How a migrant teen’s ordeal at sea inspired schoolchildren in Spain

More than 50 students in Avilés have written letters of encouragement to Prince, a 14-year-old from Nigeria who arrived in Gran Canaria after a grueling 15-day journey atop the rudder of a tanker

Prince reads letters he received from students in Avilés, near the center for unaccompanied migrant minors in Gran Canaria.
Prince reads letters he received from students in Avilés, near the center for unaccompanied migrant minors in Gran Canaria.quique curbelo

Several months after a Nigerian teen made international headlines when he arrived in Spain’s Canary Islands after a grueling 15-day trip atop the rudder of a tanker, his story continues to reverberate.

The 14-year-old, who goes by the assumed name of Prince, now lives at a center for unaccompanied minors in Gran Canaria, and last month he wrote to EL PAÍS – which covered the story of his journey – to say that he’d received “around 100 letters from a school. Each one of them is incredible. Where is Avilés?”

He was talking about a city in the northern Spanish region of Asturias, where a group of schoolchildren had decided to write to Prince to send him messages of encouragement. Prince said he has been reading the letters night and day ever since they arrived. “I translated every sentence I didn’t understand, or asked the educator,” he said in a recent telephone interview.

Spain seems very interesting, but I wonder when I’ll be able to go to school like all of you and fulfill my life dream
Prince, who survived 15 days atop of a tanker’s rudder

“The truth is that I found what you did very brave, and I’m sure you had an awful time on that ship,” reads one of the letters, written by 11-year-old Carolina. “I wouldn’t do something like that for anything in the world, I wouldn’t risk it, but you were very brave to do so for your future. I was very moved by your story. I hope you get everything you set your mind on and more.”

This letter and 52 others like it made their way into Prince’s hands after a sixth-grade teacher at the private religious school Colegio Salesianos Santo Ángel decided to use the newspaper story for a text analysis exercise in class. Two other teachers decided to do the same, and class discussions ensued on the reasons that would push a teenager not much older than themselves to embark on a life-threatening journey.

“A lot of interesting things came up,” recalls Pablo Díaz, the teacher who came up with the idea. “There’s a lot of kids and each one sees life differently. Some of them can’t understand why people come here from other countries or that there are other realities outside the one in their own homes. Others are better able to walk around in other people’s shoes,” he recalls. “It was very nice, because teachers are a bit constrained by the curriculum, and these kinds of activities make the students grow as people and as citizens.”

“Today, when I read the news story, I stopped to think what a bad time a lot of people are going through,” wrote another child named Gorka. “While my classmates read it, I tried to put myself in your place, although I still can’t get my head around what you’ve done. Now you’re a hero to everyone.”

Alejandro told Prince that “you were very smart and daring.” Celia admitted that “I’d be very scared, and drinking salt water can’t have been very pleasant.” Lara informed him that she, too, is a fan of the Barça soccer team who loves the Argentine player Lionel Messi.

Nobody really believed that the letters would reach their intended recipient. The address was right, but Prince is an assumed name, and for several months after the package was posted there was no news.

“We tried to not get their expectations up,” recalls Díaz. But in early April, Prince got in touch with this newspaper to say that he’d received the letters and been reading them assiduously.

The truth is that I found what you did very brave, and I’m sure you had an awful time on that ship
Carolina, 11-year-old student from Asturias

Prince is no longer the weak boy who arrived in the Canary Islands after 15 days without food. About to turn 15, his voice has changed and he no longer looks like the child who arrived in November.

He said that he’d been trying to figure out how to thank the students for their messages. In the end, he wrote a letter in English in red ink.

“Hello, friends. I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your concern and for writing me these letters. I read them day and night, every day and every night before going to bed, but I am very sad...”, reads his letter, where Prince tells the children how he would like to be like them. “Ever since I arrived I have been unable to go to school, and that pains me.”

Over 2,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived in the archipelago in the last year, and the regional social rights department, which is in charge of their guardianship, holds that the education system cannot take in that many children in that amount of time, especially during a pandemic.

In the meantime, Prince plays video games and basketball every day, and he takes a few Spanish lessons. He has made new friends but the days seem long. “Spain seems very interesting, but I wonder when I’ll be able to go to school like all of you and fulfill my life dream.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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