ROME, Italy — Walking the streets of southern Italy and Sicily, the young Nigerian man daily sees hundreds of refugees who have fled their native lands — mostly from Africa or the Middle East — and who are escaping religious persecutions, economic devastation, political instabilities, ethnic cleansing or unlivable living conditions.
In his mid-20s and sporting a white dress shirt, slacks and a tie, he has a purpose. The refugees he sees — of all ages — may not have much more than the clothes on their backs, and they’re looking for work, for food, for stability, or for what tomorrow may bring.
What the young man doesn’t see is his place among them — although he could.
Because less than five years ago, Bolaji Oyebanji Adepoju — then a recent convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — survived a shooting-turned-bloodbath in his Nigerian home by Muslim extremists, surviving only because of his mad dash to the roof.
And because less than two years ago, Adepoju — one of some 200 refugees packed in a water-logged boat pushed off from Libya and bound for anywhere in Europe — was plucked from the sea by the Italian coast guard, escaping a fate his two brothers elsewhere on the boat could not.
Once a refugee himself, he is now a Mormon missionary serving in a country that has become an arrival point of sorts for fleeing refugees — not for Italy’s own choosing, but for geographic realities.
“I don’t think about myself anymore,” Elder Adepoju said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “I think and feel for them. I feel for the people who left everything they had and came to this place with nothing but their life.”
His own life was all he had on the day of his rescue — August 15, 2015.
This is his story — as recounted to the Deseret News, combined with his narrating a seven-minute video, as posted on the Italian version of the LDS Church's Mormon Newsroom.
Bolaji grew up in northern Nigeria, his father a Muslim and his mother a Christian. With violence and persecution from Muslim extremists directed at those who didn’t share the same faith, his mother was forced from the area, and his parents eventually divorced when Bolaji was seven.
“Mom had to leave,” he said. “She was one of the targets.”
Bolaji didn’t follow either faith of his parents. “I knew there was God, but I don’t believe in the Muslim ways, [nor] in the Christian ways. I don’t believe in those ways.”
Still, he went from one church to another and to another, always looking. But he never settled with one, saying he didn't "feel 'relaxed.’”
In 2012, he left northern Nigeria for the southern part of the country, for more stability, schooling and work. After some time in his new area, he was approached on the street by a man he’d never seen before, who asked him, “Why don’t you go to church?”
“Do I know you?” Bolaji asked.
“You don’t know me,” he responded, stopping a taxi, giving an address to the driver and encouraging Bolaji again to go.
“I shook the hand of the person and I thanked him, and I took the taxi.”
He arrived at an LDS meetinghouse, looking in through the windows. He later attended Sunday church meetings at the invitation of the branch president, who also suggested he meet with the Mormon missionaries.
“Everything was so great, so spiritual,” Bolaji said of his attending LDS meetings and learning of the LDS faith. “I felt peace, and I felt comforted for the first time in my life.”
Two months later, at the age of 22, Bolaji was baptized and confirmed a member of the LDS Church.
“I got baptized that same year , that was my greatest year. I feel good, I feel free.”
Not long after, in December 2012, he returned to northern Nigeria to live and to work. “The crisis of the north had calmed down,” he said.
Or so he thought.
"Gunshots shaking the roof"
Living near the town of Potiskum, Bolaji couldn’t find a local LDS branch to attend, but he kept reading The Book of Mormon on his own.
A good friend from earlier years — their fathers had been friends — approached him one day and cautioned him about what he was reading. “He told me, ‘That book is not a bible’ and that I should stop reading it,” said Bolaji, who continued to read the LDS book of scripture — albeit it more cautiously, often in or under a tree.
“One night, I heard a knock on the door, at the gate. I heard someone calling my name — my Muslim name — and that I should come out to see. I was so scared. I went in the home,” he said, recalling how he crawled inside the space under the roof.
“This group of people came to the compound where I lived. They know that my father is a Muslim and that I’m a Christian. That is taboo.
“It was so hot in there,” he continued. “I heard a lot of gunshots, for hours. ... I wasn’t sleeping. I was so scared. The gunshots were shaking the roof. There were gunshots everywhere. Everyone ran for their lives.”
When the calm of morning came and long after the shooting had stopped, Bolaji lowered himself inside the house, where he had lived with two friends from school, both Christians. He was shocked and numbed by what he saw.
“There was blood on the floor, there was blood on the ground, I was just like …” he said, choked up with emotion from recounting the experience several years later and gasping for air. “There was blood on the counter. It was like I was already dead.”
A lady called from a neighboring town with a message — “that they had taken my dad and that they had killed him.”
Two brothers contacted him, and he was in touch with his mother, too. “I felt I should run away and never come back again to that city. So I ran away.”
From there, Bolaji headed farther north — first into neighboring Niger for about a year with a brother before heading into Libya in early 2014, working in the west-central city of Sebha. He worked a variety of jobs after fleeing Nigeria — for a time as a machinist turning a lathe, other times working in hotels and kitchens.
Then a brother called to say “we are leaving — that there is a boat that is rescuing people.”
"They just pushed us"
Eventually, he and two brothers worked their way to the capital city of Tripoli, on Libya’s northwestern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Their plan: to cross the sea to find refuge in Europe.
Bolaji remembers the meeting place in Tripoli, where some 200 people were crammed into a tight room before departing. When it came time to load onto the boat, he moved to join his two brothers already located in the back.
One of the Libyans running the operation ordered Bolaji to go to the front, threatening severe consequences if he didn’t comply.
“The Libya man, the one with the boat, said I should sit in the front of the boat. I said, “No, I want to sit with my brothers — my brothers are here, we are sitting together.’ He said no, I should sit in the front. And my brothers said if I don’t sit in the front, he can just shoot me; if I don’t sit, he can kill me; that I should do what he say.”
Even for a young man from the landlocked interior of Nigeria, the boat ride seemed doomed from the start.
“There were no pilots, there was no compass — they just pushed us into the water,” he said.
Nor was there food nor water for the passengers, and the sea was turbulent and “rumbly,” he remembered, adding that the boat’s floor planks “looked like they were going to break, they were just drifting.”
He continued: “I’ve never, ever experienced that sort of thing in my life. People were praying to just die on the boat.”
Bolaji was praying, too — praying to survive.
“I communicated with God on that boat, I talked to him with my heart. I said, ‘God, if you help me, if I survive here, if I stick my foot on the dry land, I’m going to serve you.’”
The boat never made it to dry land. But Bolaji did.
He and others were rescued at sea from the floundering boat by the Corps of the Port Captaincies, the Italian coast guard, on Aug. 15, 2015, the day being an Italian national holiday and the date one he’ll never forget.
“When the rescue came, the Italian rescue came, I’m looking for my brothers. I start calling their names, I start calling their names …” he said, his voice trailing off.
He came across an acquaintance who had also been a passenger. “He told me what happened on the boat and how he tried to help my brothers.”
The boat had started sinking from the back end, where the engine was and where his brothers had been.
“So all the people on that [end] sank inside the water. I didn’t know anything — I was at the front. I didn’t know what was going on in the back.”
‘NO GUNS, NO KILLING’
Bolaji was hospitalized, first in the rescue ship’s sick bay and later on land in the Salerno/Sorrento area of southwestern Italy. Eventually, he was bused from a hospital to the Villa Angelina Hotel for a longer stay, receiving food and clothing. He reconnected with church and community, residing and working in Italy’s southwestern region between Naples and Salerno.
“It took a long time,” he said, adding “I felt like I was still under water.”
He’s since been called as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving in the Italy Rome Mission. About halfway through his two-year call, Elder Adepoju was working in his assigned proselyting area in Palermo, on Sicily’s northern coast, when reached by the Deseret News.
Many members of the LDS branch in Palermo are refugees, including the branch president, who himself fled from Nigeria.
Says Elder Adepoju: “I feel peace, just being alive, where there is quiet, no guns, no killing — just seeing people happy. When I go out to help people and help them make changes in their lives, that makes me happy.”
His family now consists of a brother in Ghana and his mother and a sister, both in Nigeria. When he thinks of the misdeeds and misfortunates afflicting his family and the absence of loved ones, “I cry — I have a burning,” he said.
But he looks forward — to starting his own family one day, and the hope of reuniting with his brothers and fathers in the afterlife.
“I believe I’m going to see them again,” he said. “I made a covenant with God. And that’s why I’m alive. I’m not perfect, but he kept me alive.”
Nigerian speaks of faith, surviving ordeals
From the Italian version of the LDS Church's Mormon Newsroom, Bolaji Adepoju — speaking in English, with Italian captions — recounts his conversion, surviving a shooting attack by Muslim extremists and being rescued at sea off the coast of Italy from a refugee-packed, floundering boat.