Moroccan student and delivery courier, Mehdi Bakkali, speaks to us about loneliness, missing home, and the wisdom and resilience he has gained from leaving his home country
Mehdi Bakkali is a 24-year-old student of Physiotherapy at the Queen Mary University of London and a part-time food delivery cyclist for Deliveroo and Uber. He comes from Tangiers, in northern Morocco, and now lives in a 19th-floor flat in Aldgate.
Bakkali has lived here for just five months, making him one of 11,000 current Tower Hamlets residents who have been living in the borough for less than a year. Aldgate has the borough’s highest concentration of newly arrived international migrants.
Like many migrants who face the challenge of creating a new life abroad, feeling at home in London has not come easy.
We meet at Chiccos, a chicken restaurant on Osborn Street. It’s the month of Ramadan, so we meet at around 11 pm after he has broken his fast and gone to mosque.
He arrives late, laughing as he walks in, his white teeth gleaming. ‘You should have known I’d be late,’ he says, ‘I’m on Moroccan time!’ He’s referring here to Moroccans’ notorious disregard for punctuality.
While I go up to the counter to order, he watches a video in Arabic on his phone, and minutes into our conversation he answers his brother’s video call. His phone is a portal to the Arabic-speaking world that he calls home.
His brother, now living in Germany, also left home for Europe, as many young Moroccans aspire to do. Five million Morrocans currently live abroad, equal to the number of Britons living abroad despite Morocco’s population being almost half that of the UK.
What did you think it would be like moving to Europe?
I thought it was gonna be good: friendly people, not crazy expensive. The weather, especially summer, I thought it was gonna be a bit hotter.
What has life been like for you since arriving in Europe?
If you’re a Moroccan [living abroad] you’re always gonna feel like something is missing. Even if you have your kids here, your work, everything. You can live here for 20-30 years but nothing beats the smell of your country.
You come here just for work or something like that so even if you live here you’re not gonna feel like oh this is home.
I see people drunk… throwing up, looking like a fool, screaming, and causing problems… they look like junkies. I don’t see myself missing something good.
I met a lot of people [but] I never found someone satisfied living here. They’re always complaining, all of them want to move [away]. No one told me, yeah I’m happy with living here.
How do you think Morocco is represented in the UK?
People say that Morocco is like Africa, that it’s not safe. No! [London] is not safe… The media [presents] a wrong image of Africa… they say we have poverty [or that] we don’t have anything… No, man, we have a lot of things better than Europe or the United Kingdom.
[In Morocco] even if you’re a stranger you feel like it’s your home. Everyone is kind, and warm hospitality. You have bonds with family and other people. It’s not like here or anywhere else.
How is Ramadan different in Morocco compared to here?
[In Morocco I eat iftar with my] brothers, mum, … from time to time with my friends like we organize something, [as] a group, you know? Like me and like, four or five friends we go like, near to the beach somewhere. We put our plates down, we bring our food and we break our fast there.
[We eat] briouat, shbekiah, harira, [which are] traditional Moroccan sweets and pastries and lentil and chickpea soup.
[Here] I eat my Iftar on my own and I don’t have a lot of time you know to go to the west [of London], because my friend is in the west, and eat with them, you know. He is the only friend I have here – Moroccan one – that I have here. Him, and his brother, that’s it. I don’t have a lot of friends here.
You’re a student, you work part-time, and the UK is experiencing a cost of living crisis. How has this affected you?
One thing you’re gonna learn here [is] how to save money. You need to know how to use it because you have a lot of expenses. You have rent, you need groceries, you need to go out and you need to pay for the gym. So you need to use money wisely.
[Others] spend their money like crazy, man. You find them working the whole week in a bar or restaurant or in a company. They take like £500 a week. They go to JD and lose it all. [They] wear like a tracksuit for £200, a North Face jacket for £300. That’s it, finished. I don’t know how these people think.
Don’t you want to look good in front of your friends, wearing that North Face jacket?
No, brother, I can look good with the Primark jacket! As long as it’s good, clean, it suits me. I don’t want to satisfy anyone else. Because no matter what you [do], you’re not going to satisfy people. If people saw you wearing like £500 trainers. Some of them gonna say ah, this guy is a hard worker and some of them are gonna say this one steals this one sells drugs – he’s wearing £500 trainers!
The clothes and the fancy stuff, they’re always there, they’re not gonna run or finish. But your money [is] gonna finish. You need to save up to do something. Money brings money. Save a bit, you know, invest it, like do some resale and stuff. Buy stuff, resell it.
What have you learned from living here?
When you live abroad, when you live alone, work alone, study alone, live alone, you know, you learn a lot of stuff, you [learn] how to rely on yourself. You learn not to trust all the people, learn how to live without your family. You know? Eat alone, go out alone, you know, it’s good for you. It gives you a strong personality with time.
Even the mindset – you change your mindset… because when you sit with yourself alone, you think a lot, you see a lot of things you know… you change the old mentality you had in Morocco… I don’t regret anything man, it’s good for me…
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