She Told Her Husband She Didn't Want Him To Leave For Europe


Many migrants die as they try to reach out for a better life. But what's often not considered is the family left behind. It's been a year since one woman's husband left their home in eastern Senegal in the hopes of finding work in Europe. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been listening to her story.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Aissatou Sanogo is 29 and lives in Tambacounda. The main city in eastern Senegal is in a region that is seeing an oversized number of its young men attempt to migrate. We met at the modest home Sanogo shares with her sick father-in-law and the three children she bore during 10 years of marriage to Souleymane Diaby.

AISSATOU SANOGO: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: Her husband was a bakery delivery man. Sanogo says he was supportive, compassionate and loved his family. But, she says, one evening in November 2014, he told her, Aissatou, I'm leaving for Europe - That very night.

SANOGO: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: "I told my husband I didn't want him to go, and that the little money he brought home was enough for us to live on," says Sanogo. "But he got angry with me," she says. He said reaching Europe was the only way he could properly provide for her and the family and earn enough to look after his ailing father.

That was the last time Sanogo saw her husband. Souleymane Diaby left their home and began the treacherous 3,300-mile odyssey to Europe, first to neighboring Mali and on to Niger, across the Sahara desert en route to the last stop on land, Libya, where he spent difficult months, she says.

SANOGO: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: They used to speak on the phone late at night, says Sanogo. Then in April last year, her husband called to say he was boarding a smuggler's boat heading to Italy. She ended that long conversation saying she needed to charge her cell phone. They never spoke again.

SANOGO: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: At this point, Sanogo breaks down, weeping quietly. She learned later that the boat her husband boarded in Libya capsized the next day. And he perished in the Mediterranean. Sanogo says she was told by the Red Cross that, as some Senegalese put it, Souleymane remained in the water.

We're sitting on a king-sized bed, and Aissatou Sanogo stands up to adjust a whirring fan to keep cool her youngest child, 2-year-old Alioune. The toddler is sprawled out on a floor sleeping. Sanogo's eldest, Issa, who's 7, a boy with a strikingly steady gaze and a mournful air about him, is outside with his playful younger sister, 3-year-old Binetou. Sanogo's father-in-law is lying immobile on a bed on the veranda. She is one of a growing number of young widows coping with the reality of life without their husbands, the breadwinners. She hopes to begin work.

SANOGO: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: "But there's no official assistance or coordination to bring these widows together," says Sanogo. A senior official at Senegal's immigration ministry, Sory Kaba, told NPR by phone they have difficulty even identifying such widows.

SORY KABA: (Through interpreter) It's hard to find these widows because they hide and keep themselves to themselves. Can you give me names and numbers? If we can find them, then we can link these women up with the social and protection services that can help them.

QUIST-ARCTON: Aissatou Sanogo says it would help to talk to other women to share their experiences. Fondly fiddling with a treasured photograph of herself and her husband, smiling in happier times, the widow makes this vow.

SANOGO: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: Aissatou Sanogo says, "I failed to stop my husband leaving Senegal, but the only way any of my children will ever travel to Europe is armed with a plane ticket and valid papers and definitely not by boat."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Ofeibea joins us now. How common is her story?

QUIST-ARCTON: All too common, Lourdes. In the few days that we were in the Tambacounda area of eastern Senegal, we met a handful of widows, all of them very young, in their 20s like Aissatou Sanogo, and each one with two or three children to raise on their own. And they feel isolated, no networking or support groups that you'd find in the Western world.

And NGOs - Nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits - don't seem to have cottoned on to this added problem linked to migration. And we're talking about an exodus of mainly young men from this part of Senegal. Aissatou Sanogo wants to work to look after her children and her father-in-law, but unemployment is also high in the area. So it's a huge and growing problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Dakar, Senegal. Thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

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