At 27 years old, Malick, a native of Gambia living in Senegal, set out for the Canary Islands on a creaky wooden boat with 113 people. There were days when waves slammed across the boat, when storms shook their vessel and their spirits; days when Malick did nothing but pray, days when he thought he would never arrive. They were cold, they were hungry. After eleven days at sea, they numbered 110 when they washed up on the shores of the Canary Islands.
The Red Cross collected them and took them to a camp on the island. Old fears were replaced with new fears. The biggest: deportation.
For the first time since his departure, he was able make a phone call. He hadn’t said goodbye, not to his mother or any of his 16 siblings. Instead he’d had had a friend tell his mother he had gone to Gambia to find work. “I didn’t want to scare her,” he said. Then, that day in the Red Cross center, he heard his mother’s voice on the phone. “Hi Mom,” he said. “I’m in Spain.”
“You’re what?!” his mother cried. “Are you hurt? Are you sick? Are you okay? Are you safe?”
“Yes, yes. I’m okay. I am safe,” he promised her.
Was it worth the risk? For Malick—and for most of Senegal’s youth—the answer was yes. It was 2006 when Malick left Senegal and education was pushing young people to look for greater things than their country could offer. Malick had never exceeded a primary education, but most people of his generation were much better educated than their parents. Yet they had no way out. “Some people lived happily selling goods from little carts their whole lives, but 90 percent of my generation was thinking other things.” It was contagious, the dream of getting out. “For years I wanted to go to New York. Then I had friends telling me to go to Buenos Aires. Others said Switzerland. I dreamed all those dreams,” he recalled. Then someone said Spain. What’s more, he had a way to get there. Malick didn’t hesitate. “I’m going.”
After a month at the Red Cross in the Canary Islands, after which he could no longer be deported, he was moved to the peninsula. His first goal was to learn the language, so he was taken to Santander, where the Cocina Económica, the local immigrant center, made Spanish classes obligatory for anyone receiving its services.
In 2006, Malick was among the first wave of migrants to filter into the North of Spain. Beginning around 1999 immigrants from Latin America, North Africa, and West Africa, among other regions, began moving to Spain. While other European countries, especially Spain’s Mediterranean neighbors, France, Portugal, and Italy had a long history of immigration, before the turn of the century, less than 1 percent of Spain’s population was foreign-born. When the inflow began, immigrants flocked mainly to Spain’s big cities or stayed in the South. The North was the last part of Spain to mix. When Malick arrived, the presence of a tall black man with a head-full of short spiky dreads caused ripples wherever he went. People wanted to look at him; they wanted to know where he came from and why he was there. “It wasn’t discrimination,” Malick said. “It was curiosity.” And Malick was outgoing and eager to share.
He met people quickly. On his first day in Santander, he was riding a bus and studying a map on his lap. A man his age came over and asked what he was looking for.
“La Cocina Económica,” said Malick, looking up.
“Get down at this stop,” the man said. “I’ll take you there.”
And so Malick made his first friend.
He continued meeting people with ease. His first relationships involved a lot of broken Spanish, repetition, and head-scratching—but quickly he surpassed many of his classmates in fluency as he threw himself headlong into Spanish culture.
He recognizes the difference between himself and many other migrants. He came with ganas, desire and eagerness to become a part of Spain. To learn the language, adopt the culture, marry a woman here, have a family here. He wasn’t going home. However, other immigrants he knew came with the idea of living in Spain for just a short time, to make some money or to get away from a bad situation in their country. They lived through the people they had at home; sustained themselves on the dream of returning. “These people can live years without learning to speak the language,” Malick acknowledged. “Maybe they go to the market every day, set up their cart, sell some bracelets or purses, but then they return to an apartment with Senegalese people. They eat with Senegalese people, pray with Senegalese people, and try to live a Senegalese life in Spain.” But this is not what Malick came to do. Malick learned the language right away; he made Spanish friends; he dated foreign girls. He doesn’t feel like he is Spanish, but he does feel like he is completely adapted here.
At the time that he arrived there were a lot of jobs in Spain, and Malick found work as a gardener at a hostel in San Vicente de la Barquera, a small town in Cantabria. One day during his third year, one of his coworkers introduced him to a Spaniard named Alberto. Alberto was fascinated by Malick and asked him all about his country. Did he live on the beach in his country? How was the weather? Were there big waves? Alberto was a surfer, and he was so impressed by Malick’s story that he wanted to go to Senegal.
“Have you been back yet?”
“Not yet. Without papers and all…” Malick was working but he needed a contract in order to apply for citizenship.
“Yeah. Well, when you’re ready to go back, I want to go with you. I’ll buy my ticket and I’ll buy yours.”
“Cool. For sure.”
“Oh, and one more thing. As soon as I find you work, I’ll let you know.”
It wasn’t an empty promise. Some months later, Malick signed a contract with Alberto’s family, which owned a restaurant in the nearby town of Cabezón de la Sal. Their home became his second home. He kept his apartment in Santander, but he spent days at a time with Alberto’s family, and become a recognized and welcome figure in the small town.
Though he is now a Spanish citizen, he hasn’t yet returned to his country. He admits he will be a little nervous to do so. “It’s been seven years. You leave things one way, and then you go back and your siblings who were babies are grown up, your childhood friends are married…” He lifted his palms. “Things will be different.”
Malick appreciates what he has here. He enjoys each moment, knowing that optimism and attitude are more valuable than plans. All he has to do is ask himself, “How was I born in Gambia, raised in Senegal, aimed for New York, and destined for here?” In his experience, it’s good to make plans, but your life is made up of the surprises and the detours, not the expectations.