The woman gave a sudden, stifled gasp and stood firmly rooted to the spot. Although struck by confusion, I manage to jump on board and hold up my day-ticket before the scowling bus driver has a chance to drive off. As I sit down in one of the few empty seats, I notice that the middle-aged woman is now standing in the gangway next to the driver's cabin and keeps glancing nervously over her shoulder.
When the bus had arrived, it had seemed the most natural thing to do - "You go first madam." Was 'madam' offensive? Or had she been surprised that I could speak English? That still wouldn't explain the way she had clutched at her bags protectively. And why had she been so reluctant to board the bus before me as I had offered? Suddenly it dawns on me. Did she really suspect that I would try to mug her as she walked past me? A wave of irritation and anger sweeps over me. Just then, a white Toyota truck drives past the bus...
The memories come flooding back: the stinky-sweet smell of human sweat, the burning wind throwing heat and sand on our faces. Even though the other nineteen men on the truck were also from Eritrea, we spoke very little. Behind us there were four other crammed trucks which had left Khartoum with us. The closer we moved towards Libya, the further away I was from my parents.
My parents and I had fled Eritrea soon after I received my call-up papers from the army. The day I received those papers, I saw my dream of becoming a teacher turn to ashes. Military service meant no freedom, no salary, no home. It should last for eighteen months, but that was only for the very lucky. Neither of my brothers had been lucky. Their eighteen months had turned into three and four years. Then a letter had arrived, telling us that both had died of an illness which had spread very quickly at the camp. I wouldn't escape alone because I knew that my parents would have to pay the price. But my father wouldn't let the army steal his last son. Through a friend we had found a way to cross the border into Sudan.
As refugees, in Khartoum many jobs had been forbidden to us. While we worked as painters, I had tried my best to forget about the plans I had made when I was still at school. One day, my father had given me a brown envelope and told me to use it to get to Europe, where I could follow my dreams. The envelope contained his life savings. At first I had refused. I couldn't give my father's money to men who could turn against you at any time. There was no way of knowing what would happen if I turned to smugglers for help. But my father had urged me to use my courage and my faith to cross the boundary of fear. "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."
After travelling on the Toyota truck for five days, we finally reached the Libyan border, where we were handed over to smugglers from Libya. Soon we had to pay the Libyans $100. They didn't care that we had already paid $800 to reach Libya. If we didn't pay they would abandon us. So we paid, terrified of being caught without papers. In Adjaba we had to pay another $400 to get to Tripoli. There we were told that that we had to pay $1500 to reach Europe by boat. I didn't have any more money. A man asked me and some other refugees to work on his farm. He promised to pay us $300 each month. I accepted, thinking that I would be able to pay for the boat journey in five months' time. Instead, I had to work for two years until I had enough money. All that time I lived in fear of being discovered by the police and sent back to Eritrea.
At last on my way to Europe, I still didn't feel safe. I was sitting in a boat slightly larger than a bathtub together with sixteen other men. After three days, my worst fear came true. The motor died. We were left floating, and soon we ran out of water. I felt terrified and cheated. I had crossed the border into Sudan, then overcame my fear and entered Libya. I had worked hard to jump over the money obstacle. Now I could only pray to God for help. Finally, on the sixth day, my prayers were answered, as we were rescued by Maltese soldiers.
Here in Malta, I still had to jump over another hurdle. I spent six months in a detention centre before being granted asylum status. Now I work as a translator, helping immigrants like me to overcome the language barrier. I am not a teacher yet, but I am happy because I am using what I know to help others. As a soldier in Eritrea I would have been forced to work against my own compatriots. Now, my only dream is to be able to change wrong impressions of people like me. Some people in Malta are still surprised when they learn that I am a Catholic, that I went to school, that I can speak six languages. Above all, I want to convince the Maltese that I am not dangerous or unfriendly. Before getting out of the bus, I turn to the driver: "Thank you and have a good day sir."