Screenshot of Facebook Messenger video chat between Gambian asylum seeker Yahya Sonko and InfoMigrants journalist Benjamin Bathke on May 19, 2020 | Photo: Benjamin Bathke
Screenshot of Facebook Messenger video chat between Gambian asylum seeker Yahya Sonko and InfoMigrants journalist Benjamin Bathke on May 19, 2020 | Photo: Benjamin Bathke

When we first spoke with Gambian asylum seeker Yahya Sonko two years ago, he shared his aspirations of becoming a leader in Germany's Gambian community. Since then, the kindergarten teacher apprentice has become a linchpin for information who helps thousands of fellow Gambian migrants in Europe. However, it remains unclear whether he can stay in Germany.

One of the first things you notice about Yahya Sonko is the unique energy he exudes. And he clearly needs a lot of it: With three children, an apprenticeship as a kindergarten teacher, putting on events for Gambian asylum seekers, and keeping thousands of Gambians in Germany informed daily via WhatsApp and Facebook, Yahya's certainly got his hands full.

"I put myself in everything because I believe there is always a way forward," the 32-year-old asylum seeker told InfoMigrants. "It's worth bringing together people from different cultures, nationalities and backgrounds to share ideas and find solutions to their own problems. If we as migrants and refugees do nothing, things will never change."

His passion and charisma are palpable not just when you speak to him directly. It may be cliche, but given the quantity and the wide range of his activities, Yahya is jack of all trades whose enthusiasm is his signature dish.

When he was facing prosecution in his home country The Gambia - a tiny West African state surrounded by Senegal - Yahya fled to Italy  in 2015. He now lives in the small village of Hemmingen near Stuttgart, the capital of Germany's southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. Since his arrival in Germany in 2016, the migrant and refugee advocate - as he calls himself - has been working tirelessly to connect, empower and inform fellow Gambians both in Europe and his home country.

Keeping Gambians informed

Of the many activities that keep him busy, Yahya says he's most passionate about the thousands of Gambians in Baden-Württemberg and the rest of Germany who he helps keep connected and informed on a daily basis.

To interact with his fellow Gambians, Yahya mainly uses Facebook and WhatsApp groups. To date, he has created or helped create 23 WhatsApp groups, which are made up mostly of Gambians living in Germany, but also some German migrant aid workers. Given that each WhatsApp group can have up to 256 members, Yahya says most of them are at capacity. But with all groups taken together, his messages potentially reach more than 5,000 people on WhatsApp alone.

To put things into perspective, that's roughly one in three of all Gambians (15,544), including asylum seekers, currently staying in Germany. That's according to the central register of foreign nationals ("Ausländerzentralregister," or AZR). Sonko right with Winfried Kretschmann premier of Baden-Wrttemberg in January 2020  Photo Yahya Sonko"As a Gambian migrant in Germany, it's difficult to be informed properly," Yahya told InfoMigrants. "Usually, it is very hard for our people to read German. The Gambia is a poor country where education is not a priority; it is not enforced."

Never lost in translation

Indeed, The Gambia is one of the poorest countries in the world: More than a third of the country's two million people live below the UN poverty line of $1 per day. Following 22 years of dictatorship, which ended in 2017, high unemployment have caused many Gambians to try to migrate to Europe.

Yahya says Gambians use the 23 WhatsApp groups mainly to spread news and to request help, such as translating documents and other pieces of information into the local Gambian languages of Mandinka and Wolof. Each group, according to Yahya, has two administrators, who monitor voice messages and make sure links to news articles and other sources of information are "authentic." They also ask members who want to post something to highlight their sources.

Yahya says the Gambia-Helfernetz (Gambia Helpers Network), which is part of the Refugee Council of Baden-Württemberg, also helps them determine what qualifies as "authentic information." Gambia-Helfernetz is an email list with more than 500 refugee aid workers, including migrant lawyers, social workers, volunteers and asylum seekers themselves.

Scrolling down the timeline of his Facebook profile gives you an idea on the breadth of Yahya's activities: They range from migrant advocacy and education by means of Facebook posts and sharing of news articles to youth empowerment and political activism. And it's not limited to Germany and his home country: Yahya says he's also involved in the Gambian communities in Italy and Spain.

While the WhatsApp groups have proven useful to navigate life in Germany, the Gambian community also uses them to cope with death and similar tragedies. Although most Gambians in Germany are young (aged between 16 and 35 years old, according to Yahya) some of them will still die each year.

As the bereaved in The Gambia usually wish to provide a proper Islamic burial for their dead relatives - 95% of the country's population are Muslim - they typically ask for donations in these WhatsApp groups to help bring Gambians who have died in Germany back to the country of their ancestors.Screenshot from June 25 2020 of GoFundMe website showing fundraising campaign for deceased Gambian in Germany started by Yahya Sonko  Photo Benjamin Bathle

So far, the Gambian community in Germany has successfully raised enough money to pay for the dignified returns of six of their deceased countrymen. While some of the funds (at least €5,000 needed for each return) comes from online fundraisers that Yahya created, the rest is usually collected via separate donations made to the family of the deceased.

"Most of us are not working," Yahya told InfoMigrants, "but if each of us chip in five, two or even one euro, we can raise 5,000 euros easily."

A funeral home in nearby Stuttgart then takes care of everything, from the logistics to the bureaucracy, Yahya says. The funeral home provides the service upfront without pay as "they trust us," he says. Once the required sum has been raised - which according to Yahya can take up to two months, he transfers the money.

Gambian asylum seeker Yahya Sonko left standing next to the coffin of a deceased Gambian being prepared to be taken to the Gambia  Photo Yahya Sonko'Proper channels of integration'

Yahya's overarching goal is to improve the prospects of staying in Germany for his fellow Gambians by using what he calls "proper channels of integration."

"If we want to live here, we should look for other means to stay," he told InfoMigrants. "We should not come here to be here illegally, steal or get angry at people. If you want to be here, you have to follow certain procedures, such as the proper channels of integration."

By "proper channels," Yahya means apprenticeships, jobs and other legal ways, which can be available to some asylum seekers (depending on their exact asylum status).

To that end, Yahya organizes seminars, workshops and other types of communal events about topics including asylum procedures, Dublin regulations, and integration in general. The events are usually organized in cooperation with certain German charities who deal with migrant issues, including Caritas, AWO and the Refugee Council of Baden-Württemberg.

The last seminar he was able to co-organize before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March was on the subject of "Duldung " - or the temporary suspension of removal, specifically for those who are employed ("Beschäftigungsduldung") and those doing an apprenticeship like Yahya ("Ausbildungsduldung").

Low protection rate among Gambians

Information about finding ways to stay in Germany legally is a much-needed commodity among the Gambian community in Germany: In Baden-Württemberg alone, more than 3,500 Gambians (or more than one in three of all Gambians currently staying in the state), are currently obliged to leave Germany ("ausreisepflichtig").

Moreover, the so-called protection rate of Gambians in Germany - the number of all positive decisions on asylum applications since 2015 - is only at around 5% across Germany. That's according to Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).

At 3.6%, the protection rate for Gambians in the state of Baden-Württemberg is even lower than the national average. To put things into perspective: a protection rate above 50 percent is considered "good." It is important to note that the protection rate, however, does not equal the overall percentage of rejected asylum applications; so-called Dublin returns, among other proceedings, also are part of determining it.

Yahya Sonko inside the Reichstag glass dome in Berlin in November 2019  Photo Yahya SonkoDespite the small size of the local Gambian community, the situation of Gambians in Hemmingen is indicative of the situation in Germany overall: According to Yahya, none of the 15 to 20 Gambians who currently live in the small town of 8,000 people are currently recognized refugees; instead, they all have an "Ausbildungsduldung" - or a temporary suspension of removal due to their involvement in an apprenticeship.

Yahya lives in Hemmingen's sole refugee home ("Flüchtlingsheim"), which he currently shares with some 50 Gambians, Nigerians, Syrians and Afghans, he says. Each of the two buildings has one kitchen as well as one bathroom each for males and females. Together with his family, he explains he lives in a medium-sized room.

Kindergarten dreams

Yahya's own "proper channel of integration" is his apprenticeship training as a kindergarten teacher at Hemmingen's Kinder- und Familienzentrum ("Children and Family Center"), which he started in 2017. Although the kindergarten is extremely diverse, he's the only real migrant there, as all other adults and children were born in Germany, he says.

Yahya knows that his prospects of staying in Germany in the future depend to a large extent on the apprenticeship. While the fact that his two daughters were born in Germany doesn't help him to that end, he highlights that his "legal supporters" told him he should receive a residence permit ("Aufenthaltsgenehmigung") once he has successfully completed the apprenticeship.

Aside from teaching children basic skills like reading and math, Yahya's apprenticeship also consists of four hours of work per week with music education ("Musikpädagogik") apprentices. His special subject is body percussion, and he also voluntarily plays in the town's local marching band ("Spielmannszug") and fanfare corps ("Fanfarenzug").

Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on his apprenticeship. "I'm not used to these online classes," he told InfoMigrants. "Half of my assignments I cannot complete because the pedagogical language in Germany is totally different from the one I learned in my country. That's why I need more physical contact with my class and the other teachers - (we need to) talk to them, understand the way they teach. But right now we cannot physically visit classrooms."

While schools will resume in mid-June, the day-care centers like the one in Hemmingen are expected to only reopen at the end of June, which means that Yayha will have to wait a little longer until he can fully resume pursuing his path.

The 'migration dilemma' - live on air

After The Gambia's authoritarian leader Yahya Jammeh was forced to cede power in 2017 following 22 years of oppressive rule, some Gambians have started to return home. In May 2018, the Gambian government agreed to commit to greater cooperation with the EU on returns in a non-binding "good practice" agreement. Subsequently, returns from Germany began accelerating - if only slightly.

When Gambians do return home, they can find themselves overwhelmed by a sense of shame. That's why Yahya helped launch NiumiFM, which is broadcast live from the Gambian capital Banjul in English, which is the official language of The Gambia - in addition to three of the five national languages. According to Yahya, the station currently has a staff of 15, all of whom are aged between the ages of 18 and 35.

By "sensitizing" his country to this topic, Yahya wants to reduce stigmatization and paint a more realistic and clearer picture of the dangerous journey to Europe, and what to expect in and of Europe. In doing so, he also wants to help stop illegal migration  from Africa.

"When you're in The Gambia, you think: 'Everyone wants to go to Europe to look for greener pastures.' But this Europe they hear so much about is no more green [than The Gambia]. These huge numbers of Gambians you hear of in Europe - most of them are suffering."

Since Gambian media don't focus on this "migration dilemma," Yahya says, he is currently training deported Gambians to become migration reporters so they can share their experience with the community.

Dangerous journey to Germany

Yahya's own migratory journey began in January 2015: After being imprisoned for three weeks in The Gambia for teaching his students about democracy and free speech, he left behind his mother, two sisters and a younger brother with the goal of reaching Europe.

Following stopovers in Senegal and Burkina Faso, he was exploited for four months by his boss working in a supermarket in Libya. Yahya then paid €1,000 to a smuggler and left for Italy. One day later, his boat was picked up in the Mediterranean by a German NGO and he was brought to Italy in December 2015 - one year after he had left his home country.

In Italy, he stayed in a refugee camp for a few months before he was moved to Milan. But the asylum process dragged on for over eight months, and he became frustrated with the lack of progress. In late 2016, he left Milan for Germany in the hope that his chances for receiving protection would improve.

Three weeks later he reached Germany, where he ended up in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. After submitting his asylum request, he was placed in a refugee camp outside the city of Heidelberg, where he estimates three to four thousand refugees were living at the time. He finally arrived in Hemmingen in April 2017.

To return or not to return

"Sometimes it is really, really difficult for my mother, even though we have video calls. When she is sick, she misses having a supportive son around," Yahya told InfoMigrants.

While Yahya sees his place in Germany, at least for the time being, having been separated from his mother and other close relatives for five years and counting, he stresses that this is the toughest consequence of leaving his home country. "This is the part of me that's really telling me to go home," he says in an unusually quiet voice.

But returning home would also mean that his two daughters, both born in Germany, would likely be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). According to UNICEF data, 75% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years have undergone FGM in The Gambia between 2004 and 2015.Prevalence of female genital mutilation  Credit DWFGM is especially prevalent among Yahya's own tribe, the Mandinka, which makes up roughly one third of The Gambia's population. And his own family is no exception: Every single female member, including his two sisters and their daughters, have had to undergo circumcision.

"They won't give up on it," he says in a sober tone. "As soon as I get back to The Gambia, my family and I are going to fight about cutting my girls." Yahya says he already opposed FGM before he left for Europe, but female circumcision is so deeply entrenched in their culture that change will be hard to come by. 

"They don't listen to anybody. That is absolutely my fear."

Connecting communities

Once Yahya's apprenticeship as a kindergarten teacher will have ended next year, he'd like to stay in Germany and use his skills and the network he established to continue "building bridges between the Gambian community and German society and authorities," Yahya told InfoMigrants.

Studying social work, politics or diplomacy at university is also an option for him. He can also see himself becoming a "legal expert" to help "represent my people here in Germany."

At the same time, Yahya wants to be part of the ongoing change in his home country. In January 2017, former journalist Adama Barrow became The Gambia's third president, promising to uphold press freedom and human rights. But earlier this year, hundreds of Gambians protested Barrow's decision to stay on as president for five years instead of the three he had earlier promised. Moreover, authorities shut down two radio stations in the country.

"Politicians alone cannot achieve change in The Gambia," says Yahya, who's also the public relations officer of a diaspora group of the governing United Democratic Party. "The country needs a system change empowered by talented and innovative diaspora youth. I want to connect this youth, disseminate their ideas and motivate them to think about home."

To be able to help from afar, Yahya says, he needs to stay in Europe so he can be a "networker between Gambians living in cities in Germany, Italy and Spain." 

Given his zest for action and his can-do attitude, it wouldn't surprise anyone if Yahya Sonko found a way to do just that.