Amid increasing intolerance towards migrants and refugees, the heroism of Mamoudou Gassama who scaled an apartment building in Paris to rescue a four-year-old boy hanging from a fourth floor balcony makes us ask why the stigmatisation of migrants is permitted.
For his exceptional bravery — the kind only seen in superhero movies 22-year-old Mamoudou Gassama, an illegal immigrant from Mali, was awarded French citizenship by President Macron.
In an interview on French television he appeared reserved with his brother, a French citizen, speaking mainly for him. Desperate to reunite with his brother, he said he had crossed the Sahara desert, Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya to come to France. The affinity between the two brothers was apparent highlighting how loved ones are all too often wrenched apart by poverty and conflict. In spite of the odds weighing so heavily against them, millions risk their lives to flee their homeland in search of safety and family.
When he was praised for his courage during the interview, his brother graciously pointed out that the rescued child also deserved to be applauded. In spite of his reluctance to appear on television and his obvious discomfort with public attention, what shone through was his humility, integrity and the depth of his courage where saving the child’s life was almost a reflex act. In fact, he later said that he had acted without thinking. When asked what he wanted to do in France, he replied that he wanted to be a firefighter, serving his new community.
“The escalating antipathy towards migrants who have suffered extreme hardship has in no small measure been shaped by stereotypes, which routinely portray them as dangerous criminals, degenerates and opportunists”
He briefly spoke of how he was mistreated by traffickers in Libya. Instead of being hardened by a life of unimaginable adversity, he emerges as a man of exceptional compassion trapped in a heartless system of poverty and displacement, “I climbed …. Thank God I saved him,” was how he simply described what happened.
Like so many others, he had undertaken the perilous sea journey from Libya to Europe. He only briefly explained the terrible conditions on the boat. Just a few days ago, the growing obduracy towards migrants arriving by boat was illustrated when Italy turned away a ship with 600 migrants who had been stranded at sea.
The escalating antipathy towards migrants who have suffered extreme hardship has in no small measure been shaped by stereotypes, which routinely portray them as dangerous criminals, degenerates and opportunists seeking to spread chaos and usurp jobs. The story of Mamoudou’s.
superhuman feat caught media attention for a short while with the video clip going viral but was soon supplanted by more migrant horror stories. Perhaps this is because such stories do not fit neatly into the news agenda: reinforcing a reductive stereotype of migrants is a powerful political tool to deflect anxieties onto convenient scapegoats. This in turn legitimises the treatment to which they are subjected.
Mamoudou’s bravery is a stark reminder for society to ask who we value and why. As he so compellingly demonstrates, the best amongst us are often the forgotten, voiceless and despised. His beautiful country, Mali, is home to a great Sufi heritage and it is the Sufis who assert that the best people are often those the world does not know about, as this world is far too coarse to recognise their value.
By Mashaal Gauhar