March 22, 2016 / 12:13 PM / 2 years ago

From traffic light to judge's bench: an African migrant's Spanish dream

SEVILLE, Spain (Reuters) - Howard Jackson, a man of around 40 from the West African state of Liberia, is a well-known and colorful figure at a busy intersection entering the southern Spanish city of Seville.

Howard Jackson, a Liberian migrant, poses for a portrait in the Andalusian capital of Seville, southern Spain March 7, 2016. REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

Dressed up in one of his more than 200 costumes, from Peter Pan to Little Red Riding Hood to Julius Caesar, he has been selling packets of tissues to motorists for over a decade, twirling and laughing and shouting endearments to his customers.

Jackson arrived in Spain nearly 20 years ago after escaping as a teenager from a civil war in Liberia that killed over 200,000 and in which he lost both his parents and his brother.

He spent three years crossing Africa with no money or documents, doing odd jobs to earn cash to continue his journey. Left to die by people smugglers in the Sahara desert, he was discovered by nomadic Arabs who saved his life.

Jackson entered Europe by climbing over the fence that divides Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Since he jumped the fence in the 1990s, this barricade between Africa and Europe has doubled in height and become a sophisticated obstacle course, virtually impossible to cross.

Making his way to Seville, Jackson slept rough on the streets for two years until a Spanish woman approached him and led him to an abandoned roofless house that he has since made into a home with electricity and running water.

“I was about to turn destitute before that woman came across me. Without her, I would have turned into a madman, god knows that’s true,” he said.

For photo essay, please click on reut.rs/22oRXQ4

Jackson has gained legal residence in Spain, with a permit he must renew every five years, and can legally work, but says he cannot find a good full-time job.

Spain has one of the developed world’s highest unemployment rates, and joblessness is particularly acute in the southern state of Andalusia. Jackson has looked for jobs ranging from a waiter to an assistant to the elderly, to no avail.

He says the only way he can make some money is by hawking tissues at the traffic lights of Plaza de Armas intersection.

But Jackson aims to fulfill his parents’ wish for him as a school child, and so has completed a two-year course to access university and is now pursuing a four-year degree in law. His dream is to become a judge.

However, his studies mean he can now no longer sell tissues at the traffic light in stints of over 13 hours as he used to, meaning it is hard for him to make the 25 euros a day he needs to pay for food, electricity and textbooks.

“I would like to have a job that would allow me to leave the traffic light and spend more time studying,” he said. “One day I will be somebody who can have a good job and defend myself and defend other poor people who have no rights.”

More than 1.2 million migrants fleeing war and deprivation have poured into Europe over the past year, though few have entered Spain in part because of its economic crisis.

The Madrid government gives no figure for the number of undocumented migrants in Spain, but around 13,000 requests for asylum were outstanding in 2015, according the Spanish Commission of Refugee Aid.

Writing by Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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