They hid on a ship’s rudder to flee Nigeria. They landed in Brazil.
By Julia Vargas Jones
The four stowaways aboard a cargo ship had no idea where they were when they were met by federal police officers last month at a Brazilian port. Told they had landed in Brazil, they were stunned.
They had hopped on the ship while it was docked 3,500 miles away — in Lagos, the most populous city in the West African nation of Nigeria.
They didn’t know where it was going but didn’t care. They were jobless and desperate, they said, and wanted to go anywhere that might offer better prospects.
After rowing out to the vessel, the Ken Wave, they said they climbed into an unlikely space: the 6-foot by 6-foot opening containing the rudder.
Recounting their harrowing journey to The New York Times, they said they spent 14 days crossing the Atlantic Ocean, leaning on cold metal, terrified of falling into the churning waters just below their feet. Sometimes they spotted sharks.
“We were so scared, we just kept on praying,” said one of the men, Roman Ebimene Friday.
On day nine, they ran out of food and water, they said. “We licked toothpaste and drank seawater just to have strength,” Friday said in a telephone interview from a shelter in São Paulo, Brazil, where he was staying.
“When we informed them we were the federal police of Brazil, they made this face like, ‘huh, we’re in Brazil?’ ” said Rogerio Lages, chief of the federal police’s maritime division in the state of Espírito Santo, where the cargo vessel docked.
His unit was summoned to the port of Vitória, about 350 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, on July 10 after a boat ferrying fresh crew members to the Ken Wave spotted the migrants on the rudder, pleading for help.
Two of the men asked to be sent back to Nigeria, Brazilian authorities said, but Friday and the fourth stowaway, Thankgod Opemipo Matthew Yeye, decided to stay and have applied for refugee status.
Friday, 35, who is from Bayelsa, a state in the Niger Delta, a polluted petroleum-producing region, said he had been looking for work in Lagos for almost two years, hoping to help support his widowed mother and his three younger siblings.
He had so little money, he spent nights sleeping under a bridge, he said.
“I’m thinking of how to be a better person,’’ Friday said, explaining why he left Nigeria, “so I chose this path to make a better future and to lay a foundation for my younger brothers.”
Yeye, 38, said he had a small peanut and palm oil farm in Lagos state that was devastated by floods this year, leaving him, his wife and two young children homeless and hungry.
“There was a time that I thought of committing suicide,’’ he said, “but God helped me and I escaped through that.”
Beyond his personal travails, Yeye said he believes Nigeria is becoming increasingly dangerous. “We have a lot of security challenges,’’ he said. “I couldn’t cope anymore, so I decided to leave.”
Everyday life has been a struggle for many Nigerians in recent years as the nation has battled crises in nearly every region: an Islamist insurgency, a spate of kidnappings and deadly fighting between farmers and herders over land in a nation whose population is soaring.
There are pockets of wealth in places like Lagos, with its investment banks, art galleries and elaborate weddings of elites that draw hundreds of guests. But for many Nigerians, unemployment is rampant, helping to fuel a major exodus.
The number of migrants from Nigeria, which has a population of about 224 million people, increased threefold between 2009 and 2019, according to the Center for Global Development.
As of the end of 2020, Nigeria ranked in the top 10 countries with the largest numbers of people living abroad, according to United Nations data.
Migrant rights are enshrined in Brazil’s constitution: They are entitled to equal treatment and access to government services such as health care, education and social security programs, even if they arrive without documentation. People from South America are automatically eligible to apply for Brazilian residency.
The country has also become a haven for migrants from much farther away. Since the United States withdrew from Afghanistan two years ago, Brazil has issued about 9,000 humanitarian visas to Afghans. It has also taken in smaller numbers of migrants from Syria, Angola and Congo.
But despite the country’s welcoming attitude toward migrants, there are still significant challenges, especially for those like Friday and Yeye who arrive from African nations.
In 2020, African immigrants earned an average of about $500 a month, while European immigrants earned roughly $3,400 a month, according to the most recent data available from Brazil’s International Migration Observatory, a government research agency. The situation is even worse for refugees and asylum-seekers, who tend to earn among the lowest incomes and work in service sector jobs.
The disparity is grounded in several factors, according to the observatory and experts. Many Europeans tend to arrive in Brazil having already lined up work, while Africans, often fleeing grim economic situations, come with no job prospects. Black migrants have also been victims of the racism and xenophobia that courses through parts of Brazilian society.
Still, Yeye and Friday, after managing to survive an ocean crossing on a ship’s rudder, find themselves grateful at having arrived in their unplanned destination.
They recently received work permits and have started applying for jobs.
Both men have been taken in at Casa do Migrante, a migrant shelter in São Paulo where they are recovering from their trip. They have gotten help navigating immigration paperwork, signing up for Portuguese lessons and learning about Brazilian customs and culture.
“I was not even expecting that I was coming to Brazil, but I found myself in Brazil, and it is a better place,’’ Friday said. “I’m very, very happy.”