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La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Who is Ali?

Reading time
4 min.

Who is the boy behind the hero of the opera Ali? Ciska, his foster mother in Brussels, outlines his story with love and pride.

Ali was born in Qoryoley, Somalia, the eldest son of Sareedo and Abdi. He is the big brother of ten siblings, a good friend to many, and my foster son.

Ali is a hero with a tremendous lust for life, and the bravest and most sensitive boy I know. An idealist too, because he wants his story to be told for those who can no longer tell theirs. He wants as many people as possible to know that there are still children like him, who at this very moment are undertaking the same dangerous journey, who are going to walk for days across the desert, be at the mercy of smugglers, get trapped in the hell of Libya, before waiting to cross the Mediterranean on a rickety boat.

Ali had just turned 12 when his father was recruited by Al-Shabaab and then killed because he could not reconcile himself with their ideology and actions. When they came to tell his mother that her husband had died and that it was now up to the eldest son, Ali, to take his father’s place, she begged for a reprieve. Early the next morning, she woke him up and arranged for him to flee.
This is where Ali’s journey, as told in the opera, begins. First through Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia. To cross the border into Sudan, he and his four friends spent three nights walking through the desert. They slept during the day. Three days without food or drink, three days of survival. Then they journeyed further through the desert in jeeps.

After they reached Kufra in Libya, Ali was locked up in a kind of shed, along with other refugees. He and his friends were subjected daily to torture and violence by Walid, the people-smuggling ringleader. They were forced to take drugs and were only given a piece of bread and a glass of water a day to live on. They were told the torture would only stop if their families paid a ransom. Ali’s mother paid, but the abuse continued until the last day.

Because his friends had paid earlier, they left Kufra before him. Ali didn’t know if he would ever see them again. Together with about fifty others he was transferred in pick-ups to Bani Walid via Sabha. There, he came across his friends again, but one of the girls escaped during the journey across the desert, fleeing rape and abuse.

In Bani Walid, he ended up in a similar shed as in Kufra. From there, they were taken via Tripoli to a village near the coast, where the police intercepted them, but Ali managed to escape. The girls and boys are separated, breaking up the friends once again. Ali is grouped with the girls. Of all the people he knew, Amina is the only one who's left. Together, the adolescents spent the night in a shelter by the sea, the lapping of the waves within earshot. The next day, with about a hundred others, they sneaked through a swampy area down to the sea.

Once they had reached the beach, they had to wait in a long line and walk to a small boat that lay a little further out in the surf. The water reached above Ali’s waist and like most of the others, he couldn’t swim. There were too many of them cramped in the little boat. The smugglers took them to a bigger vessel and then left them. Two Egyptians took the helm, the others scooped out water. It was night-time and terribly cold. After a week at sea, they first spotted a helicopter, and a little later the Aquarius, the ship of SOS Méditerranée that would rescue them. They spent several days on the boat, until they could dock in Valletta, Malta. There, Ali received care and entered a reception centre. Now and then he visited a Somali restaurant nearby, where he met someone who would eventually take him to Brussels by plane. He arrived on 1 January 2019. He was then 14.

Footage of Ali's rescue at sea

In February 2019, in the context of my work, I organized dance and theatre workshops at the Observation and Orientation Centre for Unaccompanied Foreign Minors of Fedasil, the Belgian Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers. Along with about a dozen other boys, Ali took part in a show. They opened up their hearts to the audience, explained how much they missed their mothers, recited poems and showed off their dance skills. A group of five boys toured Belgium with the performance. They were now being housed in different centres in remote corners of the country, but they continued to come together to rehearse. These intense meetings were something for them to hold onto in Belgium.

A year later, I invite Ali and a friend for a theatre workshop in my neighbourhood. They stayed over and were glad to be back in Brussels. Ali was uncomfortable in the centre in the Ardennes and enjoyed my quiet flat. They were supposed to return for the Easter holidays, but the Covid crisis decided otherwise. The reception centre Ali was staying in was looking for places that could accommodate the young refugees for a while, and Ali asked me if he could come and live with me for a few weeks. The health crisis was still ongoing, and Ali and I decided that he could come and live with me permanently through Pleegzorg, the Flemish agency for foster care. Ali had a place to settle.

In 2020 he got his papers and a little while later he managed to reconnect with his family for the first time. The next year, Ricard Soler Mallol came to Belgium to work as assistant director on a show at the KVS. Ricard is a friend of mine and one day over dinner, Ali spontaneously started telling him his story. This marked the start of a beautiful friendship and of a new opera.

This is Ali today: a 19-year-old hero who bravely defies unpleasant memories every day. He goes to school, has a student job, many friends, an extra family and a lot of dreams. His biggest dream, to finally see his family again, will hopefully be fulfilled soon.