There are two types of people in a moment of peril. There’s the type that will stand on the platform of a train station in Piacenza, Northern Italy taking a selfie as an octogenarian lies on the tracks severely injured, and there is Mamoudou Gassama. The Malian migrant was living in Paris illegally at a youth hostel where he shared a room with members of his family, when he made international headlines for all the right reasons. As Mamoudou was passing by an apartment block, his attention was drawn to a fourth-floor balcony where a small child was precariously dangling over a fatal drop. Springing into action immediately, Mamoudou scaled the side of the building with remarkable speed, to save the young boy.
What nobody was aware of at the time, was that as Mamoudou climbed to reach the frightened child, the boy had already fallen two floors. Three weeks prior, he had moved from his home with his mother and grandmother in Réunion, to the apartment block in Paris with his father. Left to a father who was unfamiliar with raising a young, almost certainly adventurous boy, he was alone in the apartment while his dad did the grocery shopping. Somehow, he managed to find himself on top of the balcony handrail; then suddenly he was falling. Reaching out, remarkably, the boy was able to catch hold of the fourth-floor balcony halting his fall. A neighbor from that floor rushed to the balcony and while he was able to get a hand out to the young child, he was unable to get the leverage to be able to pull the boy clear of danger.
Located east of Madagascar, and southwest of Mauritius, Réunion is a French island in the Indian Ocean. Though it’s the ‘giant’ among the islands in the Indian Ocean in terms of GDP per capita, the population is less than 1 million people; 865,826 as of January 2018. Though the island has only been inhabited since the 17th century, when it was populated by French and Madagascan settlers, it abolished slavery before the United States did. Réunion only became a territory of France in 1946, a political reaction born out of the end of World War II, as France attempted to assert itself on the world stage, having been so easily occupied by German forces. During the war, Réunion had been a base of operation for Free French forces and the destroyer Léopard who participated in the Dunkirk evacuation.
As startled onlookers gathered below, 22-year-old Mamoudou leapt into action. Scaling the unintended urban climbing frame in under a minute, Mamoudou reached the fourth floor much to the relief of his captive audience below, before grabbing the 4-year-old by the scruff of the neck and yanking him clear of gravity’s reach. A lot has been speculated as to whether the fourth-floor neighbor could have done more to rescue the child, but to focus on that is to undermine the instinctive selflessness that Mamoudou showed. Whether it was supreme confidence in his climbing ability or a rare demonstration of 21st century heroism or both, the fact of the matter is: had he not rocketed up the four stories to the child’s aid, one Paris street would surely have run red. Add to that the fact that Mamoudou was an illegal resident, with his actions all but certain to go viral, and the gulf between him and the Italian selfie shame could not be any wider.
According to the French media, the boy’s father is devastated by not only the incident, but by the fallout from it.. It quickly came to light that though the single parent had run out to complete some grocery shopping, he actually stayed out of the apartment longer than necessary in order to play Pokemon Go. As he trailed the surroundings streets looking for rare pokemon, his young son was in grave danger. When he returned to the apartment, Mamoudou had already rescued his son. Both were back on terra firma, and the French authorities had been called to the scene. The plan was for his second child to also join him and live in Paris. The childrens’ grandmother was also due to arrive in order to lend a helping hand. That plan was now in pieces.
After investigating the incident, the French authorities took the boy into their care and arrested his father. He was charged with neglect, a crime in France that carries with it a two-year custodial prison sentence and a $35,000 fine. It is a chain of events that has left the boy’s father “devastated” as not only has he lost the opportunity to be a father to his two sons (with the other boy previously expected to join the makeshift family abode) but he also faces a court date were the evidence is clear cut and the defense will be hard pressed to find a jury that hasn’t seen the thrilling video of Mamoudou’s rescue or the subsequent news coverage. The child’s grandmother spoke to RMC, describing what was going through her mind as she watched the viral video. She was glowing with praise towards her grandson’s hero, thankful that Mamoudou, not only knew how to climb, but also had that special quality that separates those who help from those who watch.
Mali is a west African country and former French colony. Up until 1991, Mali existed under one-party rule before a coup overthrew the regime and led to the formation of a new constitution and the founding of a democratic state. In 2012 tensions boiled over again. At this time Mamoudou was 16-years-old (and one year away from immigrating). Armed Tuareg rebels took the northern territory by force and declared it its own independent state, ‘Azawad’. This was in April, one month after Tuareg fighters clashed with Islamist rebels in an effort to halt territorial gains by the Islamist factions. By January of 2013, French military and Malian forces launched an operation and managed to successfully recapture most of the fallen region. With this level of political conflict and upheaval, it’s no surprise that France would have such an influx of Malian migrants given the state of the region and the close, historical ties between the two nations.
The Malian Spiderman, Mamoudou Gassama was born in a small town in southwest Mali, in 1996. Like a lot of young males, Mamoudou left his home as a teenager, taking the “migrant express” across the Sahara Desert, which would be no mean feat by itself. Once across the Sahara, he would pass through Burkina Faso, Niger and even, a less volatile, Libya. From there, all that was standing between him and a new life in Europe was the Mediterranean Sea. After his first failed attempt to cross, having been intercepted and returned to shore, Mamoudou was placed in a Libyan detention center. By all accounts, the Libyan detention centers are some of the most gruelling and brutal places on 21st century Earth. One in particular, Gharyan, is a prison in the mountains some 60 miles from Tripoli. In Gharyan, the male detainees are little more than slaves; work-horses for a sadistic regime, but the female detainees have it much worse. Many are beaten, starved, and raped; not only by the guards, but by friends of the guards. Once out of the detention center, Mamoudou made a second pass at crossing the Mediterranean. This time he was successful, but his journey was far from over.
Like many Malian migrants, Mamoudou would not settle in Italy. He was on his own and prevented from making connections by a language barrier. He had already travelled across three countries and a desert. One more country and he would be in France. One more country and he would be in a nation where he shares the language, and would have a support group to fall back on with several family members residing in the French capital. Mamoudou’s journey took him to the west of Paris, and a seriously run-down hostel doubling as lodgings for predominantly illegal immigrants. It was here where he would stay, sharing less than adequate facilities with three of his brothers, and several more cousins. For many migrants in this position, the goal is that they hold on to a job that pays enough to get by, that their employer isn’t exploitative, and that there is never a knock on the door of their shared accommodation from immigration authorities rounding everyone up for deportation. It’s understandable that what comes next for Mamoudou is nothing short of phenomenal.
It requires a very particular personality type to put your own physical well-being in harm’s way and scale four stories of an apartment building to save the life of a total stranger. Many of us would like to believe that when it mattered most, we would be willing to do the same. It’s even more incredible when you consider that Mamoudou ran the very real risk, if he was identified, of being deported by the authorities. Yet when the time came, these factors were either not considered, or not deemed as important as doing the right thing. When asked about it, he put it simply, “I did not think, I saved him.” Remarkably, this is a common trend for illegal Malian migrants. When Islamic State took hostages at a Jewish supermarket in western Paris back in 2015, it was another Malian illegal immigrant, Lassana Bathily, who risked his own life to hide Jewish shoppers from an almost certain and bloody death. Like Mamoudou, Lassana demonstrated the most incredible selflessness for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. The similarities, however, don’t stop there. Like Lassana’s life, Mamoudou’s tale was about to take a remarkable turn.
Mamoudou had gone from small town Mali, to a Libyan detention center, to an illegal migrant “ghetto” but his journey was not over. Having been thrust into the world’s spotlight and hailed as an unofficial national hero in the press, Mamoudou was invited to Palais de l’Elysée where he would have a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. Sitting down with Macron, in front of selected association press and their cameras, France’s newest hero was able to share with the French Premiere his experience of the plight of migrants. In recent years, political unrest coupled with military action has resulted in several countries becoming hellish warzones. In countries like Libya and Syria, there are many hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children displaced by violence. Wanting nothing more than to be able to sleep safely, it’s human instinct to move as far away from these troubled regions as possible. Naturally, with mainland Europe being on the doorstep of North Africa, and European countries like France, Italy and the UK playing no small part in military conflicts, these citizens wish to seek asylum in the countries that hold themselves up as ‘protectors.’ Unfortunately for them, the asylum and immigration policies of these countries include little empathy for a parent simply wanting their children to sleep safely.
Like Lassana’s moment of bravery, Mamoudou’s story moved President Macron enough that he not only made a personal promise that the Malian Spiderman would be made a French citizen, but Macron also used his considerable sway to secure Mamoudou not just a job, but a vocation. Mamoudou Gassama entered the Presidential Palace a Malian illegal immigrant with no job. A few hours later, he exited a French citizen with a position in the Paris Fire Department’s training academy. The transformation of Mamoudou’s life is nothing short of spectacular and undoubtedly no less than what this wonderfully caring, and courageous young man deserves. However, for the politically astute it only served to highlight the darkly complex state of immigration. On a Tuesday, Paris’ viral video hero was bestowed a new nation to call his own, but by Friday of that same week French authorities deported several hundred immigrants back to various countries. It highlighted an uncomfortable double standard, and led to criticism that Macron’s actions were politically motivated, and that he was simply pandering to public opinion.
British MP David Lammy, the Labour Party’s MP for Tottenham, took to Twitter to post a question that was as combustible as it was rhetorical: “Does a person really have to do something so extraordinary to stand a chance of becoming a citizen?” He would go on to state that he believed the only prerequisite to being treated like a human being, is to be a human being. He was quick to point out this criticism applies as much to the UK as it does to France. London Channel Four’s French correspondent Fatima Manji couldn’t help but feel the tinge of sadness about the fact that a young Malian man, a native of an ex-French colony, had to risk his life and prove himself exceptional before he was rewarded with citizenship. Is her argument 21st century cynicism or is there something to it? France was built on the blood, sweat and tears of former colonial workers. Both the UK and the US have reached their status in Western society on the backs of migrant workers. Mali’s detriment was France’s benefit, and though the colony has fallen, -- the legacy remains.
On the day he cheated death, thanks to Mamoudou, the 4-year-old boy had been wearing a Spiderman outfit and though Mamoudou had asked the boy why he was out on his balcony ledge, the boy had no answer;, though it was telling that he had been dressed as his favorite comic book hero prior to falling two floors below. Could it be that the young boy, having only recently arrived in Paris from Réunion, and was wowed by the urban landscape, and coupled with his love for the webslinger from Queens, NY found himself in a predicament that almost cost him his life? After the incident, French social services met with the boy and his father separately. Social services came to the conclusion that the child risked no further imminent danger, so he was returned to his father’s custody, though the neglect charge remains on the court docket and will be going forward. His mother was also interviewed by social workers in Réunion. Both the mother and the couple’s other son plan to travel to Paris to reunite their family until such time that the boy’s father goes to trial.
After his citizenship paperwork was fast-tracked through the courts, Mamoudou took up his internship with the Paris Fire Department. His training will last for 10 months and comes with a €600 a month salary. Though the salary doesn’t sound like a great deal, certainly less than he would have been earning ‘off-the-books’ on the many building sites in and around Paris, it is a massive step in the right direction. Firstly, interns are afforded living accommodations; Mamoudou will have a roof over his head that is significantly less cramped and in better condition than his previous abode. Secondly, the internship is only 10 months. When he graduates from it, there will be a full-time job, and a full-time salary waiting for him with promotion opportunities, a bright future, and a level of job satisfaction suited to a man like Mamoudou. This is a man who will leap into dangerous action because it is the right thing to do; a man who will scale the side of a building in a matter of seconds with no safety equipment in order to rescue someone in need; a man who has witnessed some of the worst treatment human beings can bestow upon another, and still not lost his faith in humanity.
Though Mamoudou’s story has a heart-warming ending, one must not forget how his bravery was used as political camouflage. The forced closure of several migrant camps in Paris, authorized by French President Emmanuel Macron, has decimated what little quality of life thousands of displaced human beings had. With the mass clearance in the city’s 19th arrondissement, more than 2,500 vulnerable people have been made homeless. For them there is no fast track to citizenship. There is no promise of employment or an adoring public. For the 2,500 homeless migrants, there is a life on the streets or deportation. Their superhero has yet to save the day.
On September 13th, Mamoudou finally gained his French citizenship. President Emmanuel Macro himself was there and told the young migrant from Mali that “This act of great bravery exemplifies the values which help unite our national community, such as courage, selflessness, altruism and taking care of the most vulnerable”. Mamoudou surely never thought that he would be meeting the president of France and even shake his hand on television at the Élysée Palace, but that is exactly what happened. Beyond happiness and almost at a loss for words, upon leaving the palace Mamoudou said “He gave me a present. It’s the first time I’ve had anything like this. I’m very happy”. Now a citizen, he surely has a bright future ahead of him.