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Gambia is a tiny, banana-shaped sliver of a country, home to just 2 million people. Yet it consistently ranks in the top 10 origin countries for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. Leaving home, people say, is the way to build a better life. But how? Here, there are few legal routes to the West. But that doesn’t prevent people from hoping they will be the exception: the one for whom a marriage visa, or a scholarship, will finally come through. “I feel worried I won’t win, that it’s impossible,” says Fatoumata Camara, waiting to have her photo taken for a US green card lottery. The program grants permanent US residency to approximately 50,000 randomly selected entrants from around the world each year. Just down the road, icily air-conditioned supermarkets sell bits of America – Pop-Tarts and marshmallow creme and organic dog food. Flights roar overhead, carrying planeloads of tourists to and from Brussels and Manchester and Barcelona. In some ways, the West seems so close. But for now, Ms. Camara knows, there is a glass wall between her and the places she wants to be.
Every day, as Omar Barrow swerved his taxi across the potholed roads of Gambia’s capital city, peeling airline billboards sold him stories of faraway places.
Dream big in New York City, promised one, a faded image of the Empire State Building rising behind the text. London is calling … from just $824, announced another.
$824. It was, for Mr. Barrow, a price as fantastical as the destination, something far beyond the reach of a man making $10 or $20 a day shuttling tourists between the kitschy beach hotels and English pubs that hug the seafront here.
But the cost wasn’t his biggest obstacle. To get on that plane, he also needed a visa. And to get a visa, he needed something – well, someone – else.
“If I can find a white lady, it will change my life,” Barrow, a round-faced man in his thirties, often told his friends. “If I can find a white lady, I can get a better future.”
Over the past several years, Gambia – a tiny banana-shaped sliver of a country running through the center of Senegal in West Africa – has earned a troubling reputation. Despite its small stature and population (2 million), the country consistently ranks in the top 10 origin countries for migrants attempting the clandestine crossing of the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.
Leaving Gambia for the West, indeed, has become a kind of Gambian dream – the country’s most trusted belief for how you can build a better life. A tiny country with little in the way of industry or natural resources, money sent home from abroad plays an outsize role in Gambia’s economy. Remittances account for more than 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, one of the highest percentages in the world.
Every year, thousands set out for Europe along what’s euphemistically called “the back way,” a clandestine crossing of desert and sea. But others, like Barrow, hope to find different, less dangerous, ways out.
For most Gambians, there are few legal routes to the West. But still, it is a country alive with people hoping they will be the exception, the one who can cross the world by love or luck or sheer ambition.
For Barrow, he decided it would be love. He often saw couples – him Gambian, her European – walking barefoot in the sand at sunset, their hands clasped, or bent toward each other at the rickety beach bars in Serrekunda, a Banjul suburb. It was a trend that had earned Gambia a dubious reputation for sex tourism.
But the way Barrow saw it, things were more complicated than that. Friends showed him selfies that the women they’d met sent back from their home countries in Europe. “She’s coming back for me,” they’d tell him. “She promised,” they’d say.
And occasionally, it was true.
When he looked at these friends, he saw how interlaced love and need were. His friends loved these women, he thought, but it was clear they also needed them. For a visa to get to Europe, maybe, or for the money they sent back to Gambia when they went home. Still, the way Barrow saw it, need didn’t cancel out love.
“When a woman wants a husband and a man wants a wife, that is what love is,” he reasoned as he made small talk with the tourists piling in and out of his car. “I wouldn’t follow someone I do not like.”
1 in 150,000
Across town, in a tiny shopfront crammed between a store selling used bikes from America and another selling used refrigerators from Germany, a hand-painted sign flapped in the wind, promising its own way out.
“WORK & LIVE IN USA,” it read. “PLAY AND WIN.”
Inside, the Nigerian proprietor, Collins Eko, pointed proudly to a faded piece of paper tacked to his wall. “Dear Mr. Onyema,” it began. “You have been randomly selected for further processing in the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program for the fiscal year 2014.”
That Mr. Onyema had won the so-called green card lottery, which grants permanent US residency to approximately 50,000 randomly selected entrants from around the world each year. Since then, Mr. Eko bragged, his little internet cafe had had two more winners.
“I’m telling you, no one wants to die in the sea,” he said to prospective customers, who could pay $3 for his help filling out the application. “This way is better.”
Better maybe, but a long shot. Less 1 percent of the 15 million or so people who enter the green card lottery each year are selected to apply for permanent residency. After interviews and health checks and background screenings, fewer than half of those eventually end up in the United States.
“I feel worried I won’t win, that it’s impossible,” says Fatoumata Camara, who on a recent morning sat fidgeting in the foyer of a shop called Photo Express in Serrekunda, waiting to have her photo taken for her lottery application.
Just down the road, icily air-conditioned supermarkets sold her countrymen and women bits of America – Pop-Tarts and marshmallow creme and organic dog food. Every day, meanwhile, flights roared overhead, carrying planeloads of European tourists to and from Brussels and Manchester and Barcelona. In some ways, the West seemed so close, so reachable.
But Ms. Camara knew there was a glass wall between her and the places she wanted to be. She could see them – in the shops and on TV and in the faces of the chattering tourists stumbling out of the pubs each night – but she could not reach them. Twice, she had applied for student visas to Britain. Twice, she was rejected.
And so now, here she was, dreaming of the life she might have in the United States.
“I’ll have a job sitting in an office, at a computer,” she said. “I think life will be easier there.”
Maybe after maybe
On the campus of the University of The Gambia, Sellou Jallow was writing his own ticket out.
“Colleges in America,” he typed into a Google search bar.
A list of sites emerged, thousands of pages long.
“Colleges in America that do not require the SATs,” he tried again. This time, fewer results.
“Colleges in America that do not require the SATs and have scholarships,” he typed finally.
Now the list was manageable. He began to write down the names.
College in America had once been an outsized ambition for a boy from his village, a few hours inland, or “upriver” from the capital, as Gambians called it – or anyhow it would have been before last year. But now he had a line on his résumé that might make a difference. In 2017, he’d represented Gambia at the First Global Challenge, an international high school robotics competition, in Washington, D.C.
“That competition made me see my potential, that I really have skills I didn’t know I had,” he says of his week in Washington, where Gambia’s team finished 106th out of 163 teams competing. And the trip to America cracked open a new possibility in his mind.
Maybe, he could come back here. Maybe, he could study here. Maybe he could start a life here. Maybe.
“Inshallah,” he says. God willing.
“By the grace of God,” says Joseph Tucker, a Sierra Leonean in Gambia. It’s been a few weeks now since he submitted his own application for the green card lottery at Eko’s shop. “If it is His will.”
Last May, Mr. Tucker actually won the lottery. But as the fine print on his acceptance letter stated, nothing was guaranteed. Winners of the lottery are randomly ranked, and you can only apply for your green card when your number is called by the State Department. Last year, so many Africans with winning numbers applied for residency that the US government simply never got to Tucker’s.
“I was going to elevate my life,” says Tucker, an engineer who left his country during the Ebola outbreak of 2015. “That was a very big chance for me.”
But it slipped through his fingers.
And now there was nothing to do except try again.