A migrant’s odyssey from boat to COVID nursing job in Spain

World News
Mbaye Babacar Diouf

Mbaye Babacar Diouf, poses for a photo wearing his nurse’s uniform, at Basurto hospital, in Bilbao, northern Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. Mbaye Babacar Diouf’s life as a migrant in Europe took a turn for the better when he was adopted in Spain at the age of 28. That enabled him to pay his debts to human traffickers, study nursing and find a job at a Spanish hospital. Now he’s giving back to the community. In a Bilbao hospital he cares for COVID-19 patients. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

BILBAO, Spain (AP) — The six migrants listen attentively to Mbaye Babacar Diouf, whose own journey across the Atlantic to a job nursing COVID-19 patients in Spain and giving back to the community through his own nonprofit would seem to scream success.

But Babacar warns the men who’ve arrived from Senegal, Ghana and Morocco that he’s no role model. Behind the appearance of triumph, he’s scarred from years of humiliation and exploitation trying to repay a 4,500-euro ($5,350) debt 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,” Senegal-born Babacar, 33, tells the group. He’s keen to make the point that Europe offers no panacea if the price is drowning at sea or living forever in society’s shadows.

He acknowledges it’s a strange message from somebody who’s built a career that allows him to fly home to Dakar to visit a family he supports with remittances.

Dressed in a crisply ironed blue uniform, the dreadlocked and bespectacled man smiles generously. He speaks perfect Spanish, displaying a mix of kindness and self-confidence ahead of his night shift at Bilbao’s 700-bed Basurto University Hospital.

Dealing with the coronavirus has been stressful and emotional. “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.”

Long before Babacar could call the Basque city his home, there were tough nights sleeping in the open, surviving by street-peddling for migrant traffickers. The times when he couldn’t dodge police raids and landed in a cell, his dream of becoming a nurse seemed elusive.

The idea grew on him upon arrival in the Canary Islands. At 15, hungry and dehydrated after a 10-day journey among 8-meter waves, he was touched by the care Red Cross volunteers showed him and 137 others in his boat.

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

It was 2003 and the Atlantic route of migration to Europe was seeing a surge that would peak three years later, with hundreds of lives swallowed by the sea. Babacar still remembers the silence on the wooden fishing boat when, on the seventh day of their second attempted crossing, they encountered dozens of floating corpses.

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

The boats are again departing in droves. And migrant-trafficking mafias continue extending their tentacles deep into European soil, tracking their victims wherever they go and charging them for a place to sleep, documents that can open doors to healthcare, or petty illegal jobs. Some never escape the vicious circle of debt and irregularity.

“Nothing has changed,” says Babacar. “The journey on the boat can last just a few tough days, but adapting to a system that leaves us in limbo, on European soil but without permission to legally work, is like being born again and having to relearn everything.”

Life took a sharp turn for the better when he met Juan Gil, the man he now calls “Aita,” father in Basque.

Babacar washed dishes at a bar. Gil needed some refurbishing work done at home. Soon, the young worker became a guest at every meal. Gil had lost his mother recently and his daughter had moved out, so he persuaded Babacar to move in — leaving his overpriced bed in a four-room apartment shared with 15 other men.

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

At 28, after a lengthy and expensive battle against bureaucracy, Babacar was officially adopted by Gil — the surname now listed on his Spanish passport.

He was able to pay back his remaining debt, send more money to relatives, enrol in nursing school and, upon graduation, secure a job with the Basque regional public health service. But his eyes are already set on his next goal: studying medicine and returning to Senegal to continue, as a physician, with the work of his NGO, Sunu Gaal, or “Our Fishing Boat” in Senegal’s Wolof language.

The organization works to help both migrants in Bilbao and youth back in Senegal, where it’s trying to build a school.

“The idea is not to tell them to migrate or to stay put,” explains Babacar. “The goal is to infuse them with critical thinking to make informed decisions and not to fall prey to the mafias.”

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“One Good Thing” is a series that highlights individuals whose actions provide glimmers of joy in hard times — stories of people who find a way to make a difference, no matter how small. Read the collection of stories at https://apnews.com/hub/one-good-thing.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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