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Listen to Episode 2: Omar Bah's Refugee Dream Center



Episode 1 Transcript:

GONZALEZ: I’m Ana Gonzalez.

NUNES: I’m Alex Nunes. And this is Mosaic, a new podcast from The Public’s Radio. 

GONZALEZ: Mosaic is a collection of stories about American immigration, told from a region of the country where much of it began.

NUNES: Today: the story of Omar Bah.

BAH: So I felt: I am trapped. There is no escape out of here anymore. I gave up, literally gave up in life. I decided, “Well, that’s it for me. Within a short moment, I will be a dead person.”

NUNES: Omar was a journalist in the Gambia, who had to flee his own country because the government wanted to kill him. 

GONZALEZ: We’ll start his story back in West Africa. But let’s talk a little bit about Mosaic first.

NUNES: If you want to start an argument, start talking to someone about immigration. It’s a really tough topic.

GONZALEZ: Absolutely. Don’t talk about it with your Uncle Jim at Thanksgiving. But in its essence, immigration is about people and their stories. 

NUNES: And for us, living in New England, we have this unique perspective because our immigration history goes back to the 17th century.

GONZALEZ: So, we are able to see the entire American timeline of immigration through the individual stories from this region. 

NUNES: Our first story begins in 2000, when Omar Bah started his career in journalism. 

BAH: I became a journalist because there was extreme poverty in conjunction with oppression in Gambia. People were sick and poor and hopeless, and at the same time being oppressed due to the dictatorship. So I wanted to speak out. I wanted to have a voice but also, at the same time, give them a voice.

NUNES: So you got into journalism and did what you just said you wanted to do, and that got you in trouble. Can you explain what you were writing and what the consequences were for you?

BAH: I wanted to have an opportunity to sit with people in power, especially those in government, to ask them questions people would not ask them: things that would make them uncomfortable so they could start to pay attention to what they are doing. My column was called “Banta Ba.” In the local language in Gambia, it means “The Village Meeting Place.”

NUNES: I thought you were going to say it was called “In the hot seat with Omar Bah.”

BAH: In the hot seat. In the hot seat, right? But the hope was, in the village meeting place, there’s justice. That’s where disputes are settled. But that’s also where everybody’s held accountable. But it’s also an opportunity for communication and unity and upward movement. 

GONZALEZ: Omar was writing for The Daily Observer, the largest paper in Gambia at the time. And it was obvious from the start that the president and the people in his government weren't going to like Omar’s column.

NUNES: President Yahya Jammeh was a brutal strongman who ruled the country for most of the last two decades. Human Rights Watch publicly condemned Jammeh’s government for arbitrary arrests, unlawfully killing and detaining people, and forced disappearances. So Gambians were understandably terrified of Jammeh. 

BAH: Eventually, well, I knew what would happen. Two-and-a-half years down the line, the government didn’t like it, which I understood. I knew it was going to happen. I received a lot of threats doing that column, attempts to stop what I was writing. Some people, after interviewing them, before I get to my office, they will drive to my office to speak to the editor and ask the editor not to publish what I was doing. It was really very discomforting for a lot of people.

NUNES: Things escalate one day. Omar’s newspaper gets a tip that a secret trial is taking place at a military barracks. Someone has been accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and he’s being secretly put on trial. 

BAH: So this guy was shot. Luckily he survived, because some of his colleagues were killed. When he healed, they took him to a military trial at a secret barracks, and the public didn’t know about that. I got a tip off, because I was also known for being a court reporter. When they told us, I told my editor, ‘I will go.’ If I don’t cover it and the public doesn’t know, first it will not be a fair trial, and two, they will just end up killing this guy too. I didn’t actually think it was going to be extreme. The worst I thought it would be, is when I got to the gates of the barracks, they’d kick me and send me home.

GONZALEZ: It’s actually much worse than Omar expected. When he gets to the military barracks in the town of Yundum, he presents his press ID to the head guard. The man begins to question Omar, and then he tells the other soldiers to attack him.

BAH: He just told his people to pounce on me. They started beating me. At some point, I lost consciousness, and, when I regained consciousness, I would see them lift me up and hit me with gun butts.

NUNES: Just throw you in the air and hit you on the way down.

BAH: Yeah. Hit me on the way down. It was like a game to them. There was a lot of them. At some point, I saw so much blood. Later I realized I was stabbed with bayonets. I didn’t know what was physical pain or not, because I was just not too conscious. So they took me to a small cell behind a big office building. And the cell I don’t think was designed to even be a cell. It was just like a small closet where I couldn’t straighten my legs. I literally had to coil and sit. There were shovels and big forks that are like the size of a shovel.

NUNES: Like a pitchfork?

BAH: Yes. They had those in the closet. And I was really scared, because I thought I was going to die and then they will use that stuff to dig and bury me. Luckily for me, I was released.

GONZALEZ:  The attack leaves Omar seriously wounded with injuries over virtually all of his body. He has stab wounds on his back and a deep bayonet gash on his left hand. His face is swollen and bruised. The soldiers, he says, were beating to kill. After he’s freed, Omar thinks getting medical treatment will expose him to the government again. So, despite his injuries, he goes home instead. 

NUNES: After a month, Omar has recovered enough to go back to work and continue writing. But things change at Omar’s paper. A new, pro-government editor is hired, and he begins censoring Omar’s work. So Omar decides to go around his editor and publish his work on  an online news site called Freedom Newspaper that’s being run by a Gambian exile in the U.S. Omar knows this is risky and he has to be very careful.

BAH: Things were getting worse in the country. There were more killings. Even journalists were getting shot and killed. You either stop writing, or, if you write what the president does not want, you are arrested and killed, or you disappear. So you have to write under a pseudonym or just without a byline, and just publish. But I just couldn’t see corruption or anything without writing it. Or people being tortured or illegally arrested. So I started reporting for that newspaper, and, at some point, it was hacked.

NUNES: Like the emails or the website?

BAH: The emails. The emails and the website. And they found out I was the one actually writing all that stuff. And then there was a national manhunt when they got those emails.

NUNES: Omar is scared for his life. And he’s also completely stuck. He’s in a cyber cafe when he finds out about the manhunt, and he just freezes. Eventually he comes to the conclusion that the only way to survive is to flee the country. So on May 29, 2006, Omar sets out to escape Gambia.

BAH: I just had to go. I couldn’t do anything with my family. I couldn’t call them, because, if the government saw that I had called them, they would put all of them in trouble. And I was married for just two months, and I couldn’t talk to my wife. So I decided to leave.

GONZALEZ: This reminds me of a theme I think we’ve seen come up a lot in our reporting of this podcast series. People, for whatever reason, find themselves in these situations where they have to make this huge life decision in a split second. And it could be a refugee in 2019, or it could be an English family back in the 17th Century.

NUNES: Absolutely. In this case, Omar  wakes up that morning: everything’s cool. He just got married a few months ago, and he’s got this life he’s establishing for himself. And then, by the end of the day, he’s come to the decision he has no choice but to flee his country. He has to leave it all behind. Even his wife of two months, for a journey that will be complicated and dangerous. 

BAH: Gambia, if you’re familiar with the geography, it’s just a river, a long river. And, on either side of the river, it’s just small strips of land. And that’s the country. So I had to go to the northern part of the country, meaning I had to cross the river through a ferry, and before getting to the ferry, I had to cross a bridge. It was just a long  journey of a lot of barriers and obstacles.

NUNES: The whole time, are you looking out for people looking for you?

BAH: Yes. And so I had to just be extra careful.

GONZALEZ: To get to that ferry, Omar buys himself a bus ticket, and goes and sits at the very back. The driver starts off, but when he gets to the bridge Omar was talking about, traffic is at a standstill. There’s a checkpoint. And armed soldiers are searching cars. 

BAH: I was so terrified. I was so scared. I immediately opened the window. I wanted to jump and run into the thickness of the forest. But we were very close to the bridge, and when I opened the door, I saw that there were soldiers—armed soldiers—patrolling around and standing. So I just felt, ‘I’m trapped. There is no escape out of here anymore.’ I gave up, literally gave up in life. I decided, ‘Well, that’s it for me. Within a short moment, I will be a dead person.’ I closed my eyes. I was just reminiscing my life for the short life that I have lived. I was 26 years old then. And I was just thinking about the good things that have happened to me, the bad, but just appreciating life.

NUNES: A soldier bangs his gun butt on the side of Omar’s bus and gets on. He tells the passengers he’s looking for someone, and he needs everyone to take out their IDs so he can check them.

BAH: When he said that, I said, “Wow. So this is exactly real. This is not something else. They’re looking for me. They’re literally—it’s me!” I couldn’t even believe it’s me they’re looking for. I just stood up and raised my hands. I just wanted it to end, let it be done. So I closed my eyes and waiting for a bullet to come. And there was silence. This is still like a miracle to me. I could feel that the light from his flashlight is not pointing at my face any longer. Then, when I looked at the soldier standing outside, he was literally shaking. I looked at him again, just more closely, and realized that it’s somebody that I know. We knew each other 10 years earlier in middle school, and he was actually part of a group campaigning for me to be student president. And it was just like a shock to him!

NUNES: The soldier waves the bus on. He lets Omar go.

BAH: Everybody was calling me dun—son or my child. Like they were older women. “Dun, what happened? Dun, what happened? What is going on? What did you do?” Then I told them, “Just pray for me.” That’s all I said. I couldn’t talk. I told them, “I don’t  even have the energy to say anything. I am just a dead man. Just pray for me.”

GONZALEZ: Omar makes it into Senegal that night. He contacts human rights activists and goes into hiding. But he quickly finds out he can’t stay in the country very long. 

BAH: I was in Senegal hiding in someone’s home who was among the human rights activists helping me. They turned on TV, and I saw myself being declared a wanted person. That was really one of the scariest moments of my life. I said, “Wow. I have escaped, but they’re still looking for me.” Warning the general public not to help me. “If anyone helps Omar Bah, you are going to be in trouble. Anyone who has information where he is, report it to the authorities.” Because of that arrangements were made to quickly move me out of Senegal, because there was no guarantee that I would not be killed in Senegal too. Within a month, I was moved  out of Senegal and taken to Ghana. I remember actually, when I was going to the airport in Senegal to go to Ghana, seven people were like surrounding, went with me, just to make sure that there is nothing happening. Then I was taken to Ghana.

NUNES: Within a year of arriving at a refugee camp in Ghana, Omar is accepted to be resettled in the U.S. Shortly before he leaves, he asks his case worker where he’s going, and the guy tells him Providence, Rhode Island.

BAH: I said, “What do you mean Rhode Island? Is it an island?” The guy just started laughing at me. So he just told me to follow him. He showed me a big map of the U.S. on the wall. And he touched it. “This is—this is Rhode Island. Right here.” He tapped on the state. And the first thing I noticed when I looked at the state, I said, “It’s very small...Alright, I’m from the smallest country in Africa, and I’m going to the smallest state in America. That sounds good.”

NUNES: Big things come in small packages.

BAH: I think so. I agree. Rhode Island tells me that.

GONZALEZ: In the next episode of Mosaic we follow Omar Bah through his new life in the United States: the challenge of navigating a new place, finding work, and starting over. 

NUNES: Mosaic is a production of the Public’s Radio, edited by Sally Eisele with production help from James Baumgartner. Our original music is by Bryn Bliska. Our intern is Kylie Cooper. Torey Malatia is the general manager of The Public’s Radio. 

Support for this podcast comes from Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at Carnegie.org.