From the stack of books Amadou Diallo took with him last summer to the Greek islands, it was a biography of Frederick Douglass that kept finding its way back to the top. One quote from the 19th-century slavery abolitionist particularly resonated: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
Diallo was on Sifnos, a holiday destination for cultured Athenians and well-heeled foreign families. An asylum seeker from Guinea, he was working long hours in a hotel. At night he would read the life stories of great men, wondering what shape his own freedom might take.
Still just 20, the boy who arrived alone from west Africa nearly four years ago has seized every chance given to him. From boutique hotels on fashionably offbeat islands, to a private school where diplomats send their children, he has seen a vision of what Europe has to offer. He has read voraciously and worked hard to educate himself and to belong. But his place in this new world relies on Greece’s asylum process.
Dreamers is the US term collectively given to young people without legal immigration status who were brought to the US as children. Some young people living in Europe without legal status now also call themselves 'dreamers' because their struggle against hostile European migration and asylum policies echoes the US campaign. Between 3.9 and 4.8 million people in Europe are believed to be living without residency permits, about 65% of whom are under 35 years old, according to the Pew Research Center. In the UK, a recent University of Wolverhampton study commissioned by the mayor of London estimated there are 332,000 children and young people living undocumented in the UK, including 106,000 children born in the country. Estimating numbers of undocumented people necessarily involves guesswork – and the methodologies are often criticised – but it is thought there are millions of dreamers across Europe.
Diallo did not grow up with dreams of leaving Guinea. It was only after his father died that his life pitched into something that could have been imagined by a west African Dickens. Along with his younger brother, he was sent to live with his stepmother, who he says was abusive and sold him to the owner of a gold mine.
His life at the mine was essentially one of forced labour. The first time he tried to escape, he was caught and brutally punished.
Unbowed, he tried again. Locked in with other children, he screamed that there was a fire. The guards unlocked the door and in the chaos he managed to slip away.
He crossed the border into Mali and took the route north that would eventually lead him to Turkey. From there, he caught a boat to the Greek island of Lesbos. When the 16-year-old finally reached Athens, two months after leaving Guinea, he was spotted by an aid worker who brought him to a children’s shelter run by the Home Project, a non-profit organisation. It focuses on sheltering lone children who, like Diallo, came in their thousands and ended up surviving on the streets, in camps or detention centres. As an unaccompanied minor he was classed as vulnerable and granted temporary protection.
Through the Home Project he met Anna-Maria Kountouri, an immigration lawyer. She explains that minors have a race against time to gain legal status to remain in Europe, as when they reach 18 it is more difficult.
To secure his future in Europe, Diallo needed the Greek authorities to accept his asylum claim. But the rejection rate in Greece for unaccompanied minors has risen sharply in recent years under new hardline asylum laws. Children whose cases are rejected are not deported but coming of age sweeps away that protection.
Between June 2013 and January 2020 a total of 7,558 asylum applications from unaccompanied minors were processed in Greece, of which 63% were rejected. Of the 186 applications processed in January 2020, 71% were rejected.
In the shelter Diallo started learning Greek and English to add to his native French. As his language skills developed, the shelter staff encountered a boy who spoke softly and deliberately and was clearly bright. They arranged for him to sit an entrance exam for a sought-after French private school in Athens, which he passed.
The school year had already started when he arrived, but he embraced the challenge: “It was [an] opportunity to prove [to] them what I’m able to do if I get help,” he says.
At first, Diallo’s troubled past made him reticent, even with a psychologist who was tasked with helping him adjust. But gradually he progressed from being a quiet 16-year-old to the leader of his shelter, and was elected president of the student body at his school. Now he says he loves to be around other people and only spends time alone to study.
The last day of January was a big day for Diallo. He was hoping to be granted asylum on appeal and finally let go of some of the uncertainty of his life. Kountouri had spent weeks gathering evidence from his earlier life, including photos depicting the injuries he had suffered as a child labourer at the mine.
But when the decision came, it was another rejection. He remembers staring at the piece of paper in disbelief. His mind filled with questions. Why was his suffering not recognised? He had the presence of mind to take a photo of the decision and send it to Kountouri. She reassured him they would find a solution. Alone with his rejection paper, it was hard to feel reassured: “I was alone and I didn’t feel any compassion even from the person that was giving me the result.”
Diallo and his lawyer now faced an uphill struggle to get a judge to overrule the rejection on the grounds that it was “illegal and arbitrary”. A third rejection would lead inexorably to a deportation order.
It's like being a criminal, not having an ID. But I learned that you have to try, not give up, just keep trying
“I told myself I would not let myself down and I will not give up school,” he says. “Because this chance that I have now, being in a private school and graduating this year, not everyone has this opportunity.”
After the second rejection, Diallo’s ID was revoked, so just to walk the streets became nerve-racking. Twice police stopped him and let him go when he showed a picture of his old ID. His confidence slowly evaporated.
He felt embarrassed at the thought of being checked by police in front of classmates: “It’s like you’re a criminal or something, not having an ID.”
The stakes became even higher when Diallo heard he had been awarded a full scholarship at Sciences Po in Paris, one of the world’s most elite universities. What should have been a triumphant moment initially left him in agonising limbo. If his final asylum appeal failed, he would not be able to enrol. His plight captured the attention of Sciences Po students, who struck up a petition in his name, calling for him to be allowed to come and study.
From late spring into summer, Diallo remained at this fork in the road. One path presented a chance to study at a level that may equip him to do something about the travails of children like himself. The other path, a possible deportation back to the country of his horrific childhood, Guinea.
On 21 July the agonising wait ended. Diallo was called to Greece’s migration ministry, where he and two other “dreamers” were granted asylum. All three were exceptionally gifted, with the other two an ace student and a possible future basketball star. They are, in most senses, the exceptions that prove the rule.
Being an exception is its own kind of burden. It exerts pressure to prove you are deserving. While he was still in limbo, Diallo trained himself to see things positively: “I also try to remember that a lot of good things happened to me. I have access to education, something that I [always] really wanted.”
Now he has the right to remain, a sense of responsibility weighs on his initial reaction to the changed circumstances: “I wanted to be safe, and now I’m thinking that I can do more, I just need to work more and take more initiatives in my life. I learned that we always have to try, to not give up, just keep trying.”
This article is part of a week-long Guardian series called ‘Europe’s dreamers’, which tells the stories of undocumented young people in a climate of hardline European migration policies.