earn enough there," he confides. His father died and he felt the responsibility to support his mother, wife, children and brothers and sisters.
"I want to earn enough to provide for them and help my country. Eventually, I want to go home and open up a restaurant or something and create a life there. That is my dream."
If he is able to obtain the right papers, he would love his wife and two young daughters to join him, Faye says. The youngest, born after he had left Senegal, he has never met. "It was hard at first," he admits, but now he has asked his wife to show his daughter his picture and she knows who he is and they talk more often over the phone and sometimes video link. "Now we have a good relationship," he adds smiling.
He is pleased to have been taken in by Messina’s community and grateful for the opportunities he has been offered, but essentially he still feels like he is in prison. He can’t go and find work elsewhere in Europe and he can’t go back. If he knew then, what he now knows, he would never have set off from Senegal. “That is the wrong way to arrive. I would never want my family or a friend, or anyone, to go through what I went through,” he says emphatically.
Although he feels safe in the house he finds it difficult to make friends because he was accused by his fellow travelers in the boat. "I don’t have any contact with the Senegalese community here. Because of what happened to me, I’m scared. I don’t trust anyone and I prefer to keep myself to myself. I don’t want to make any more mistakes," he says sadly. His innocence has been declared in court but it will be a long time before he really feels free.