Madrid, Spain – It is early afternoon and La Pelu de Maakum, or Maakum Barbershop, has just opened up in Spain’s Madrid region.
Reggaeton music plays from the speakers, the air conditioning is on full blast and Mohamed Elhkchin, a 17-year-old from Morocco, sweeps the floor.
It could be a scene from any barbershop in Getafe, a town of 180,000.
But a closer look suggests this is a more unique place.
The sign for the bathroom is in Arabic, poster art calls for “culture today, future tomorrow” and a display case features T-shirts with the logo of Maakum Ceuta Association, a not-for-profit that helps migrant children and young people who arrive alone in Spain.
Unlike other barbershops in the area, La Pelu de Maakum offers more than haircuts. It is offering migrant youth a shot at a better future.
Founded by Maakum Ceuta Association in April, the initiative aims to address one of the biggest challenges facing children who come to Spain alone – how to get residency once they turn 18.
Unaccompanied migrant children who enter the country irregularly are placed under state care until they are of legal age. After that, they are on their own.
Most find themselves trapped in a bureaucratic catch 22 – they cannot find work because they do not have residency, and they cannot get residency because they do not have a job.
Without papers, they can be deported at any time, and are also at a greater risk of exploitation.
That is the situation La Pelu de Maakum is trying to prevent.
The idea is simple: young people who are no longer under state care are given a contract to work at the barbershop and once they have been fully trained and settled, they pass on their spot to another person.
“I’m turning 18 in August and I wasn’t sure if I was going to end up on the street,” said Mohamed, sitting on a red sofa chair in the barbershop.
“But if I am working here and have a little money saved, I will be able to rent a place to live, even if it’s just a room. And the most important thing is that I can renew my papers.”
Like many before him, Mohamed crossed into the Spanish exclave city of Ceuta in North Africa from Morocco in 2019 in search of a better life.
“In Morocco, it was clear that I was not going to have a good future. So I thought, ‘I’m still young, I can still make a future for myself somewhere else and help myself and my family,’” he explained.
He spent six months in Ceuta and was then transferred to Madrid where he was placed in a centre for children.
These facilities are run by the regional government, which are also responsible for providing education and training. But the level of care often falls short.
“There are workers at the centres who can’t put themselves in your shoes,” said Mohamed. “They have a normal life, they don’t have any problems and they can’t see things from your point of view.”
That is also a problem with Spanish society more generally.
Mohamed says people tighten their grip on their bags when he is on the Metro train, ignore him if he asks for directions on the street and would never let him make a call on their mobile phones if he was in need.
“We have always tried to do our utmost so that people have a good opinion of us, to show that we have come here for a reason. We have come here to work, to help our families, but one Moroccan goes out and steals and we are all bad guys, we are all guilty,” he said.
Otman Elbardai nods in agreement.
Like Mohamed, he crossed into Ceuta from Morocco and wound up in Madrid.
At 18, he became La Pelu de Makuum’s first employee.
He is happy to be at the barbershop but he is not sure it is going to change negative perceptions of migrants.
“People get an idea in their head and that’s that.”
It may be a difficult task, but Joana Mellan, one of the five co-founders of Maakum Ceuta Association, says it is key.
“Change is needed and change begins with awareness, with seeing these guys from a different perspective: not as dangerous people but as people in danger because, in the end, they are the first victims of abuse and the first victims of rights violations,” she said.
This message is becoming harder to get across as the far right steps up its attacks against immigration.
Ahead of the Madrid regional election in May, the Vox party put up a campaign poster with the message: “4,700 euros a month for a mena [the Spanish acronym of an unaccompanied migrant minor]. 426 euros a month for your grandmother’s pension” – numbers which did not add up.
Propaganda electoral de VOX en la estación de Sol. Un cartel con datos manipulados y señalando a un colectivo vulnerable como son los menores extranjeros. Pero las detenciones por delito de odio serán para raperos y para movimientos sociales que denuncian el racismo😡 pic.twitter.com/rdHlakgKSa
— Javier Sánchez Serna (@J_Sanchez_Serna) April 20, 2021
The recent crisis in Ceuta, when thousands of youngsters crossed into the Spanish territory in just a few days, has only inflamed tensions.
Augusto Delkáder, a professor of political science, believes La Pelu de Makuum is “very positive”, but that a more sustainable solution is needed.
“It makes one feel a bit uneasy that small NGOs and organisations are carrying out integration policy when this should be the responsibility of the state,” he said.
“These people should automatically be given papers; if not, there are only two options for them: deportation or living in hiding.”
Thanks to La Pelu de Maakum, Mohamed has been spared that fate.
Now he is just happy to be working.
“My family is very proud of me. Even though I haven’t done that much and haven’t been able to help them, I’m on the right track.”