“In schools, they say to the children of migrants that they have to study, that they have to make an effort because tomorrow they can have a better future. But if the children see that all the people of their origin are working as waiters, and there is no one working as a director in any public services, the children will think that there is no use to make that effort because it won’t work. But if they see a black person, or an Indian, or a Moroccan, that is working [in a position of authority] then they will think that yes, they can do it, because they have seen it.” (Abdoulaye Fall)
A personal journey
Abdoulaye Fall is an economic migrant from Senegal who is now, 18 years later, a Spanish citizen. He has been successful at achieving the migrant dream of creating a better life for himself, but he is aware that many immigrants do not. With his PhD research on Senegalese migration to Catalonia at the Autonomous University of Barcelona’s Centre for Demographic Studies, Abdoulaye seeks solutions to issues faced by both the migrants themselves, and the society they live in.
We met in The Hague, the Netherlands, at a conference called reThink Refugees. He was there to present his work on a financial support program for immigrants run by the Spain-based NGO, Winkomun (The Self-Funded Communities Association). As one of the few migrant voices at the conference, I asked him about his experience. What made it possible for him personally to succeed where many others have a difficult time adjusting to life in Europe?
In 1999, Abdoulaye was a young man with a Bachelor’s degree in English and a suitcase full of ambition. Arriving in Europe on a tourist visa, he headed straight for Barcelona where he had the bare bones of a social network: people he knew through his life-long participation in international cooperation projects of the Boy Scouts opened their home to him.
“I think that my process of integration was so easy and so rapid compared to other Senegalese migrants due to the fact that I lived with a Catalan family for two years.” During this period, he legalised his status, got his Senegalese degree recognised, studied Catalan and taught himself Spanish (to compliment his Wolof, French and English).
What’s the choice?
I asked him if the fact that he made the choice to move, rather than being forced – as in the case of a refugee – contributed to his ability to successfully adapt to his life in Spain.
“It is true that I made the choice [to immigrate to Spain] in the sense that I made the decision to come: nobody obliged me to do so. But most of the migrants coming from Africa say that migration is an obligation: if they want to make their way in this life they have to migrate because in their country there are no opportunities.”
Abdoulaye feels that what makes life difficult for many economic migrants is the fact that they have unrealistic expectations of life in Europe. ‘In West Africa, successful migrants are the minority, but they have succeeded to give the image that everything is easy here. The best houses are owned by migrants, the best cars, they marry the prettiest girls… everyone in Senegal thinks that the money is easily won.’
It did not take Abdoulaye long to realise that this perception was wrong, and that success would require hard work on his part. “I thought that if I really want to better my life and not work as a waiter all my life, I have to do something different than what everyone else was doing.” That “something different” was education. Once his papers were in order, he applied to, and received, a scholarship for a master’s degree in translation and intercultural studies. This he followed up with a self-funded master in migration studies.
Home grown solutions
Abdoulaye uses his personal experience and his education to find social solutions to 21st century issues of migration. “There is much that has to be done just to sensitise people in Africa about the reality of migration.” At the same time, he is aware that much also needs to be done in Europe to improve opportunities for immigrants and nationalised citizens.
“I am a migrant. I may have reason to accept that I may experience discrimination,” he continues. “That is normal. But my child, he won’t understand that. He will say, I am a Catalan, I was born here, I have citizenship and I want to be given the same opportunities as the Spaniards.”
When he first arrived in Spain, Abdoulaye set up a tontine, an informal savings group system that is very common in Senegal. “Among migrant communities, this kind of practice is very widespread. The objective is to pool money to create a fund where any of us that may have a need can use the money.” Each month, the members of the group contributed 50 euros to the kitty, and one member got the pot to use as he or she saw fit.
The tontine is a simple way for new arrivals to build a social network in a new environment, and provides access to a larger pot than any individual could gather alone. “Native Spaniards have friends, relatives, parents who they can go to for support. But as migrants we do not have that. With Winkomun, we can take out a loan in case of an emergency or any necessity we may have.”
As chance would have it, Winkomun was developing a savings group platform based on the tontine principle. Abdoulaye’s group was working well: the original four members had swollen to 20. He and his group were asked to participate in the project as beneficiaries of the savings scheme. Part of the tuition for his master’s degree was payed through a Winkomun loan.
An ambassador for success
With the combination of his education, his experience with tontines, and his network among migrants, he was asked to be a consultant on the program. Soon he was hired as programme manager. Currently, alongside his PhD, Abdoulaye helps Winkomun spread the success of their approach to other European countries – hence the conference in The Hague.
“To tell you the truth, I am really happy with my life here in Spain. But migration from Africa began more or less at the end of the 1980’s. It is quite recent… So people are not prepared to see an African migrant having high responsibility in public administration, for example. I have not seen one case. In Spain, there are 62,000 Senegalese, the largest sub-Saharan community. It is not normal that you go to a bank, a post office and you cannot see black people, Indian people. The policy that we have in Catalonia in terms of integration is not so bad, but we can do more. I think it is a big challenge, but somebody has to be the first. I want to be the first.”