This young refugee survived a harrowing odyssey and integration into a new home, thanks to his faith.
On Easter Sunday, the Italian news website lacnews24.it shared the incredible story of Winner Ozekhome. This young Nigerian man disembarked at the southern Italian port of Reggio Calabria in 2016, at the young age of 17, after the odyssey of crossing the Libyan desert.
It all started when Boko Haram launched a terrorist attack at the college where Ozekhome was studying. “Suddenly we heard shots. We didn’t know what was happening, but we all ran out quickly,” he told a reporter for Avis.
He ended up being taken prisoner by a human trafficking network, from which he eventually escaped. But trying to get back home was never an option due to the distance and circumstances.
“While crossing the desert in Libya there were moments when I thought it would all end there, that I would not survive. Instead, God always has a different plan for us,” Ozekhome told lacnews24.
After surviving a failed attempt to cross the ocean to Europe and a stint in prison, he escaped again. This time he made the crossing safely.
Winner and the miracle of being saved
His unshakable Catholic faith helped sustain him during this difficult journey, which put him in life-or-death situations. He told lacnews24.it:
God helped me and saved me during the trip so I could arrive here. For me, faith is fundamental. I can bear witness to the strength that it gave me during the most dangerous and risky moments of my flight from a country where I was not safe, where I wouldn’t have been able to feel free to study, to work, or to plan for the future.
Integration in Italy
Ozekhome has now been in Reggio Calabria for five years. That is where he was first welcomed by the parish of Cannavò-Riparo.
The pastor, Fr. Nino Russo, and the entire community opened their arms to him and other underaged migrants. They have supported him in his process of integration, which is practically complete.
Not that it was easy at first. He told Avis:
It wasn’t simple at first, above all when I hadn’t learned Italian yet. Many people see us immigrants not for what we are, but for what they’ve been told to see. Behind each person there’s a story, regardless of where they’re from. Only with dialogue, listening and communication is it possible to get to know people and create integration.
Today he’s nearly 22 years old, has a degree as an industrial technician, and is studying Information Engineering at the Mediterranean University of Reggio Calabria. At the same time, he’s working at an IT company, and volunteers with Caritas. He’s also a regular blood donor, and helps run scouting activities for children at the parish.
Thanks to the difficult experiences he’s had, he’s very concrete and realistic, as well as grateful. In the article cited above, he says, “No one can know what will happen tomorrow. Today I’m happy to be here and satisfied with the path I’ve followed, with so many people who have helped me and are helping me still.”
He told Avis, the organization where he donates blood, that he wants to “be able to give back part of all that I have received,” recognizing that “so many young men like me have ended stranded on the dunes of the desert or at the bottom of the Mediterranean … Everybody gets a chance: I’m getting mine and I’ll continue to do everything I can in return to express my thanks for what I’ve received. Especially giving blood.”
Easter: Rebirth and hope
Thanks to his job he has been able to stay in Italy beyond the limits of the residence granted for humanitarian reasons. He is continuing his studies and working to make his dream of becoming an expert in information technology come true. He told Avis that he hopes now to be able to return soon to Nigeria to see his parents and siblings again.
During these days when we have been celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, Ozekhome offers us this profound reflection:
The only authentic crucifix is the one we carry inside, in our heart, the one that can be seen even from very, very far away, from where you could no longer see a crucifix merely hanging around our neck. It is this awareness that makes us live Easter as a gift, an occasion to stop and reflect on how Jesus died on the Cross, and to be reborn, renewed in our faith and in our love towards our neighbor together with Christ who rises from the dead. For me, this is Easter: rebirth and hope.
Thanks to his faith, Ozekhome knows very well, from his lived experience and with his heart, what it means to be reborn and to hope.