The measure of a person cannot be accurately measured in times of ease when there are no challenges to confront, no mountains to climb. The measure of a person can only be accurately experienced in times of difficulty, sometimes in serious difficulty, and with challenges that are even unimaginable. And when you happen to come upon such a person who has survived, even thrived in the face of unspeakable abuse and cruelty, and they remain steadfastly in the game of life, well, this person needs to be made an example of. Of what is possible. Of how you can turn a life that has undergone serious trauma into a story of hope and of opportunity.
Meet Boye Mohammed Alhassan. He is known as Boye (pronounced Boh-EE).
Boye was born in Ghana. He is 23 years old and is a student at Deree, The American College of Greece. He is the former president of the International Honors Program Society at the college and is part of a group called Education Unites, which has brought to campus 40 refugees from troubled parts of the world to study, to live in safety and in peace. He is a student ambassador for the college and he was selected as a student delegate to the prestigious Athens Democracy Forum last September with nearly two dozen other students. Boye was among the best of the best chosen from a group of American universities and colleges around the world.
Boye “passionately” wants to become a doctor and his sweet, caring disposition indicates he would be a good one. He is soft-spoken, gentle and kind. Unassuming. He is not someone you might ordinarily take notice of, but once you start talking to him, that certainly changes. That is because his character somehow shines through his quiet demeanor. His is a life that has seen and survived too much of it; the worst of human nature when his age, at the time, required the best of it.
Mentor and confidante, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at The American College of Greece, Helena Maragou, said: “Different people respond to trauma in different ways; some become bitter and enraged, and/or give in to emotional numbness and depression; few, like Boye, transmute their suffering into a renewed sense of purpose. Boye is a young person full of light; he has a very strong personality and is determined to succeed in becoming a medical doctor. What is truly touching is that he defines ‘success’ as the ability to help others, which is again a testament to his character.”
Boye Alhassan’s family came from a small village outside of Accra, the capital of Ghana. It was a rural, underdeveloped African village in every sense. Dirt roads. No drinking water, mud huts with thatched roofs. It was an agrarian community which grew crops and reared animals. The family left that village and moved to the capital, where Boye was born. He has three siblings, Zulaiha, Rukaya and Abdul Basit, and parents, Adizah and Alhassan, who loved them. All they wanted for their children was what all parents want for their children: for them to be healthy, to thrive and to be educated.
Life was hard and money scarce, so Boye’s father went to Saudi Arabia, where there was steady work that paid more. He would send his earnings back home to the family. Alhassan eventually lost his job in Saudi Arabia, and returned home to his wife and children.
The Saudis were pumping oil money into the area where the Alhassans lived to build mosques, to take care of orphans and to fund the police. Boye’s father was the conduit for the money and was supposed to manage it, making sure it got to the people for whom it was intended, but he, some other elders and a gang of youths began to funnel off the funds for themselves.
Boye was just a teenager when his mother found out that his father, her husband, was involved in this corruption scheme. She asked him to stop. The father agreed, but said he needed more time. The elders were putting pressure on Alhassan and threatened to blackmail him if he tried to leave. They liked the money they were sifting off of the Saudis.
Boye attributes the role the elders play in African communities to “tribal culture,” which is significant. “Sometimes the elders take advantage of the influence they have,” Boye explained. But his father heeded the threats of those elders and also wanted one last infusion of cash before he left. He promised his wife that he would leave this life of crime, in which he voluntarily participated, after the last money came.
It was too late.
Boye came home from school and found that his village home had become a crime scene. There was blood all over the floor. His father had badly hemorrhaged after having been stabbed with knives and forks. He had already been transported to a nearby hospital. Boye’s mother, fearing for the lives of her children, told them to run and hide in the nearby house of their aunt’s. She hid, too. It was only under the cover of darkness, at night or before dawn, that she would visit her husband in the hospital, where after three days he died of his wounds.
The same youth gang that attacked Boye’s father stormed the aunt’s house and tried to break down the door. The police were requesting that the children hiding there be brought to the station for questioning. They would leave the aunt alone, they said. While his siblings were being taken away to prison, Boye hid under a bed and was somehow spared. He would never see his siblings again.
In all the turmoil, Boye later found his mother and they were told by an uncle that Boye perhaps could be smuggled out to a safe house in a nearby town. She paid for her son’s transport to an apartment building in a place called Tamale, but the safe house was anything but.
Boye was shackled and chained at the feet and became a slave for a human trafficking ring. He was fed once a day, not really a meal, and given very little water. He was guarded by men with guns. He was forbidden from speaking unless spoken to and he was committed to labor on a farm digging up yams from the soil. He also worked in the house of the traffickers, cleaning. People were beaten, even killed, if they did not comply with the rules. Boye quickly realized that his life would now be devoted to his own survival.
The year was 2016. Modern-day slavery was alive and well. Still is.
According to Anti-Slavery International there are six kinds of slavery. Sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, forced labor, domestic servitude, forced child labor, and unlawful recruitment of children as soldiers. Boye’s experience ticked off several of these boxes. He would not discuss the sexual abuse he either saw or experienced.
According to Walk Free and the Global Slavery Index, in 2022 there were approximately 49.9 million people living as modern-day slaves, in forced labor and in forced marriages. Roughly a quarter of these people are children. Boye was a teenager, so not quite a child slave, but neither was he a man. His youth and innocence cannot be underestimated in such horrible circumstances, but his resilience and drive to survive was the stuff of someone mature beyond his years.
After about three months Boye was sold to Arab slave traders. The time stamp was a blur. He thinks it was Christmas time, so maybe in late 2016 or early 2017 he was transported by bus to Niger. The trip was surreal. To throw off any suspicions, the group was dressed like a soccer team in the branded Borussia Dortmund team strip. Boye later ended up wearing little clothing and no shoes when he worked on a construction site as he was constantly guarded. No disobedience was allowed and, if there was any, he witnessed stabbings, shootings and the slitting of people’s throats for their defiance. Boye showed no weakness. “If you appeared weak at all,” he said, “you would be killed on the spot.”
Boye was a survivor and would be sold a number of times, forced to work for human traffickers. He was well traveled. To Niamey and Duruku, in Niger, Saba in Libya and then to Tripoli, also in Libya. “I was sold by a master,” Boye said without emotion. “From master to master to master.” Finally, he was sold to Turks and was transported to a nondescript apartment building where he worked in a factory. He had no idea what city he was in. He still doesn’t know. These workers, modern-day slaves, were promised modest wages, which gave them a glimmer of hope. To hang on.
Boye learned not to speak. Speaking independently in any form, even to ask a question, meant insubordination and could bring a beating. He was told when to eat, when to sleep, when he could relieve himself in a bathroom. Through it all he trained his body to stay calm and his mind to channel his anger and his pain into becoming a better person. He would suppress any aggression he might feel and hoped that the right people would come along, might find him.
The captors in Turkey never fulfilled the promise of money for their workers and so the workers slowly became angry and agitated. Escape, at first, was not an option although his fellow captives quietly spoke about it. Boye had been threatened that an escape or an attempted escape would mean the abuse of his mother. They might rape her, beat her or kill her. He would not risk any harm coming to her. Boye was quiet. He watched. He listened. He waited.
Boye recalls that there was an attempt by a group to escape. He and his fellow captives had no idea what happened to them, but the human traffickers told them they had been arrested and killed. They were warned not to try to escape. They would be killed and anyone else who didn’t escape would be, too. He and others were advised to inform their captors of any hint of an escape.
Boye realized that he could die either way, by snitching or attempting an escape with the others. The group ultimately realized there would be no money coming their way, and that they would likely be in human bondage for the long term. Unless.
The human traffickers would count people as their shifts began and when the shift ended. The group decided it would be after a shift that they would launch their plan, which was really no plan at all. “It was chaos,” Boye said. “We just started screaming, hitting, kicking and throwing things at the guards. We ran for our lives, we ran out of that building, and we kept running without knowing to where we were running.” Boye found himself lost in the countryside for two days. He was hiding and moving along as he felt safe to do. His appearance, he knew, alarmed people. No proper clothing. No shoes. Desperate for food, water and warmth, he tried approaching people for help, but no one did.
Boye had been through hell, but some angels would soon appear.
The first came in the form of a lone Turkish farmer in a pickup truck who drove by and stopped for Boye. He was surprised that he didn’t take him to the police, even though the farmer said he should have. But Boye told the farmer his story and he was given a ride. The farmer talked about sports and told him he really didn’t trust the police either! Boye cannot remember the farmer’s name, nor can he recall what he looked like. Surviving was his only focus. The farmer would help in that effort by taking him to a forest and pointing to indicate a way forward for Boye.
He came upon a group of Syrian refugees in the woods, who shunned him. Boye had no money, and nothing to offer them. Boye kept his distance and decided just to follow them. A van showed up to take people to the sea, but it got stuck in a hole. “The Syrians,” he said, “took advantage of my strength. I helped them push the van out of the hole.” After that they decided to take him with them to the water’s edge.
The story of refugees from Turkey to Greece is now all too familiar.
They all hid in the forest until people came with an inflatable boat. The first was overloaded with too many people and quickly flipped. People swam back to shore and waited in the shelter of the forest until another came the next night.
The engine on that one broke. Some people decided not to make the dangerous journey after all and retreated back into the forest and were not seen again. A third boat came on the third night and had fewer people.
This one had room for Boye, even though he had helped inflate the two previous boats which had no room for him. Adrift at sea and making its way across the choppy sea to where nobody knew, the rickety skiff was rescued by a huge rescue boat with a Greek flag. It took the weary, worn-out, worn-down passengers to Moria.
The Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos became legendary and notorious. It was built for 2,000 people but eventually held 18,000 and was once called by Doctors Without Borders “the worst refugee camp on earth,” before it burned down in 2020. But when he arrived, Boye Alhassan described it in 2018 as “heaven on earth.” It was “the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. There was a bed. White sheets. Water. Food and “the most loving, caring people” he had ever known.
Boye met a woman named Koko. She was Indonesian and Dutch and worked for a refugee aid group called Movement on the Ground. She woke Boye up one morning while he was in a deep sleep. “Wake up,” she said. “Let’s go play football.” Football? What was she thinking, Boye thought. He was only wearing a jacket, a pair of pants, no shoes, no shirt, no underwear. Koko gave him shoes, a football jersey and football shorts. Koko was a blessing. She later helped him get access to a psychologist and a lawyer. She would occasionally bring him to her own home to eat and to relax far from the confines of the camp. Koko was the one who taught Boye to believe in himself and that he had the power to dispel stereotypes by the way in which he presented himself.
It was Koko who introduced Boye to Alexandra. Alexandra worked in child protection for minors. She managed to enroll Boye in a Greek public high school, the first refugee at Moria camp to be admitted. She claimed Boye as her own. “He is my son,” she told the school. “You need to let him in.” The experience would change Boye’s life.
Boye learned that there were people who cared, that he was safe, that he felt secure, and that there was no going back. He had applied for asylum when he entered Moria. It was granted when he was still in high school, which eventually allowed him to seek shelter outside the camp. He also attended the Metadrasi school to learn Greek, math and English. He later became a tutor there, helping other young refugees with their studies. Boye graduated from high school in 2021. He then studied and sat for the Panhellenic Exams, a rigorous, competitive path to a university education in Greece. They are legendary. He passed.
He had never heard of Education Unites when someone encouraged him and helped him to apply. Kathleen Macdonell is the director of the program at Deree, which is a joint venture between the college and the US State Department. Together they co-sponsor 40 refugees. Currently, 20 are from Ukraine. Twenty are from other parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Syria and Iran.
Macdonell remembers well Boye’s application and his recommendation letters. One of them said, “Mohammed Alhassan will bring mature judgment and reflection, natural leadership and empathy, academic potential, practical skills, enthusiasm, and not least, humor to everything he tackles.”
Boye had heard great things about Deree. He had prayed to God that he would get in, knowing that the college would provide the road to a better future. His dream came true when Macdonell accepted Boye into the program. She said: “Boye has surpassed any expectation anyone had of him. He is the student other students turn to for advice and consolation in difficult times, the student who can sit as comfortably with the newest student as with the president of the college. He takes responsibility wherever he sees the need, without waiting to be asked. And he does this all with a beautiful smile that masks his own struggles as a survivor of great trauma.”
For Boye, Deree has been an oasis where he says he feels safe, at peace with himself and with the people around him. He lives with a group of refugees and they find comfort in being able to talk to each other, knowing that their experiences are understood.
It has also been “a different experience,” he explained. In high school there were no black people, except for refugees, but at Deree there are black students who are not refugees. “Everyone assumes I am an American until I identify as an African and a refugee.” Students are shocked when Boye tells them he had come through the infamous Moria camp. He finds the student body open-minded, “international” and diverse, but to a point. Many behave differently with him outside Deree, where people are openly hostile to refugees. They have an attitude, Boye explains, without understanding that we are not all bad, just as in life. Not all people in any one group are all good. Or bad.
Right now, Boye is laser-focused on his studies. He works and is also supported by a Greek family in California, whose son, Nicky, befriended him when he volunteered at the camp. After getting to know Boye, Nicky told his parents: “You have to help him. You just have to.” Boye remains very close to them and considers them family. Meanwhile, he sends as much money as possible to his mother, who is safe right now in Africa. He has no idea where his siblings are or whether they are even alive.
Boye doesn’t venture out much beyond the perimeter of Agia Paraskevi, where the college is located and says he has few friends. Navigating the hatred and racism is very difficult. And exhausting. He described an incident recently while on a bus on the way to a doctor in Voula. He had run out of data on his phone and (speaking perfect Greek) asked people at which stop to disembark. No one would acknowledge him. Off the bus in a coffeeshop he asked in which direction he should walk. The shop owner told him to leave. “I have not felt that badly in a very long time,” Boye said. “Look, I carry every perceived negative stereotype. I am a black man. I am a Muslim. I am a refugee. Every aspect about me at this moment in time is controversial.”
But Boye is a good man. A person. What is wrong with a society that cannot see the human in him? Above and beyond anything else?
“There are so many ‘good’ refugees out there,” Boye says. “Like me, they just want an opportunity. I am not the only ‘good one.’ I am just a lucky one, and maybe the most privileged refugee in all of Greece. And I have grown to love this country. It has become my home.”
Dean Helena Maragou at the American College of Greece, Boye’s mentor and friend, holds the notion of privilege from a different vantage point. “He reminds us that our privilege is not to be taken for granted and that inner strength is the only measure of a human being. He is a lesson to us all.”
One of those lessons comes from Boye himself, without his even realizing it. That no matter what has happened in his life he is here now feeling “like a king, feeling good and empowered, and seeing the possibility that each new day brings.”