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Inside a migrant safe house on ‘the coolest street in the world’

24 April 2020

Lavapiés is a neighbourhood of extremes. It was recently crowned the coolest neighbourhood in the world by Time Out Magazine, but is also one of the most multicultural – and poor – in Spain.

Calle Argumosa, the artery of Lavapiés, is also known as La Playa de Lavapiés for all its rows of packed terraces. It now sits eerily quiet, like a backstreet in a sleepy Mediterranean town during siesta, with residents forced to keep their problems behind closed doors – those very same problems that have just been amplified by State of Alarm.

On Tuesday, two residents living on Calle Argumosa welcomed me into their safe house, which they haven’t left in six weeks.

THE JOURNEY TO LAVAPIÉS

Just under a year ago, Mohammed Nahid embarked on a journey of a lifetime. He left Bangladesh and flew to Dubai, where he then travelled to Senegal, through Mauritania, Mali, Algeria and Morocco, and then crossed the Mediterranean by boat to Motríl. It wasn’t until the last leg of his journey over water that he had the most memorable experience of his life.

On September 25 last year, I treaded water for 16 hours. I’ve never been so cold in my life. I thought I was going to die.

Mohammed was picked up by a Spanish rescue vessel and eventually made his way to Calle Argumosa in Lavapiés, where he currently lives with five other young Bangladeshi men, one of whom he shares a bunkbed with.

Mohammed Nahid’s roommate is called Mohammed Salauddiin, who made his way here by land. From Bangladesh, he crossed the border into India, then Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia and Italy, then took the train to Madrid, disembarking at Atocha station where he made his way to Lavapiés.

¿CERVEZA?

Since moving into their safe house, they had been leaving every night to sell cans of beer to nightlife revellers.

We would go out in the evening and wouldn’t get home until 5 o’clock in the morning, every night.

The two Mohammeds are currently lateros (tin men) and make a living by illegally selling cans of beer to nightlife revellers on the street. If you live in Lavapiés, it’s likely that if you’ve ever bought a can of beer from a latero, it may have been from one of them. It’s their only way to make enough money to pay their rent of €250 each per month. That’s right: six men residing in a 40-square-meter interior flat pay a total of €1,250 per month.

Bangladesh is not a country at war, but it feels like it is.

Because Nahid and Salauddin are not from a war-torn country, they’re not technically refugees and are therefore not entitled to legal status. For now, they lie low in an underground waiting room, clutching a ticket with changing numbers, alongside other migrants patiently awaiting the life so many of us were born with.

And those ticket numbers just got even longer…

STATE OF ALARM

We haven’t been outside since lockdown began. Our flatmates, who work in a green grocer’s in Lavapiés, bring us some food.

The Bangladeshi friends live on the third floor of a classic, old Lavapiés building. The pretty facade is lined with cast-iron balconies and plants spilling through the railings. Inside, the walls are crumbling, and the wooden staircase creaks as I ascend. I follow my Bangladeshi interpreter Rabbi Alam, a migrant himself, past apartments with pairs of shoes lined up outside front doors, from which an aroma of freshly heated spices escapes.

Face masks on, I’m offered the only chair in the room and I begin asking about how and why they came to Madrid.

I came here for a better life.

… said Nahid, saying the words “better life” in English – everything else in Bengali. Perched on the edge of a cabinet, he explained that he left Bangladesh after his cattle caught a plague and were wiped out. Unable to pay his debts, he had no choice but to flee.

Salauddin misses his wife and two children, aged 12 and nine, but has no plans to return to Bangladesh. Instead, he hopes to get legal status and be able to bring them to Madrid.

But confinement has not only hindered any progress they could make towards that better life, it has also increased the urgency for legalisation. Living in damp, cramped conditions, fearful of going outside for being arrested, and rationing out food even during Iftar every evening, Mohammed and Mohammed are at greater risk of succumbing to Covid-19. “We’re fine,” they both say bravely,

We just want papers or help. Papers or help.”

If they had residency documents, they could access unemployment aid, health care and food, which is why they’re pinning all their hopes on a new movement born out of the coronavirus pandemic, called #RegularizaciónYa and #papersforall.

Lateros attending the protest on Plaza Nelson Mandela, marking the one-year anniversary of Mame Mbaye’s death.

#PAPERSFORALL

Self-organised anti-racist and migrant collectives are coming together to raise their own voices and the voices of those who were silenced at sea. There are almost 600,000 migrants in Spain who find themselves in limbo in precarious work, including farmers, care workers, manteros and lateros.

The RegularizaciónYa movement aims to push the government to offer rights and freedoms of migrants by simply legalising all undocumented migrants now. And if you’d like to help, simply download this image and share it on social media, using the hashtags #RegularizaciónYa and #papersforall.

In a time when protesting on the street is no longer possible, protesting from our homes, with the tips of our fingers touching the power of social media, has become key.

INFO

  • Read more about the #papersforall movement here.
  • Download more #papersforall graphics to share on your social media here.
  • Follow SOS Racismo Madrid, who are spearheading this campaign, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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