How a migrant teen was rescued from the streets of Madrid by ‘Mamá Amélie’
Anthoni was sleeping rough after being kicked out of the family home by his father. A Frenchwoman decided to take him in and help him get back on his feet
The day Anthoni turned 18, he was living with a friend and classmate from his auto mechanics and electronics course at Madrid’s Barajas Vocational Training Center. “I didn’t do anything special because I had no money. We took a walk down the street and that was it,” he recalls. His father had kicked him out of the house three weeks earlier, telling him to go and make his own living. It was the first time he told him to leave, but it would not be the last. The next time, Anthoni was left homeless and without any residency papers.
Anthoni had never had much contact with his father, who left Venezuela to move to Spain when his son was just three years old. Once in Madrid, his dad remarried and started a new family. Contact between them was limited to one phone call a month, to inform his son that he had sent him money.
But on January 12, 2020, having just turned 17, Anthoni decided to join his father in Spain despite the long absence. Life in Venezuela had become complicated, he had dropped out of school, and Anthoni’s mother asked his father for help. “I was lost over there, but when I landed in Madrid I realized that there were so many possibilities here. I immediately went back to school, got my high school certificate in the middle of the pandemic, and signed up for vocational training,” he says with pride.
His joy was short-lived. Six months after arriving, home life became tense. Anthoni needed money for transportation, books or even just to go out with friends. “My father began to tell me that he wasn’t going to give me anything, that I should go make a living,” he said. In June of this year he kicked him out for good. Anthoni remembers his words: “You little shit, pick up your things and get out of my house.”
That time, there were no friends who could take him in. He was of legal age to work in Spain, but could not get an employment permit because his father had not done the paperwork to formally recognize his presence in the country. Undocumented and without any income, the only option was to live on the street. He found a corner in Madrid’s Prosperidad neighborhood, next to the M-30 ring road. “I slept on an old sofa and ate what was given to me by people who knew me,” he recalls.
In the eyes of the Spanish government, he was now a homeless illegal immigrant. But Amélie Yan-Gouiffes, a Frenchwoman who has lived in Spain for five years, had another view: “Anthoni was a child and I was not going to let him sleep on the street. Over my dead body.”
For six months now, Anthoni has had a second mother. Mamá Amélie, as he calls her, pays for a room in an apartment in Madrid’s Alcalá de Henares district, and she also gives him money for food and his cellphone expenses. Her own son, Léo Jules, is also part of the story: at just 16, he is in charge of bringing Anthoni his allowance, lending him his PlayStation video game console and spending time with him when he himself is not at boarding school.
Yan-Gouiffes calls Anthoni every day from Madagascar, a country that the boy has trouble locating on the map, to ask him how he is doing. She is now living in the African island nation where she is working as a consultant for the United Nations. “Amélie has shown me more affection than my own father. She believed in me and helped me a lot,” says Anthoni. “And Léo Jules is like a brother.” When he talks about them, the young man takes a deep breath to hold back his tears. It’s the only time he lets his guard down.
The 50-year-old French humanitarian worker could have looked the other way when Léo Jules told her he had a friend who had been sleeping on the street for two weeks. But instead she went looking for him, took him in and immediately started apartment hunting for this new arrival. She herself had to leave her own rental in just a few days’ time. And it was all the more remarkable as Yan-Gouiffes was just beginning to recover from aggressive chemotherapy treatment, and had just signed a six-month contract to work in Madagascar with the UN.
But Yan-Gouiffes is also the kind of person who was already a volunteer with Amnesty International at the age of 20, and 30 years later she mobilized her friends so a Venezuelan teenager would not be out on the street. “We all started making calls and trying to figure out what to do,” she recalls.
From her office in Madagascar, this expert in resilience and humanitarian aid reflects on how social protection in the West can turn us into “individualistic and selfish beings who look the other way, waiting for the government to do something.”
She recalls that when there was a huge snow storm in Spain in January of this year, her neighbors in Madrid remained indoors, apparently waiting for city officials to send out workers to come and remove the snow. “My two sons and I are used to helping out, so we went out with shovels to remove the snow that covered the area around the building,” she explains.
That same attitude is what made it possible to get social services to offer Anthoni a temporary place at the Mejía Lequerica shelter. “He had done his best to go to social services himself, but they told him that they were going to send him an email that never arrived and we were running out of time. He only got a place in the shelter when I accompanied him and spoke directly with the social worker,” she recalls.
Esther Pino also offered to help the young Venezuelan to deal with Spain’s famously labyrinthine bureaucracy. Despite having no legal training, she accompanied him when he applied for asylum, a move which will allow him to have a work permit from January. “I had to help him write the essay where he told his story and the reasons for requesting asylum, because he did not know how to do it properly. It’s a complex process, even for an adult,” says Pino.
Amélie has shown me more affection than my own father. She believed in me and helped me a lotAnthoni
His time at the Mejía Lequerica shelter was not easy: he was the only unaccompanied young man in a center full of adults and families. He lived for three months in a room with five people, where he also suffered attempted sexual abuse. Once the right to temporary shelter expired, the government let him know that the only alternative until his asylum application and work permit were processed was yet another shelter. His world caved in once again, but not for long: his “French mom” then decided that the solution was to pay for a room out of her own pocket.
”I’m doing better now,” the young man says, smiling. Anthoni is looking forward to January so he can start working. “Whatever it may be, the important thing is to be able to earn my own money and finish my studies.” Anthoni falls under the category of what human rights organizations call “subjects with special circumstances,” who require flexibility in the aid process.
Jennifer Zuppiroli, head of migration at the NGO Save the Children, explains that the “best interests” of the child must always be considered, such as the fact that Anthoni is barely 18 years old and all alone in a legal and social system full of adults. “What happens is that the legislation does not provide for transition periods or special accompaniment for individuals between 18 and 23 years of age. Whether you are an asylum seeker or whether you were previously an unaccompanied minor, as soon as you reach the age of majority you are already an adult and so you enter the system,” adds Verónica Barroso, Amnesty International’s refugee expert.
Since October of this year, reforms to Spain’s immigration regulations have brought some respite to the nearly 8,000 unaccompanied minors and 7,000 former unaccompanied minors aged 18-23 living in Spain. They will now be able to have a residence permit and, from the age of 16, a work permit as well. However, Spain’s Transition to Adult Life Programs for those who are 18 and older do not offer the extra help required by those who are not yet emotionally adult, and this task continues to fall to NGOs or citizens like Amélie. This may involve anything from advice to housing, and it is largely borne on the shoulders of those who simply cannot look the other way.