Day 6: Unprepared for heartbreak


Part of a series on my journalism faculty-led program through Italy and Greece. For privacy reasons, I've changed the name appearing in this post.

In Boy Scouts, we were always taught to Be Prepared. And I thought I had prepared for everything (first aid kit, flashlights, emergency food, etc.) before heading on this trip – that is, until I met Joshua. Joshua is a 17 year old refugee from Sierra Leone.

By his own account, Joshua was a slave. He “worked” for a man who did not pay him. He was just given food, and only once something broke or tore was he given a replacement. He did all the work, but reaped none of the benefits.

Joshua ran away, traveled 150 kilometers on foot, and then worked odd jobs to get rides to cover the rest of the distance. While in the desert, he said some of his friends were bitten by animals and died. He now stays in a center in Italy with other unaccompanied minor boy refugees, living a typical teenage life.

He unsuccessfully tried out for the nearby club soccer team, but was happy for his three friends that made it. Since they’re not adults yet, the boys are required to go to school, and are taken care of by a house-mother who runs the center.

Joshua’s English is better than his Italian these days – he listens to American music, and likes Selena Gomez, but doesn’t care much for Taylor Swift.

But just when you think he might be a normal teenager, you notice the pain in his voice that sets him apart. Joshua looked at us if we were crazy when we asked him if he ever skipped school – he quickly said he wasn’t going to waste any opportunity given to him, especially school.

Since he’ll be an adult soon, Joshua told us he wanted to be a painter. At first we thought he wanted to follow in the footsteps of famous Italian painters like Da Vinci or Michelangelo, but he meant something else entirely.

Joshua wants to paint buildings, like general contractor might. He started to explain to us the different types of stucco and how he would paint them.

We asked if Joshua had any higher aspirations or a dream job, to which he had a simple response: “I will take any job that I can get.”

He credits God with keeping an eye out for him, and is a devout Christian. He attends Church every Sunday, and even joked that it’s just him and “old people”.

But Joshua said that he knows he cannot expect God to provide everything for him – he needs to continue to work hard and take advantage of what’s given to him. He has his official refugee papers, which should make it easier for him to stay in the country and get a job.

Despite all the help and support he’s received in Italy, for which he said he is extremely grateful, he wants to eventually go somewhere else. You see, when we first introduced ourselves and told him we were from California, his face lit up, and he immediately exclaimed, “America! The best country on Earth!”

I did not want to crush his dreams, nor lie to him, so I kept quiet. But that, that was when my heart broke.