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Thursday, 22 October 2015

Little Jasmine can’t return to Nigeria, where albinos risk persecution. Read her story:

  • Written by
    Alice Philipson

Little Jasmine’s family can’t return to Nigeria, where albinos like her risk persecution. So when violence drove them out of Libya, they turned to Europe for safety.

Their story
Jasmine, now almost two, was born in Tripoli, Libya, where armed militias roam the streets and electricity comes and goes. She and her three-year-old brother, Winner, left the house just once a week, on Fridays, when their Nigerian parents took them to Mass at the local Catholic church.
But no matter how many times the lights went out as Jasmine and Winner were having a bath, or how many gunshots they heard from the window of their one-bedroom house, their parents knew they could not return to their native Imo State because of their little girl’s condition.

Jasmine has albinism. Her hair is blonde, her eyes are blue and her skin is noticeably fairer than her brother’s. In the village where her 24-year-old mother Shalom grew up in southeast Nigeria, girls like Jasmine are seen as bearers of bad luck. They are frequently attacked and sometimes even killed. In many parts of Africa, their body parts are sold to witch doctors and used in rituals.

“We can’t go back there because we’re scared she might be kidnapped,” Shalom says. “Jasmine’s never met my mother, my sisters or my brothers, but they understand we can’t return.”

A fellow Nigerian staying at the reception centre in Canigattini Bagni, Italy, plays with young Jasmine. UNHCR/Alessandro Penso

Shalom, who is Pentecostal, moved to Libya in 2011. She had wanted to go to university to study law, but her boyfriend (now husband) Darlington, 43, from Libya, had a well-paid job as an electrician in the capital and she decided to follow him. Winner, who was born without fingers on his right hand, came along, unplanned, less than two years later. Jasmine quickly followed.

“We didn’t get any trouble from anyone in Libya over her,” says Darlington. “People stared at her in the street but they thought she was white and they left her alone.”

However, as fighting erupted in Libya, Shalom was isolated and frightened in Tripoli, rarely leaving the house. For dinner, she cooked traditional Nigerian recipes that she’d learned from her mother and she spoke regularly to her three sisters back home in Imo State. But she had few friends in the neighbourhood.
“Each day was the same,” Shalom says. “I’d get the kids up, give them a bath and then we’d watch cartoons on TV all day until my husband came home.”
It wasn’t until Darlington was caught up in a near fatal fire – which began as militants set fire to oil barrels close to their home – that they finally decided to leave Libya. The accident, which left him in a coma for a week, caused serious burns on his right side. Now, he can only walk with the aid of a stick.
“When she grows up, I want my daughter to be a human rights lawyer so she can fight discrimination.”
Unable to return to their home country, they raised 1,000 Euros with the help of the church, enough to buy each of them a boat ticket to Italy. After 12 hours in the open sea, with no food and no water, they were brought to Augusta, Sicily, on a Médecins Sans Frontières boat named ‘Dignity’. Three days later, Shalom found out she was pregnant with her third child.

The family now hopes to claim asylum in Italy. “One day when she grows up I want my daughter to be a human rights lawyer so she can fight discrimination cases,” says Shalom, as she gently tugs her daughter’s fair hair into a ponytail. “Maybe if she stays in Europe and gets a good job, she can fight for people like her.”

In some parts of Africa, albinism – a hereditary condition that causes little or no pigmentation in people’s eyes, skin or hair – is thought to affect as many as one in every 1,400 people. In Nigeria, it is more common in the south because of inbreeding among members of the same clan or townships.
Shalom says that albinism ran in her mother’s family, although in the most common forms of the condition, both parents must carry the gene for a child to be born with it.
However, such is the stigma attached to albinism, Shalom was reluctant to use the term to describe her daughter’s condition, instead referring to her as “light skinned”. A doctor at the temporary camp in Augusta port, where the family spent their first night in Italy, later confirmed that Jasmine had albinism.
“There’s no future there for my girl.”
The family’s arrival in Sicily came just months after more than 200 witch doctors and traditional healers were arrested in Tanzania, following a spate of murders of people with albinism, including a one-year-old boy. Witch doctors are prepared to pay as much as US$75,000 for a complete set of albino body parts, which are believed to bring wealth and good luck. Almost 80 Tanzanians with albinism have been killed since 2000, according to the UN. It is also particularly bad in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where militia groups believe body parts can help protect them on the battlefield.
Darlington, who is still mourning the death of his mother and each of his eight siblings in Libya, has little doubt that the same fate could befall his daughter if they were to return to Imo State.
“Village elders used light-skinned people for rituals in my village,” he says, sighing, as he massages cream into his burns at a welcome centre for asylum seekers in Canicattini, 50 kilometres from Augusta. “There’s no future there for my girl.”

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