The tragedy of a young Albanian migrant

Family and friends of Leonardo Faruku, who sought asylum in Britain, still wonder why he committed suicide

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Family and friends at the funeral of Leonardo Faruku, Photo: Reuters
Family and friends at the funeral of Leonardo Faruku, Photo: Reuters

Six months before he was found dead on the barge Bibi Stockholm, Leonard Faruku had hoped to build a new life in Britain.

“I have been in the UK since August 2022. I hope to get the papers because I am now in a facility for asylum seekers. I came on a rubber boat," said the young Albanian in a message on Instagram to an old friend from elementary school in Tirana.

His mother died when he was 17 and his father a few years later. "The sudden loss of my mother and father was a trauma for me. I didn't know where I was or what was going on. I am now seeking asylum. I live in a hotel. I hope God will protect us," he wrote.

Faruku, who was 27, allegedly killed himself on December 12 last year in the shower cabin of the controversial ship, which is carrying hundreds of asylum seekers off the south coast of Britain. He appeared to be under stress just before he was found dead.

His family and friends are still wondering what led Faruku, once an ambitious and talented accordionist with a promising future, to commit suicide.

"Leonard will be greatly missed. Our hearts will forever be broken because of the way he ended his life," said his sister Jola Dušku (33), who lives in the Italian region of Lombardy.

“He was a wonderful person who came to the UK to build a new life full of hope. He fulfilled what the Home Office (Ministry of the Interior) asked and went on the barge "Bibi Stockholm". We will never find peace until we discover the truth about the circumstances on that barge that contributed to our brother's suicide."

The British "Guardian" spoke to relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues and teachers in Albania, in an attempt to clarify Faruku's past and the experiences that led to his death.

Leonard Farouk
Leonard Faroukphoto: X

He was described as a kind and hard-working man who dreamed of becoming a musician - but was hit hard by his mother's sudden departure. She had a heart attack in her sleep in May 2013, when Faruku was a teenager at the prestigious art school "Jordan Misja" in Tirana. His father died of a heart attack five years later.

Then Faruku, who was beaten by Nardi, began to dream of finding a job and building a new life in Great Britain. He embarked on a perilous journey across the English Channel in 2022, a year when a record number of 12.301 Albanians arrived on small boats and sought asylum.

In October 2023, British authorities announced that crossings by Albanians had fallen by 90 percent following the agreement on cooperation between the two governments in December 2022.

Farooq's death has reignited controversy surrounding the asylum seeker barge since it docked in the south of England in July.

Human rights groups compared the barge to a prison ship, while authorities said it was needed to reduce the cost of housing migrants, Reuters reported.

His family's grief was compounded by reports that Faruku did not know he had been granted a work permit in the days before his death and that his body was not found until after 12 p.m.

His death devastated us. But the worst part is that we don't know why or what happened. We don't know the truth. How was he forgotten until 12 o'clock in a state-run facility?

Speaking from a cafe in Alias, a poor neighborhood in Tirana where Faruku has lived for more than a decade, his uncle Agron Faruku evoked the family's grief.

“Leonard wanted to be in the UK legally to work there. He had ambitions. He wanted to make money, buy a house, start a family, lead a normal life. If he had working documents, he could get a job," he said.

The 57-year-old singer said that, as far as he knew, Faruku had no mental health problems.

“His death devastated us. But the worst part is that we don't know why or what happened. We don't know the truth. How was he forgotten until 12 o'clock in a state-run facility?

“He told his sister that the conditions on the barge were fine, but that they were treated very badly. He said he wanted more freedom, to go out a little more, but the officials wouldn't let him. He complained that they were treated like criminals."

Human rights groups have compared the Bibi Stockholm barge to a prison ship
Human rights groups have compared the Bibi Stockholm barge to a prison shipphoto: Reuters

Faruku's aunt, Drita Kaplani, told Reuters that he said he was treated like an animal there.

The British Home Office said: "This was a tragic incident, our thoughts are with the bereaved". The statement added that the police are investigating the case.

Faruku, born on January 29, 1996, grew up in the town of Vore on the outskirts of Tirana, with his mother Škendija, a housewife, and his father Petrit, a clarinetist who was known locally for playing at weddings. His two older sisters, Marsida and Jola, now live in Italy.

His cousin Andi, who did not want to give his last name, recalled a happy childhood in Vora, where they played soccer and traveled by bus to Tirana three times a week for private accordion lessons.

"Those were wonderful times," said the 29-year-old photographer. "His father wanted him to be a musician, and Nardi was very talented, he had a feeling for music. It was his passion, he studied three to four hours a day. We were 13 and 14 years old when we started playing at weddings with our fathers."

However, the family faced financial difficulties after they moved to Tirana in 2009, where Faruku attended the "Bajram Curi" elementary school for two years. The Faruku family lived near the school in a leaky one-room apartment on the top floor of an assembly block.

Lindita Fejzo, Faruku's literature and language teacher, said Petrit showed great interest in his son's education and attended parent-teacher conferences. "Leonard was a kind and sincere student. He was very fond of music and sports. "He was average in other subjects, but he was very ambitious and a bit of a dreamer," she said.

Faruku was buried on January 10 near Tirana
Faruku was buried on January 10 near Tiranaphoto: Reuters

Faruku then auditioned for Jordan Mission, an art school he attended from 2011 to 2015. His teachers described him as a well-mannered student who excelled at playing the accordion. Students across Albania are graded from four to 10, and Faruku usually got nines and tens on the accordion.

His teacher, Dritan Baftjari, said: “He never gave us any problems. He was calm and didn't seek attention.”

Head of department Valbona Kotepano added: "Leonard was a very talented and good student." But in the last year he slowed down and seemed absent, it was after the death of his mother. He messed up his grades, started getting A's. He wasn't studying, he wasn't focused anymore. He was often absent.”

His schoolmates Ervin Tello and Ariel Koka, both 28, described Faruku's struggle for the Guardian. "He had no motivation. After his mother died, he was very sad and said, 'I have nothing left.' It was as if he didn't see the meaning of life," said Koka, who works in Albania's Ministry of Culture.

The two met Faruku in Tirana for the past few years and learned about his financial problems and dreams of going abroad. Faruku, who started working as a delivery boy at school, became a courier for a pharmaceutical company. Later he joined the pizzeria chain "Proper Pizza", earning minimum wage.

Telo, a guitarist, said: "He told me that he was planning to go abroad because of the economy and the difficulties he was facing. He said, 'I don't know, but maybe England because I speak a little English.'

"He said, 'I'm broke.' I asked him what he was doing with his life, and he said, 'I've made a shit out of my life.'"

When Koka met Faruku in 2020, he was paying off a loan.

photo: Reuters

Urim Aliaj, one of Faruku's closest friends who went to elementary school with him, said that in order to survive, Faruku ended up selling his favorite accordion and mobile phone after he graduated.

The 27-year-old actor said: “His relationship with his father deteriorated when his mother died and he desperately needed money and a job. He told me that his father started drinking.”

Bardil Rapo (70), who lived in the same block as the Faruku family, added: “Nardi was a wonderful boy. When his mother died, Petrit (his father) started drinking because he was very sad and had some conflicts with his son”.

Aliaj said that Faruka saw less of his friends after his father's death in 2018. "Life was unfair to him. He seemed very disappointed," he said. "He was a believer, he prayed and went to the mosque, but I noticed that he started getting tattoos, which is forbidden in Islam." One tattoo was dedicated to his mother, who was born on the same day as him.

"He was always looking for light"

After his father's death, Faruku spent time with his sisters in Italy and tried to find a job there, but it didn't work out for him. Both Aliaj and Andi said that Faruku then seemed determined to move to Great Britain, where he had relatives.

"He wanted to go to the UK, but because it is very difficult, he thought that if he applied for asylum, he would be able to get a work permit, but I don't know any real reason why he would apply for asylum," Andi said. .

The basis of Faruku's asylum claim is unknown and was being considered by the Home Office at the time of his death.

Aliaj didn't know if Faruk had made it until he messaged him from a new Instagram account on June 17 last year and said he had been in the UK since August 2022, having arrived on a dinghy.

Aliaj said: "Nardi had a very difficult life, but he was always looking for light, something brighter." That's why I find it hard to believe that he committed suicide. Our main desire is to get to the truth."

Faruku's family will now have to wait for an inquest into his death in the hope of getting answers.

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