BILBAO, Spain – Ismael, a Moroccan in his early 20s, misses home. But “home” is not his birthplace; home is Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city 10 miles from the Russian border.
He was studying medicine there, staying with an elderly woman with no children of her own, who had extra space in her home and a generous heart.
“She gave me everything,” he said, before breaking into tears and briefly leaving the room to regain his composure.
“We were asleep when we were surprised by Russia bombing our city,” said Ismael, who requested only his first name be used due to his immigration status. He was speaking to a group of journalists in Bilbao, a city in northern Spain.
He said that four days into the war, the city’s government told them to flee. He tried to convince the woman to flee with him, but she refused, saying she was too old and tired to embark on a journey that, at the time, seemed like a road to nowhere.
Ismael didn’t want to leave her behind, but eventually his survival instinct kicked in: He grabbed his passport, his Ukrainian residence permit, his laptop, and got on a train toward Hungary.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Hungary during the first weeks of the war. Over 10 million people have been forced to leave their homes in Ukraine, with more than four million crossing the border into neighboring countries during the war’s first 40 days, according to the United Nations.
However, when Ismael saw the lines of people trying to get over the Hungarian border, he decided to cross the border with Slovakia, which was less crowded. From there, it was a free train ride to the Czech Republic, and eventually Germany, where he found no help whatsoever: In most European countries, no one truly knew what to do when the first refugees fleeing Ukraine began to arrive. He moved on to France, but again, found no help.
“So I decided to come to Spain: As a Moroccan, Spanish is not completely foreign to me, and with a Ukrainian resident permit, I knew they would let me in.”
That’s how he got to Bilbao a month ago. The Red Cross suggested he try his luck at Ellacuria, a Jesuit-run center which helps welcome and integrate migrants, helping them with their paperwork, finding jobs when possible, and learning Spanish. Most of the volunteers teaching Spanish are students at the Jesuit-run Deusto University.
Father Martin Idiperri, director of the center, said hospitality is their main focus: “How can we commit ourselves to the migrants?”
Those arriving in Spain fleeing violence, persecution, or simply looking for a better future, often have “a hard time getting in and moving around, so we try to develop a network of hospitality. Yes, we’ll help with their paperwork, but what we try to do goes way beyond that,” he said.
Today, some 20 families connected to the Jesuits – either as students or professors of the university and the local high school – are welcoming migrants, and in the past decade, over 200 families have taken in foreigners.
“We can have many programs, but public opinion in Spain is against migrants,” Idiperri said. “This is why we focus on welcoming and integrating them. If not, they will never find the opportunities they came looking for.”
A 24-year-old Moroccan also called Ismael, said he arrived in Spain from Melilla, one of two autonomous cities of Spain, located on the North African mainland and the European Union’s only land border with Africa.
Yet to make it into Spain, he acknowledged, he had to lie about his origin: “As a Moroccan, I would have had to jump the fence,” a razor wire barrier built in 2005 by Spain. With no actual identity documents, Ismael said he came from Mauritania, which was suffering a civil conflict. This made it easier for him to receive a legal permit to migrate.
Since then, he has been in Bilbao, learning flawless Spanish and finishing high school. His mind is set on becoming a social worker to help other migrants.
“There are two reasons why one would leave their family: a future or health,” he said. “I was doing fine with my studies in Morocco, but I saw how my older brothers were forced to drop out to find a job and take care of the family. I wanted to continue studying. Seeing how many of my friends had been able to build a future for themselves upon migrating to Spain, I decided to follow their path.”
“And I am here today,” he said. “Life is not perfect, the struggles are many. But if you are willing to put in the work, the opportunities are there. They wouldn’t have been there for me had I stayed in Morocco.”