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Seven years in the Libyan desert: ‘Only God helped us’

Cameroonian migrant Pato speaks to Vatican News about his recent meeting with Pope Francis, and the tragic journey that brought him to Europe.

By Joseph Tulloch

Seven years. That’s how long Mbengue Nyimbilo Crepin (or ‘Pato’) spent in limbo in Libya, attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and get to Europe.

He met with Pope Francis in a private audience in the Vatican on Friday afternoon, and told him his story.

Pato said that he had tried many times to make the crossing to Europe, but had been caught on each attempt and thrown into prison, only being released after he had made a payment to his jailers.

While in Libya, he met his wife, and the pair had a child. Tragically, Pato’s wife and child died in July of this year, as the family attempted to cross the desert between Libya and Tunisia.

He finally reached Europe two weeks ago, and now lives in a refugee camp between Rome and Naples.

After listening to his story, Pope Francis thanked Pato, and told him that he had “prayed so much” for his wife and child.

In an interview with Vatican News over the weekend, Pato reflected back on his encounter with the Pope, and offered advice to those in Africa who are planning to make the perilous journey to Europe themselves.

A photo of Pato and his family. He gave a copy to Pope Francis

A photo of Pato and his family. He gave a copy to Pope Francis

Interview with Vatican News

Pato began by stressing that the meeting was a “great pleasure” for him. “I could not imagine that I will meet the Pope one day”, he said.

Asked about his seven years in Libya, he said “it was not easy, because we had no support. Only God helped us.”

He then spoke about those who are thinking of attempting the sea crossing to Europe, saying that “I would tell them to never think about that.”

“I see many people who have died”, he added, “and now even in Libya they have many people who suffer. They have so many people who sleep outside, they don’t have work, many are in prison. It’s not a good idea to risk your life for this.”

“If someone had told me one day that we will travel in this kind of situation,” he said, “I’m not sure that I would have taken this route.”

And what are his dreams for the future now that he has finally arrived in Europe?

“I am a house painter”, he says. “This is my job, my passion. I want to continue my job, and I want to be the most famous painter in Italy, by the grace of God.”

Listen to the full interview

The Pope’s words

Speaking on Friday to Pato and a number of other migrants, as well as volunteers and staff from aid groups, Pope Francis said that “privilege is a debt”.

For those who are fortunate enough to be born in wealthy countries, Pope Francis said, “What you do is not something more: it is a duty.” 

“It is more comfortable to stay at home, to do nothing, to live for fun, to live for self-interest,” he said, and those who choose to go out and serve their brothers and sisters may feel alone. To them, the Pope said: “Do not be afraid: go forth.”

Finally, before bidding farewell, the Pope prayed for those present, asking the Lord to watch over those who “work on behalf of others,” those in detention camps, and “the many, many who are suffering.”

The meeting between Pope Francis and Pato

The meeting between Pope Francis and Pato

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