Sun, Oct 15, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Barcelona’s African street vendors turn to legal craft

By Sophie Davies  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BARCELONA, Spain

When Alioune Thiam arrived in Barcelona, he joined hundreds of other undocumented African migrants peddling their wares illegally on the streets. Now he is part of a scheme to give some of the Spanish city’s most vulnerable people an alternative.

Senegalese-born Thiam arrived in Barcelona by airplane in 2007, joining his brother. However, he could not get a job, because he did not have a work permit.

“If you don’t have papers, you can’t work,” the 44-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He did not choose to become an illegal street vendor, he said.

“When you arrive, you don’t have any other option. There are people that live here for five years, seven years, without papers,” he added.

For him, the hardest part is that these migrants are left in limbo while they wait, and cannot go home as they would not be allowed to re-enter Spain.

Today, Thiam, who continued selling sarongs and jewelry on the streets until he got a work permit in 2011, wants to give others the chance to stay on the right side of the law.

He is a member of Diomcoop, an initiative launched in March that enables street hawkers to undergo business training and sell merchandise at official city markets. In return, they must agree to stop trading illegally.

The project is supported by the Barcelona City Council, which has committed 800,000 euros (US$945,704) over the next three years.

Diomcoop — which draws its name from a Wolof word meaning “inner strength” — is an effort to address the problem of migrants making a living in illegal ways because they are not permitted to work, an issue common to many other cities, Diomcoop technical coordinator Ababacar Thiakh said.

Belonging to the cooperative should open up a way for members to access residency permits and regularize their legal status, Barcelona City Hall said.

The public has so far responded well to Diomcoop’s handmade clothes, jewelry and bags — some sourced from artisans’ homes in Senegal — because they offer an alternative to the goods typically sold by street traders, Thiakh said.

Those items include counterfeit designer handbags, sunglasses, sneakers and soccer jerseys bought from Chinese importers in the suburbs.

The idea is to offer something different from mass-market products, Thiakh said.

“People are selling very cool stuff in their homes, so we wanted to make the most of that,” he added.

Diomcoop is managed from a modest headquarters in the basement of a block of apartments in El Clot, a neighborhood far from the city’s tourist areas.

In this quiet, working-class district, which used to house many textile factories in Barcelona’s industrial heyday, that tradition is coming alive once again with Diomcoop’s work.

Piles of brightly colored African fabrics are strewn across tables, in contrast with the unadorned white walls of the office. There is a feeling of optimism as everyone works to prepare for the next market.

Yet, despite its early success, Thiakh said that the cooperative needs a stronger business plan to make its work more viable over the longer term.

With only 15 members, all from Senegal, it is also very small — there are an estimated 400 unlicensed traders on the streets of Barcelona.

Diomcoop plans to double its membership to 30.

There is a high level of interest, and it might move into new lines of business in future, such as offering services or food, Thiakh said.

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