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‘I feel inspired here’: refugees find business success in Naples

Pieces of fabric of various vibrant shades fill the Naples studio where Paboy Bojang and his team of four are working around the clock to stitch together 250 cushions for their next customer, The Conran Shop.

They are not long from dispatching their first orders to Selfridges and Paul Smith, and with requests for the distinctive cotton cushions with ruffled borders flooding in from around the world, they will be busy for months to come.

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Bojang, 29, is among the thousands of people to have landed on Italy’s shores during the last decade. He fled dictatorship in the Gambia, witnessed 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 EU asylum system that is stacked against them.

“The first year was hard, and in the second year when I got to know more people and made friends who cared for me, I started to fall in love with Naples,” Bojang said. “I feel inspired here.”

His success has been nothing short of remarkable. Depressed and looking for something to do during Italy’s strict coronavirus lockdown in spring 2020, he started sewing. A few months later he posted an image of his first handmade cushion on Instagram. It was an immediate hit and, as messages filled his inbox, his homeware enterprise, In Casa by Paboy, was born.

Paboy Bojang
Paboy Bojang: ‘My dream now is to grow the company and employ more immigrants.’ Photograph: Giulio Piscitelli/The Guardian

Today he employs three refugees to work alongside him making the cushions, which retail at €160, as well as a young Italian as a brand manager.

“It wasn’t at all what I expected,” he said. “My dream now is to grow the company and employ more immigrants. I want to show people that we have talent, we have knowledge, we make beautiful things, we shouldn’t just be working on farms and badly paid.”

Bojang was raised by his grandmother in his home town of Serrekunda, where he learned to sew at the age of 13 after being sent to work at a tailor’s shop run by an uncle. Still in his teens when his grandmother died, he left for Europe, crossing several countries by land, much of it desert, before arriving in Tripoli where he slept rough for 18 months.

“I slept on the street, in garages, under cars … Libya was awful, I went through a lot of trauma there,” he said.

Bojang paid human traffickers three times for a place on a boat to get to Europe. On the final attempt, he witnessed passengers being shot at by Libyan police as they tried to leave.

“Sometimes it’s very hard to explain what I experienced in Libya, it was like a film,” Bojang said. “I have never seen such awful things in my life. They didn’t care who we were, it was as if we were animals.”

Bojang was on a crammed, unsafe boat for almost two days before arriving on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in 2015. From there he made his way to Naples, where for the first year he stayed in a squalid, overcrowded refugee centre on the outskirts of the city.

Paboy Bojang in his workshop
Paboy Bojang in his workshop. Photograph: Giulio Piscitelli/The Guardian

He initially worked in a tile factory but lost his job after the far-right leader Matteo Salvini, as interior minister, enacted a law abolishing the humanitarian protection permit. The two-year permit, which was given to those ineligible for refugee status but who for various reasons could not be sent home, enabled people to find work and travel to another EU state for up to 90 days. Salvini’s move coincided with the closure of many refugee centres across Italy, leaving thousands homeless and jobless.

Bojang’s life started 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 her home, lent him her sewing machine and encouraged him to create.

She guided him through setting up a business, although Bojang is still waiting for the renewal of his work permit and one that he hopes will allow him to travel for the launch of his products.

“Every step of the immigration system makes getting on hard,” 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 be able to work, which makes a lot of people depressed in the prime of their life. Then, if you want to set up alone, you need so many people to advise you. This all costs money … you need to rely on so many people to help you, and that means relying on luck and kindness.”

Teranga was the launchpad for Mozeh Keita, 22, from the Gambia, and his band Dozer Gang, whose music has had thousands of listeners on Spotify and YouTube and has been played on UK radio. The fondness among Neapolitans for Keita, called Bobby by friends, is palpable as you walk through the city with him. Many stop to say hello or give him a high-five. He works as a cook to get by while the band prepares its next EP.

Mozeh Keita and Asu, two members of the rap group Dozer Gang
Mozeh Keita and Asu, two members of the rap group Dozer Gang. Photograph: Giulio Piscitelli/The Guardian
Mozeh Keita on the balcony of his home in Naples
Mozeh Keita on the balcony of his home in Naples. Photograph: Giulio Piscitelli/The Guardian

“Music has always been my dream,” he said. “My lyrics describe how I’m living, the things I see, and how the system and world is going. Every day is a different story: some days you wake up feeling chilled, on others you feel anxious.”

Keita said he was grateful to be in Naples, a city where he feels safe while much of the rest of Europe perceives migrants as a threat. He is conscious, however, that so many have died trying to reach Europe or remain stuck in the asylum system, unable to work legally or exploited by employers. “We have been lucky to make it through, but not everyone who comes does.”

Mame Thiafour Ndiaye, originally from Senegal, has been living in Naples for more than 12 years. A music producer, he helps to promote groups such as Dozer Gang and One Voice. “It’s not easy to live off music, we all do other jobs,” he said. “But in Naples most people are welcoming, and so even if opportunities for immigrants are scarce, we have this tranquility.”

Mame Thiafour Ndiaye
Mame Thiafour Ndiaye, also known as Carbone 14, is a music producer for many of the African musicians of Naples. Photograph: Giulio Piscitelli/The Guardian
Mame Thiafour Ndiaye
‘In Naples most people are welcoming,’ says Ndiaye. Photograph: Giulio Piscitelli/The Guardian

Yankuba Fatty, 23, arrived in Italy by boat in 2017 and managed to get top marks in his exams to study medicine at the University of Naples, but was unable to join the course as his required permits had not arrived in time. He later 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 set up his business.

“But obviously others would say the complete opposite,” he said. “Some are unpaid, working long hours for employers who treat them badly.”

Yankuba Fatty
Yankuba Fatty: ‘People leave their countries not because they want to but because they absolutely have to.’ Photograph: Yankuba Fatty/The Guardian

Fatty is baffled by the European countries that turn their backs on refugees despite having the resources to help them. “People leave their countries not because they want to but because they absolutely have to,” he said. “They’re ready to work, study, integrate and improve the economy, but they can only do that if given the opportunity.”

“I would say: open the doors, help these people, give them the opportunity to showcase themselves. They could improve your economy – these people are ready to work, they’re ready to study and integrate into society, but they can only do that if you give them the opportunity.”

Over lunch at a Senegalese restaurant in Naples, Bojang reflected on his experience over the last few years. “I think people have to open their eyes … immigrants are not a threat. We all have aims, dreams, knowledge…, we are all humans. People say we come here to steal their jobs and their things. I say give people an opportunity, try to help them learn.

“If you’re an immigrant without documents or a job, you could end up on the streets selling drugs,” he said. “All of us here have skills, we’ve all been to school – immigrants should be considered as people, as a resource.”