Just below the right eye, at the top of the cheek, a deep line runs down to the left. There, it meets a dark bushy beard, framing a beautiful chocolate-skinned face.

“My scar is something that is considered the identity of a family.” Marking members of the same family, a ritual called scarification, was not uncommon in the past. It was a way to identify people as belonging together.

Naky also carries this tradition on his own skin.

Moving north and arriving in Portugal

Born in Togo’s capital, Lomé, Naky spent his childhood in Ivory Coast. His is quite the extended family. In total, it counts 22 children, which included him and his two sisters.

In Togo the official language is French, but in school, Naky learnt English, German and Spanish too.

Having this plethora of languages prompted Naky and his girlfriend at the time to try their luck in Europe. Spain first, then Germany and finally Portugal.

This small country on the very western end of the old continent did not feel as different.

“Portugal has the sea and Togo does too. Togo has mountains and so does Portugal.” 

Due to its position in West Africa, Togolese Atlantic waters are nearly as warm as the air. Compared to Lisbon’s shores, where the ocean temperatures average 19°C, taking a dive in Lomé would remind you of a heated indoor swimming pool.

Beach in Togo, photo on Unsplash

Heat is also something the two countries share. Although Togo enjoys warmer temperatures throughout the whole year (with an annual average of 33 degrees), in Portugal too, summers are hot. 

According to where you are based in Togo, though, you might get more rainfall (especially in the Savanes); or feel a little bit chillier than the rest of the country in the Plateaux.

The culinary experience is a little spicier in this corner of Africa, but even so, plenty of fish and meat are the main ingredients of most dishes in both nations. 

And Naky does not shy away from cooking. 

As a matter of fact, it is a passion of his. Some ingredients are harder to find; others are not really available in Portugal.

And finally, people. Togo’s and Portugal’s populations are warm, approachable and welcoming. 

With all these affinities, sometimes, it feels like Naky never left home. Still, he misses his friends, with whom he always had amazing relationships.

Thankfully, technology and social media make it easier to keep in touch. Whatsapp groups save the day and Naky gets to communicate daily with them.

The Lisbon nest: blessed encounters and steps towards integration

Integration in Portugal did not happen in the blink of an eye. The language was the first barrier to overcome. 

“Integration in Portugal was more or less difficult. First because of the language: I didn’t speak any Portuguese.”

Naky signed up on Couchsurfing and came across an ad scouting for someone to trade languages. Either Portuguese for French or Portuguese for English.

And this is how Hugo, SPEAK’s co-founder and CEO, and Naky eventually got acquainted.

“As a student or worker, I travelled around the world and I was challenged to create an informal support network, to make friends to allow me to have a better life in the city where I was. And many times I also came across the challenge of the language as a barrier.” Hugo says.

Hugo Menino Aguiar, SPEAK’s co-founder and CEO

He suggested that Naky exchange his knowledge of French for the language of his new home.

“I thought it was really good and the timing was great. I teach and at the same time, I have Portuguese classes. And it’s free: it’s something you can’t refuse.” told Naky.

The SPEAK experience

“The philosophy of SPEAK is one that brings people together.” in Naky’s words.

He continues: “You have difficulty learning a language, you like to find people, you like to have friends, you like to help and learn cultures, and give too, so you’re welcome at SPEAK”.

The social start-up’s mission focuses on supporting the integration of migrants into their new host communities.

Calling a new place “home” requires effort, time and a solid social network also. With a model designed for language groups, anyone can sign up and either share their culture or participate and absorb a new one.

“SPEAK never does anything for anyone. It is the person who makes their way with peers within the project[…]”, Hugo explains.

“Naky had the complete experience. He was a participant in Portuguese groups, so with other colleagues he had to use the SPEAK methodology to develop Portuguese skills while making his friends.”

Being part of SPEAK paves the way to forming one’s own circle, where meaningful friendships blossom and, why not, a new love possibly too.

“I met a special person at SPEAK, she’s the mother of my daughter. We met at a SPEAK event. It was something very special.” shares Naky.

Naky at Lisbon

“I think Naky is one who transformed himself into the SPEAK community. He gained confidence, and created the friendly relationships he needed to feel at home in Lisbon and be right here,” concludes Hugo.

Leveraging migration as the engine for social integration

Through their work, Hugo and the SPEAK project fight back against the shadowy connotation migration far too often carries. Instead of focusing on the negatives, the goal is to leverage the beneficial impact a diverse community brings. 

Diversified backgrounds equal a just as a diversified range of experiences and approaches. 

The bigger the pool you can fish from, the more extensive are the opportunities for new ideas and human development.

As Vasco Miguel, head of IOM Portugal affirms, “Migration benefits everyone, and when I speak of everyone, it means that there are possibilities for the development of both the countries of origin of migrants and the migrant itself, which may have a lot of development in professional areas, either in the country of destination that is to gain a net contribution, so basically, is an actor of valid human resources, to develop some activities in the country of destination”.

SPEAK nowadays plays a paramount role in championing diversity and promoting integration. The Portuguese government regularly collaborates with the platform through partnerships with the High Commissioner for Migration. 

“Portugal is said to have been the first country to implement a national plan for the implementation of the global pact, which essentially aims at a set of objective, operational measures that allow migrant people to achieve what they want in the country concerned.” 

“Education, health, work, housing and language. There is no capacity for integration of any migrant or refugee if they do not seek to respond exactly in these 5 major areas.” , explains Vasco Miguel.

Developing one’s full potential

The language barrier is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to integrating in the new community.

The role that SPEAK plays in the process helps migrants overcome the first obstacle and makes any city welcoming the project more inclusive.

Take Naky: “In the past, maybe he was at risk of social isolation[…]” tells Hugo “[…]Social isolation currently kills as much as smoking and twice as much as obesity.” 

Now, though, he leads a complete life and thrives in his new community: “He can communicate well what he thinks, he can share what he believes. He has an informal support network, and he has job opportunities.”

Learning Portuguese opened new doors for Naky. Additionally, because of his own background and unique culture, he managed to set up his own business.

Naky leading a tour with African Lisbon Tour

It is a venture impregnated with Naky’s history, personality and learnings. 

“African Lisbon Tour” came to life after the realisation there was a lack of knowledge about the Portuguese colonial past and their history of slavery. 

“One of the things that made me fall in love with Portugal is the black community when I arrived on day one. And then, the fact that this community doesn’t have this story so I started to get interested in the story and buy books. I realised that there is no tour that is offered.”

“Then comes the idea of creating “African Lisbon Tour”, to offer us the opportunity to talk about this story because we find it very difficult to tell because it’s seen as a negative story.”

“For me, it is important to talk about it because it allows us to understand this story more and know more about where we came from.”

Naky’s take away and how can you be part of SPEAK’s mission

“A word to summarise me is resilience” 

When asked to describe himself, Naky’s answer was short, but impactful. His story is far from being the only one and luckily, it was one with a happy ending. 

Naky’s passion for life pushed him to embark on a journey that did not only bring him to new lands; but also built a bridge to his roots, back home.

He got to experience and now promotes the powerful impact SPEAK and building a community has for migrants.

SPEAK currently is “[…]in 9* different countries, active in 23 cities* (*edited according to latest numbers), we have a community of 65,000 people, we are outside Europe in two cases in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Nigeria. We are actually in many others (places) where[…] you will not see us but we are there just because we are in the online model.”  wraps up Hugo

If you want to be the change, if bridging between cultures is what inspires you, SPEAK is always looking to expand its reach.

Join the mission and be a buddy. Bring to the table your language, your cultural wit and knowledge and share it with the world.

Author: Valentina Rampazzo

Valentina is a polyglot and a culture deep diver. She has lived in 5 countries across Europe and has most recently joined SPEAK as a Copywriter Intern. Her passions are her plants, plant-based cooking and writing.

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