“I thought blacks came to Europe to make money, not to be prostitutes”

Ethiopian salesman Benyam Bouyalew found success in Spain, yet decides now is the time to return home

Benyam Bouyalew
Benyam BouyalewJOSÉ JORDÁN

Nobody would guess that this young man who is able to light a cigarette while handling his iPad with dexterity was once a child stowaway. Few people would believe that at his young age he has already bypassed security at several international ports and seen the inside of police stations on several continents. Even fewer individuals would believe that he would one day manage to return in prosperity to Ethiopia.

But he did. And now he is heading home on a direct flight, with a business project under his arm. Benyam Bouyalew, born in Dese, Ethiopia in 1987, not only fulfilled his dream of reaching the Old Continent. He also built himself a promising future in the export sector, trading in wine and building materials.

But everything came in due time: as he explains enthusiastically, sitting in front of a mint tea that looks like it is going to get cold, before getting to this point he had to go through a long odyssey. His personal exodus began 400 kilometers from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Back in his village, this son of traders enjoyed a certain amount of luxury. But then his father died and the family got into "a hell of a huge debt."

This led him to become a "boy-man," as defined in Benyam, the book that tells his story.

The time has come to go back. People there are prospering"

Benyam left home to try to make money to help his mother and his two siblings. "When you are desperate, you are ready to do anything."

This goal becomes even harder when you are just 13 years old, because it requires crossing frontiers, avoiding border patrols and, above all, knowing how to wait. It took him two years. Others wait for decades.

"I lost my childhood waiting for the boat to get away on," he says. In May 2003, when he was about to turn 16, he managed to slip in. He went through Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Israel without finding a place that would let him stay. With a deportation order under his arm and multiple bruises, he finally hid inside a cargo ship en route to Valencia.

"I was in awe," he says about the moment he stepped off the ship. Benyam remembers running towards some lights, which belonged to the City of Arts and Sciences. He asked some African prostitutes for help, and one of them took him home, then to Cáritas, the charity, which took over from there. "When I got here I was a little surprised: I thought blacks came to Europe to make money, not to prostitute themselves." A year later he had already taken a course in electricity and knew enough Spanish to use jargon. He worked in construction, but ended up following his deceased father's advice and became a salesman.

First he worked door to door, and eventually the owner of a winery in Requena took him under his wing. Now, he exports organic wine to his country, despite the "horrible paperwork," which he is going to deal with in person in February.

That is why, all in all, he feels privileged, especially if he compares his own situation with that of many young Spaniards out of a job. "The time has come to go back. People there are prospering," he says about Ethiopia. "My friends even dress better than I do," he laughs. "Every time I go, I look like a country boy."

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