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A Senegalese Migrant's Path from Boat to Nurse in Spain


Mbaye Babacar Diouf stands for a photo wearing his nurse's clothing, at Basurto hospital, in Bilbao, northern Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020.
A Senegalese Migrant's Path from Boat to Nurse in Spain
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Six migrants listen closely as Mbaye Babacar Diouf speaks to them.

The 33-year-old man has faced his own difficulties as a migrant from Senegal to Spain. Today, Babacar is a nurse in the Spanish city of Bilbao. He also runs a nonprofit organization that helps migrants in Bilbao as well as young people back in Senegal.

But Babacar tells the men, who have arrived from Senegal, Ghana and Morocco, that he is no role model. Behind the appearance of success, he faces struggles. His difficulties come from years of mistreatment and abuse while trying to repay his debts to human traffickers.

“I wish every one of you achieves your life goals, but I don’t desire for anybody the complicated and tough journey that I went through,” Babacar tells the group.

He recognizes that such a message might seem unusual. After all, he has built a career in Spain that lets him fly home to Dakar to visit family. He earns enough money to send his family money throughout the year.

He spoke to the group of migrants just before going to work at Bilbao’s Basurto University Hospital. In recent months, he has been treating patients suffering from the effects of COVID-19. Dealing with the coronavirus crisis has been emotional and difficult for Babacar.

“I’ve seen people die at sea, but this is different,” he says. “I love my job, but there have been situations that have churned my stomach.”

Before Babacar called Bilbao his home, there were long nights sleeping in the open and selling street goods for migrant traffickers. Back then, his dream of becoming a nurse seemed impossible.

He was 15 years old when he decided he wanted to go into the medical field. The year was 2003. Babacar had just gotten to the Canary Islands after a difficult and dangerous 10-day boat trip. He arrived hungry and extremely thirsty. But Red Cross volunteers provided immediate aid to the teenager and the 137 other migrant passengers.

“That instant, I promised myself that one day I would be a nurse,” Babacar said.

At the time, the Atlantic Ocean path of migration to Europe was seeing a huge rise in such crossings. Babacar still remembers the many bodies he saw floating in the water on his group’s seventh day at sea.

“That’s when you realize that there is no way back,” he said. “Either you make it or you die.”

Now, the boats are again leaving in high numbers. And human-trafficking operations continue to find migrants to victimize. The criminal groups force newly arrived migrants to pay high prices for a place to sleep. They also overcharge them for securing health care documents and low-earning illegal jobs.

Some migrants never escape their debts.

In Babacar’s case, life changed for the better the day he met Spaniard Juan Gil. Today, he calls Gil “Aita,” which means “father” in the Basque language of Spain.

The man had employed Babacar to do some repair work in his home. They grew fond of one another quickly. Soon, the young worker was eating every meal at Gil’s home. The man’s mother had recently died, and his daughter had just moved away. So, Gil invited Babacar to move in with him. Babacar accepted, leaving the small, costly home he shared with 15 other men.

“I told my daughter Mbaye was lucky. But she told me we had been the lucky ones with him,” said Gil, a 74-year-old artist and retired art teacher. “And she was absolutely right.”

When Babacar was 28, Gil became his father through the legal action called adoption.

Babacar was able to pay back his remaining debt, send more money to family and begin nursing school. After finishing school, he found a job with the Basque area public health service.

Babacar quickly turned his attention to his next goal: completing medical school and returning to Senegal. There, he hopes to work as a doctor for “Sunu Gaal,” the non-governmental organization he established. The name means “Our Fishing Boat” in Senegal’s Wolof language. The organization works to help migrants living in Bilbao as well as young people back in Senegal, where it is trying to build a school.

“The idea is not to tell them to migrate or to stay put,” Babacar said of his organization’s work. “The goal is to infuse them with critical thinking to make informed decisions and not to fall prey to the mafias.”

I’m Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

nurse - n. a person who is trained to care for sick or injured people and who usually works in a hospital or doctor's office

role model - n. ​someone who another person admires and tries to be like

achieve - v. to get or reach (something) by working hard

complicated - adj. hard to understand, explain, or deal with

tough - adj. very difficult to do or deal with

churn (one's stomach) - v. ​to feel sick from nervousness, disgust, etc.​

absolutely - adv. completely or totally

infuse - v. ​to cause (something, such as a quality) to be added or introduced into a person or thing​

fall prey to - v. ​to be harmed or affected in a bad way by (someone or something)

mafia - n. ​a group of closely connected people who have great power or influence in a particular field or business​

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