PPieces of fabric in various vibrant shades fill the Naples studio where Paboy Bojang and his team of four work tirelessly to put together 250 cushions for their next customer, The Conran Shop.
It doesn’t take long for them to ship their first orders to Selfridges and Paul Smith, and with requests for distinctive cotton cushions with ruffled borders pouring in from all over the world, they’ll be busy for months to come.
Bojang, 29, is one of thousands to have landed on Italy’s shores over the past decade. He fled the dictatorship in The Gambia, witnessed the horror in Libya and survived a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. He has found solace in southern Italy, in a city whose warm embrace has enabled him and other refugees to thrive despite an unfavorable European asylum system.
“The first year was tough, and the second year when I met more people and made friends who cared about me, I started to fall in love with Naples,” said Bojang. “I feel inspired here.”
Its success is simply remarkable. Depressed and looking for something to do during Italy’s strict coronavirus lockdown in the spring of 2020, he started sewing. A few months later, he posted an image of his first handmade pillow on Instagram. It was an immediate success, and as messages filled her inbox, her housewares business, In Casa by Paboy, was born.
Today, he employs three refugees to work alongside him on making the cushions, which sell for 160 €, as well as a young Italian as brand manager.
“It was not at all what I expected,” he said. “My dream now is to grow the business and employ more immigrants. I want to show people that we have talent, that we have knowledge, that we make beautiful things, that we shouldn’t just be working on farms and being poorly paid.
Bojang was raised by his grandmother in his hometown of Serrekunda, where he learned to sew at the age of 13 after being sent to work for a tailor run by an uncle. Still a teenager when his grandmother died, he left for Europe, crossing several countries by land, mostly desert, before arriving in Tripoli where he slept in the street for 18 months.
“I slept in the streets, in garages, under cars… Libya was awful, I suffered a lot of trauma there,” he said.
Bojang has paid human traffickers three times for a place on a boat to travel to Europe. In the last attempt, he saw passengers being shot by Libyan police as they tried to leave.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult to explain what I went through in Libya, it was like a movie,” Bojang said. “I’ve never seen such horrible things in my life. They didn’t care who we were, it was like we were animals.
Bojang spent nearly two days on a crowded and dangerous boat before arriving on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in 2015. From there he traveled to Naples, where, for the first year, he stayed in a squalid and overcrowded refugee center on the outskirts of town.
He first worked in a tile factory, but lost his job after far-right leader Matteo Salvini, as interior minister, enacted a law abolishing the humanitarian protection permit. The two-year permit, which was granted to people ineligible for refugee status but who, for various reasons, could not be returned home, allowed people to find work and travel to another EU state for 90 days. Salvini’s decision coincided with the closure of many refugee centers across Italy, leaving thousands homeless and jobless.
Bojang’s life began to change when he met Sophia Seymour, a British journalist and documentary maker, outside Teranga, an Afrobeat nightclub in Naples run by refugees. Seymour offered him a room in his house, loaned him his sewing machine, and encouraged him to create.
She guided him in starting a business, although Bojang is still awaiting renewal of his work permit and which he hopes will allow him to travel for the launch of his products.
“Every step of the immigration system makes it difficult,” said Seymour, who co-directed Teranga, a documentary exploring the hopes and dreams of asylum seekers in Naples. “Starting with the long wait for documents to work, which makes a lot of people depressed in their prime. Then if you want to settle down on your own, you need so many people to advise you. It all costs money… you have to rely on so many people to help you, and that means relying on luck and kindness.
Teranga was the launching pad for Mozeh Keita, 22, from Gambia, and his band Dozer Gang, whose music had thousands of listeners on Spotify and YouTube and was broadcast on UK radio. The Neapolitans’ fondness for Keita, known as Bobby by friends, is palpable as you walk around town with him. Many stop to say hello or greet him. He works as a cook to get by while the group prepares their next EP.
“Music has always been my dream,” he said. “My lyrics describe how I live, the things I see and how the system and the world evolve. Every day is a different story: some days you wake up frozen, other days you feel anxious.
Keita said he was grateful to be in Naples, a city where he feels safe as much of the rest of Europe perceives migrants as a threat. He is, however, aware that so many people have died trying to reach Europe or have been stranded in the asylum system, unable to work legally or exploited by employers. “We were lucky to make it out, but everyone who comes doesn’t. “
Mame Thiafour Ndiaye, originally from Senegal, has lived in Naples for over 12 years. Music producer, he participates in the promotion of groups such as Dozer Gang and One Voice. “It’s not easy to make a living from music, we all do other jobs,” he said. “But in Naples most people are welcoming, and so even though opportunities for immigrants are scarce, we have that peace of mind.”
Yankuba Fatty, 23, arrived in Italy by boat in 2017 and managed to achieve top marks in his exams to study medicine at the University of Naples, but was unable to join the course as his required permits n hadn’t arrived on time. He then set up an online language school and now teaches English at a private school in northern Italy while studying biotechnology. He said he was lucky to find “the right chemistry” in Naples, including an Italian lawyer who helped him start his business.
“But obviously others would say the opposite,” he said. “Some are unpaid and work long hours for employers who treat them badly. “
Fatty is bewildered by European countries turning their backs on refugees when they have the means to help them. “People are leaving their country not because they want to but because they absolutely have to,” he said. “They are ready to work, study, integrate and improve the economy, but they can only do it if they have the opportunity.”
“I would say, open the doors, help these people, give them the opportunity to show off. They could improve your economy – these people are ready to work, they are ready to study and integrate into society, but they can only do it if you give them the opportunity.
Over a lunch at a Senegalese restaurant in Naples, Bojang reflected on his experience over the past few years. “I think people need to open their eyes… immigrants are not a threat. We all have goals, dreams, knowledge… we are all human. People say we come here to steal their jobs and their belongings. I say give people an opportunity, try to help them learn.
“If you are an immigrant with no papers or jobs, you might find yourself on the streets selling drugs,” he said. “We all have skills here, we’ve all been to school – immigrants have to be seen as people, as a resource. “