Arnaud Yao, an employee of Fraternita Massi, a refuge for migrants, in Oulx/©LouisChahuneau
Arnaud Yao, an employee of Fraternita Massi, a refuge for migrants, in Oulx/©LouisChahuneau

Arnaud Yao experienced slavery in Libya before crossing the Mediterranean to reach Italy. The 28-year-old Ivorian uses his experience to help other migrants on the Franco-Italian border.

For his 28th birthday, Arnaud Yao was offered a permanent contract.

In January 2023, he was hired by the migrant shelter Fraternita Massi, located in Italy's Alta Valle di Susa near the French-Italian border -- an area several thousand exiles pass through each year.

Arnaud Yao, who has broad shoulders, a thick beard and tattoos on his arm, arrived here in 2021. Since then, he has seen the flow of migrants at the shelter vary from month to month.

"We have had fewer arrivals since December, but we don't know why. Currently, about thirty people arrive every day on average, especially from Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. There are far fewer Afghans than before,” he told InfoMigrants.

Founded by the Priest of Bussoleno Don Luigi Chiampo in 2017, Fraternita Massi serves as a stopover for migrants hoping to reach Western or Northern Europe. The refuge, which receives an annual subsidy from the Italian Ministry of the Interior, welcomed 15,000 migrants in 2022.

Read more: Mediterranean: Rescue ships save 132 migrants

Mediator and polyglot

Arnaud Yao was hired because of his ability to speak English, Italian, French and Baoulé, the language of his ethnic origin.

"When I heard about the shelter, I said to myself, 'I speak French, I am black, I can bring confidence to these people,'" he said.

Besides being a polyglot, it was his talent as a mediator that convinced the Talita Kum Foundation, which manages the shelter, to hire him. After arriving in Italy in 2016, the young Ivorian quickly learned Italian and became involved as a mediator in community houses and centers for asylum seekers where his experience in migration was useful for the Italian administration.

"The majority of black Africans think they are not in Europe until they get to France. I make them understand that Europe is a question of patience, that it takes time to become an Italian citizen, but that they can have a future here. I convinced people to stay many times, but sometimes we can't keep them from leaving for France," said Arnaud Yao.

Read more: Documentary: In A Libyan Prison, 'Love In Hell'

'We were 54 people in a 15 m2 cell'

As a child from a middle-class family in Abidjan, Arnaud Yao would have never imagined leaving his country behind for Europe. But he was forced to flee the Ivorian capital in 2011 when violence exploded between supporters of outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo and those of his rival Alassane Ouattara. The fighting caused several hundred deaths.

One day after several years of wandering in Ghana and Niger, where he tried to join professional football teams, Arnaud Yao received a distressed message from a friend. She explained that she was being held prisoner in Libya by her employer, who was demanding a ransom to free her. The young man quickly collected his meager savings and left for Libya, but things didn't go as planned: "As soon as I arrived at the border, I was stripped of my belongings, my papers were stolen and I was placed in prison."

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For several months, Yao was transferred from prison to prison before arriving at the Zawiya detention center, joining around 2,000 prisoners. Most were migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

"We were 54 people in a 15-square-meter cell, we didn't even have room to unfold our legs. Every day, I was beaten by the Libyans," said Arnaud Yao.

He was eventually purchased by a businessman along with five other migrants to clean a chicken coop: "I understood a little Arabic and English and I became the spokesperson for the group. The chiefs trusted me because I had taken a Muslim first name, but I knew after this experience, we would go back to prison."

72 hours of crossing the sea

One Friday in 2016, Arnaud Yao took advantage of the weekly prayer to escape from his guards. After several weeks of wandering in fear of being found, he reached Zuwarah, a coastal town in western Libya and the starting point for many boats bound for Europe.

Read more: More than 1,000 migrants returned to Libya since beginning of the year

He decided to try his luck. During his first attempt, he embarked a boat with 124 other people. The vessel was intercepted by the Libyan coastguards.

The second time, the boat reached international waters, but the engine eventually failed.

"I was saying my prayers and asking my mother for forgiveness. There were too many waves, whirlpools in the water and I didn't know how to swim. We had no life jackets, nothing," he said.

After three days adrift in the middle of the sea, the boat was finally recovered by the Italian Navy.

"It's a dark part of my life that I will never forget," he said. "The sea is an open tomb. The day we were fished out, there were eight other boats that had broken."

Facilitating the integration of migrants in Italy

On May 25, 2016, Arnaud Yao finally landed in Palermo, Sicily. After filing his asylum application, he joined a training center to study Italian and graduated as a logistics manager in Turin. This was when he started acting as a mediator for other exiles.

Since his arrival at Fraternita Massi in 2021, the young man has continued to attend football training centers where he has completed mediation courses. He even played as a midfielder in the Italian 5th division (the equivalent of National 3 in France).

"I've always dreamed of life as a footballer, but fate has something else in store for me," said Yao, who is Catholic. He hopes to set up a football school for young immigrant talents one day.

Read more: Libya: Sudanese teenage refugee released after 5 months in detention


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