Imagine hearing that your favorite athlete—LeBron James, Aaron Rodgers, Serena Williams—had drowned after being stuffed in the hull of a ship in order to avoid authorities and cross a treacherous body of water. Their goal in this alternative universe was to flee violence as well as earn enough to support their families.
That is exactly what happened to the goalkeeper for the Gambian national women’s soccer team, Fatim Jawara. Jawara was one of many West African first-division players who had chosen this route as a way to escape not only violence but also the abhorrent working conditions and minimal salaries that many soccer players in West Africa have to face. But Jawara is the first to perish in the “Back Way,” as this form of migration to Lampedusa in the south of Italy is known. Jawara had prepared for this trip over the course of several weeks, living in a “camp” in Libya, waiting for the opportunity to make the trek. She is being remembered as not only a dynamic keeper but also a leader in the locker room, and the charismatic centerpiece of a national team that became national heroes when they stunningly qualified for the U-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan back in 2012.
Gambia Football Federation President Lamin Kaba Bajo announced her death at a press conference, where he said:
I received the news today and it has really shocked me. The young girl is a talent and on the move for greener pastures but the way she died is just shocking and sympathetic. We at the GFF are very sad about the development and on behalf of the Football Federation, I want to send our condolences to the family of the girl and her former club Red Scorpions.
The death of Fatim Jawara highlights a disturbing fact outlined this week in The New York Times: Despite media hysteria about the immigration influx into Europe, far fewer people are attempting migration across the Mediterranean in 2016 compared to a year ago. Yet the death toll is higher. This is because there is higher risk, with greater policing of the waters. Fewer boats means fewer people migrating. It also means that, with higher risk of detection, human smugglers are attempting to maximize their profits by packing more people in even less secure boats. Increased crackdowns on migration have also meant that smugglers take riskier routes and charge more. This criminalization of migration and strains on the profiteering of human smuggling cost Fatim Jawara her life. William Spindler, the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said on Tuesday, “This is by far the worst we have ever seen. Smuggling has become big business: It’s being done on an almost industrial scale.”
I spoke with Emira Woods, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a board member of Action Aid International. She said, “Gambia is the picture story of economic exploitation, with the entire economy entrenching wealthy elites and the foreign interests they serve. The country’s majority are young, unemployed or underemployed. Inequality is growing rapidly, with the rich getting richer and the poor taking to rickety boats to try someway, somehow, to live a decent life with a livable wage. Climate change has its epicenter in Africa, with countries like The Gambia, on the West Coast of Africa already devastated with rising sea levels, soil erosion, and extreme weather (floods and droughts). The Gambia is 50 percent urban, with most of the population in cities like Banjul, on the coast of the Atlantic where large overpopulated slum areas are disappearing under the rising sea level. Densely populated areas are facing further demands to take in more people who were previously in areas that are now underwater. This horrific death of our sister and daughter Jawara is a powerful reminder that the structures of global capitalism, the devastation of climate change, and the constraints of a repressive political system take their highest toll on women and young people.”
Fatim is one of the over 3,700 refugees who have died in an effort to find some semblance of a better life. It should go without saying that every such death is a tragedy. But if we can focus on one person—perhaps through the universality of sports—maybe we can recognize the humanitarian crisis taking place and not see it as an undifferentiated mass of suffering that we can neither affect nor influence. If you love soccer, you should care about the people who play it. If you care about the people who play it, then you should care about Fatim Jawara and then, hopefully, the people who are dying because of the criminalization of human movement and the profit margins of this lucrative black-market enterprise. Remember Fatim Jawara. As her old coach Choro Mbenga said, “She was bold and stood for her teammates boldly. A talented goalkeeper, she will really be missed.”
She certainly will be missed but she is also tragically now a symbol of the latest in the crimes against humanity rooted in West Africa. As Emira Woods said to me, “We as a human family came together to end the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. We must now root out conditions leaving people like Jawara few options but risking their lives on rickety boats. These horrors will only end if we demand change. Africa has given enough of its people to the sea. The human community can and must do more. Enough is enough!”