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  • Writer's pictureAfonso Ivens-Ferraz

Mohamed Bah on Re-Defining One’s Narrative

Updated: Feb 8

Mohamed ‘Mo’ Bah has recently become a legal resident in the Netherlands where he uses his own experiences as an undocumented migrant as a source of strength for others.

Mohamed ‘Mo’ Bah (29) © Afonso Ivens-Ferraz

“Hey, welcome to the City Rights Radio, a platform where the voice of undocumented people is brought directly to you. Stay tuned and hope you like it."

This is the opening of Mo's podcast, City Rights Radio, which he recites to me sitting in his host's chair in his flashy new studio in the heart of Amsterdam's East district. His show, which tells the often harrowing stories of migrants in the Netherlands, started two years ago and has grown ever more popular since. He might have lacked the technical expertise to produce a podcast, relying mostly on a DIY (Do It Yourself) approach that was “all about Googling,” but Mo and his team occupy a unique space within the current media landscape highlighting an underreported topic from an underrepresented perspective.

Frustrated with how undocumented migrants and asylum seekers are wrongly perceived by Dutch society and misconstrued by the mainstream media, City Rights Radio was an attempt to change this narrative: “To tell the story of who we are, where we came from, how we came here, what we hoped for, what it [Europe] is said to be compared to the reality of what it is,” he says.

© Afonso Ivens-Ferraz

Until recently, Mo – originally from Guinea – was also undocumented. According to the latest data, the Dutch government estimates that there are between 23.000 and 58.000 “undocumented aliens residing illegally” in the country. In turn, about 10.000 to 30.000 are estimated to be living in Amsterdam.

The language used by the government – in particular, the term “alien” – reflects the inhumane image of migrants which Mo has been trying to change. Since arriving in the Netherlands in 2019, he has been actively involved in several projects catered to the community of undocumented people in Amsterdam.

A gifted communicator and a born storyteller, his activism efforts have not gone unnoticed. In addition to several appearances in local media networks and podcasts, he has recently been featured in an article by The Guardian and in 2022 he won the Civis Media award for social media production.

“How does it feel?” I ask.

“It feels good, but this is the problem. I really don't like publicity for me as a person. Whatever I did, I did out of necessity … to change either the stereotypes around migrants and migration or to empower my community to find a solution to a problem that is really, really affecting them.”

Mo’s distaste for publicity dates back to Guinea where receiving such attention may lead to unwanted consequences. The Western African country of almost 14 million people has a well-documented history of political repression and, until 2018, was among the Sub-Saharan African countries with “high rates of migrant departure”, according to the IOM (International Organization for Migration).

Like many others, he embarked on an odyssey as he fled his home country. Although he never intended to come to Europe - hoping to relocate within Africa instead - his journey wound up involving two continents, a murderous sea, and several countries in between. Particularly traumatic, he says, was crossing the Mediterranean.

“If you put me in a position to do that again today, I will not do it. Put a bullet in my head. I will not do it.”

Finding himself in the coastal city of Nador – a known gateway for migrants in the northeast of Morocco - he attempted to cross the sea to Spain, not once but three times. Although he almost lost his life in his first attempt, before being rescued, the second one – in contrast – was “very calm,” until they were stopped by a Moroccan warship. “So now you have these two experiences that are totally opposite to one another. I went for the third. Like, how's the third going to be?”

On board an overcrowded Zodiac boat destined for the Southern shores of Spain, Mo embarked on his third crossing attempt. They expected rough seas, but not the three-meter waves which rocked the Zodiac in a roller-coaster-like motion. With over 50 people onboard, water flooding the boat, and cries echoing through the waves, he recalls a horrific scene that lasted at least 19 hours. “I made peace with the fact that, look, this is probably going to be my last day on earth and it's okay. I'm happy I tried and that was good,” says Mo.

It came to an end when a tanker spotted them and created a safety zone by circling them and calming the waves until rescue arrived. Once in Spain, he did what he felt forced to do for a very long time: “I managed to make sure that I can repress the traumas. I don’t know how, but I just did. To brace for what was going to come next.”

© Afonso Ivens-Ferraz

Following a brief stay in Spain, Mo arrives in the Netherlands where, for the first time in a long while, he finds stability. And it's this sense of relative safety that makes him stay and fight when his asylum request is declined, forcing him to wait a further 18 months before reapplying, even if it did mean being undocumented “and to some extent homeless” in Amsterdam.

It's in these past couple of years that his involvement in pro-migrant activism has gathered steam capped with getting his residency permit on his second attempt. It's come with a new wave of stability but new responsibilities and different kinds of challenges. He's now required to partake in a civic integration program which he attends four days per week. He knows learning the language is important and he enjoys learning Dutch, but it strips him of the time needed to invest in his projects. “So, any appointment that I make is based on the schedule and the agenda that is made for me by the city,” he says.

Yet, his adaptation to 'normality' has also brought along an unexpected challenge. Now that he's no longer in a state of survival, he's confronted with the very same ghosts he's tried to suppress.

“I think my traumas are just coming back. The fact that I’m getting stability. The fact that I can come here and sit and work … you know?”

But it's also allowed him to reflect on what he wants for himself, no longer having to do things “out of absolute necessity,” as he calls it. “To be honest, I'm in the phase of discovery again,” says Mo. “I don't want to be the voice of undocumented people anymore. I want to empower people to speak. I want them to find safety. I want them to find empowerment through creativity. You know?” he says softly.

“One of the times that I really got lost, and in a space that I really, really liked, was when I was editing, or when I was googling how to edit, you know. In that space, you're not an undocumented person. You're just someone who is trying to create, you know, and in that space, I didn't think about my residency permit. I didn't think about the fact that I was probably going to be homeless. I was just focused on making a podcast episode, you know, and this is a gift that I want to give to others."

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