The teenage goalkeeper of the Gambia’s national women’s football team who drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Italy told her family that she wanted to “follow her destiny” and play for a major European club “whatever the risks”.
Fatim Jawara, 19, was on board a boat that sank late last week when hit by a sudden storm during the crossing from Libya to Italy.
In one of her last conversations with her family, Jawara rejected their desperate appeals to return to their home on Gambia’s Atlantic coast, a close friend said.
“They spoke to her from the middle of the desert, all the time as she travelled. They were begging her to abandon the journey, but she said she wanted to go on and follow her destiny,” said Sainey Sissoho, a former team-mate.
The United Nations said on Thursday that at least 239 migrants were believed to have died in two shipwrecks off Libya in recent days.
Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, said reports of the tragedy had been confirmed by two survivors brought ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
More than 3,700 migrants have died in the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the UN.
Jawara, who made her debut for the national team a year ago in a friendly against a team from Glasgow, is believed to have been on one of the two ships referred to by the UNHCR.
“Her death is untimely, but we will remember her for her great performances on the pitch,” said Chorro Mbenga, who was the assistant coach of the national under-17s side in which Jawara made her breakthrough, and knew her well.
Officials in Gambia said Jawara left her home in the crowded city of Serrekunda in September to cross the Sahara and head for Libya, where most African migrants begin the sea crossing to Europe. She then spent at least three weeks waiting for the crossing in a “camp” run by traffickers either in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, or Misrata, the port, before embarking to Lampedusa.
The route, known locally as “the back way”, is followed by thousands of Gambians every year. It is extremely dangerous, with many perishing in the Sahara, or during the hazardous sea crossing.
Jawara, who travelled with a 19-year-old friend who also died in the shipwreck, had left Gambia without telling her family or team-mates of her plans.
“She was always quiet and very determined on and off the pitch. She told her family she was going off playing football somewhere and then disappeared; she didn’t tell us anything,” said Sissoho.
The hazardous journey was paid for by her agent, officials said, who believed her role playing for the national side in the women’s U-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan in 2012 would guarantee attention from clubs in Europe.
Jawara went on to play for the Red Scorpions, Gambia’s top women’s football club, and in further internationals. She saved a penalty in a friendly last year in Scotland, gaining accolades there and at home.
“Fatim was like many other young footballers here. She came from a poor background like most Gambians. Everyone knows about the stars who make millions playing for European clubs. These young people just want to provide for their families and so did she. So they risk the back way. Some make it. She didn’t and that’s a tragedy and a big loss for Gambian football,” said Ebou Faye, the vice-president of Gambia’s football federation.
Though its population is just under 2 million, Gambia’s citizens are among the top five nationalities identified attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy in recent years.
Many are fleeing poverty or hoping to earn enough to support their families; others are seeking to escape the repressive rule of veteran ruler president Yahya Jammeh, an army officer who came to power in a 1994 coup.
“There are so many trying to get to Europe to play football. They hear about stars earning millions and they don’t think about the risks. It is not good for Gambia at all,” Faye told the Guardian.
Bakery Jatta, a Gambian teenager who reached Germany via the Sahara and the Mediterranean in 2014, was recently signed by the German football club Hamburg.
“I knew that I had to take this difficult and dangerous path of fleeing upon myself if I wanted to have a chance at a future,” the 18-year-old told reporters.
Few west African footballers are as successful, however. A recent study of players in Poland found that if some earn more than $1,000 a month, others play for free and occasional bonuses.
Officials said Jawara wanted to travel to Europe because few scouts came to Gambia and she hoped to land a big contract.
But Sissoho said her friend was not motivated by money: “She just loved the game so much.”