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"The UAB has allowed my life to be different to what most migrants know"
He is 46 years old and holds a degree in English Studies from the University of Dakar, which he earned shortly before travelling to Barcelona. Now he holds a PhD from the UAB. He is deeply grateful to the UAB, because a grant from the FAS changed his life: he was able to complete his master's degree and this opened many doors for him. His trajectory is worthy of admiration.
Migrants would tell me that if they return, they will be subject to a type of social death, they prefer living here poorly than returning without anything and becoming a social outcast.
Abdoulaye Fall came to the UAB in 2006 as beneficiary of the ACAF programme, a non-profit association in Barcelona which helps poor people; in 2009 he started to volunteer for the programme; and in 2014 he began to work full-time; and today he is the director of the programme, and also in representation of the association, he is the vice president of the European Financial Inclusion Network (EFIN). He says that taking Catalan courses with the Servei de Normalització Lingüística in Molins de Rei until he earned his Level C Diploma was a crucial factor.
- Could we please do this interview in Catalan? It is the language I know most...
- Of course, no problem. Definitely. Let's begin: you sent a very nice message thanking the UAB for everything after you received your PhD. Why was that?
- I sent the e-mail as a sincere and direct way of showing how I feel about the UAB, because it has allowed me to have a completely different life to that which most African migrants are predestined to have. Most of them work in the grey economy, they do dangerous and badly paid jobs, many of which are far below their qualifications level, and I had a completely different opportunity. The UAB's Fundació Autònoma Solidaria (FAS), which gave me a grant, also gave me a second opportunity, and that is very important.
- Tell me about your FAS grant.
- Eleven years ago, in 2006, I discovered that the FAS had a grants programme for non-EU migrants which allowed them to study a graduate programme at the UAB for free. Applicants had to have a degree, mine was English Studies from the University of Dakar, and a validated diploma. I had a validated diploma because right after arriving, I began the process of validation and had finally received all the papers after waiting two years. I had already lived in Spain for seven years, and when they accepted me I was working in a restaurant as a waiter. When I was awarded the grant, I negotiated my hours with the restaurant so I could attend the master's degree.
- And why were you awarded the grant?
The key factor was the language. They required a high level of Catalan or Spanish, and I was lucky enough to have started learning Catalan right after I arrived, and two years later I had earned my Level C diploma. I thought it was important for me to study the language. And that was decisive for the grant, because I already mastered the language.
- And what happened then?
- The grant allowed me to complete the two-year master's degree in Translation, paid fully by the FAS. When I finished I was ready for more! So I decided to take another one-year master's degree at the Pompeu Fabra; I paid for this one myself. I began researching into immigration from Senegal and since it was so interesting, I decided to do a PhD at the Centre for Demographic Studies (CED-UAB) and at the Department of Geography. I had an interview with Andreu Domingo and he found it very interesting, so he decided to direct my thesis.
- You seemed willing to integrate yourself and looked for opportunities to do so.
- Yes, that is true. I have always been a curious person and I like to learn and do things.
-Do you think it was luck or hard work which got you to where you are today?
- I think it is a mixture of both. I think I personally wanted to advance and at the same time I was lucky to find out about the grant. Many times Senegalese migrants come here due to economic pressures and this does not allow them to educate themselves because the family wants them to send money. That is the priority. I personally also had to send money to my family, but they did not pressure me to do it.
- What did you focus on in your thesis?
- I compared immigrant assistance policies. From 2006 to 2008, during the economic boom, the Spanish government created a programme which consisted in going to Senegal and looking for people interested in working in sectors in which there were no labourers, hiring at origin. But from 2011 to 2013, the Barcelona City Council also had a programme which encouraged migrants to return to their homeland, right in the midst of the economic crisis. I wanted to compare the trajectories of Senegalese immigrants depending on how they arrived to Spain, whether as an assisted immigrant or on their own, by sea.
- And what are your main conclusions?
- Senegalese immigrants are driven strongly by economic factors, but it is not the only thing. I even interviewed people who had a good job and stability in Senegal, civil servants, and they considered that they could win a lot more in all aspects if they came abroad, simply because it was a personal ambition. My thesis describes how young Senegalese people already know they are risking their lives when they come by sea. What they do abides by the neoliberal theory of risk in which instead of avoiding it, people face the risk in order truly to progress and triumph. They consider their life in Senegal is worth nothing and if they want to become somebody, they have to take the risk. They know this and accept it. The other subject I analysed was returned immigrants.
- To their country of origin?
Yes. The incentives they received in exchange for returning to their countries was nothing like what they were made to expect. They were given a one-way plane ticket and nothing else. And they did not take into account that immigrants are here thanks to a family investment. Even if things go very bad, these young people cannot go home empty-handed. Migrants would tell me that if they return, they will be subject to a type of social death, and that they prefer to live here poorly than return without anything and become a social outcast. My analysis points to the fact that these return programmes do not take any of this into account.
- Is there a solution for the situation of Senegalese immigrants?
- It is a very complex problem. First one has to consider who comes to Spain. Young people with low qualifications and little resources. That makes them hit a glass ceiling. They do not have the tools to progress, nor the language or the training. This does not happen in France, where knowing the language makes it easier. The problem should be tackled in the country of origin so that migrating isn't the only way out. If everyone in the country says they want to migrate, that means something is not right. And that is bad for Senegal and also for the country to which they migrate.
- Where do you now work?
I work at the ACAF Association, a non-profit association which helps people with no resources to self-finance themselves. We have adapted a collective savings model used in some countries in order to make it applicable for European countries. We encourage financial inclusion of people with little resources and poor people by working on mutual help, solidarity and saving. The project began in 2004 in Barcelona and is now present in seven more countries. We accompany people so that they can stand on their own two feet and help them strengthen their own network of people, so they can be more resilient and less vulnerable. Two weeks ago I travelled to Turkey because we were asked to apply this methodology with the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. And I went to offer two courses. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is the one financing the initiative. We coordinate the project from here and travel to Turkey to train workers there. In October we concluded a project funded by the Obra Social "la Caixa" in which we were working on energy poverty among the migrant population, and in November we began a project on social cohesion and interculturality.
- Are all the projects focused on helping migrants?
- No, not only migrants but also poor people and those with few resources. However, we have seen that 70% of the people we help are migrants. The easy answer is that they are the one with the least resources.
- What is financial inclusion?
Providing the poor with more information so that they can better manage their resources, plan their spending and therefore prevent falling into debt. Next week there is a conference at the European Parliament to talk about the subject, because legislation here is the key to our work.
- Do you think Europe is acting correctly with migrants and refugees?
- Well, at least now they have defined the refugee quotas. And I accept them. I think they are defined based on the capacity of assimilation. But that cannot make us overlook the origin of the problem. And ask ourselves how we have reached this situation. The countries which spurred on these wars are countries which later offer solutions: this is a bit hypocritical! We must investigate why people leave their country of origin and if we understand the whole picture, we can also understand many things about how migrants act here.
- Are you planning to return to Senegal?
- No. I have adapted well to life here and I feel good. It is not in my plans to return. Eight out of every ten Senegalese say they will return, but I am not one of them. I live in Molins de Rei; I even gave a speech for the town's Festa Major in 2003! I feel at home here.
- Is there anything you would like to tell migrants?
In general, I would tell them that they must be ambitious, have a positive outlook and look for the tools they need to get ahead. It is not acceptable to say "Poor me, I am a migrant and I am all alone", not at all! It is better to take little steps, one after another and things will fall into place.