My Friend, Abu Bhakar: A Refugee Story

We are living in difficult times. Polarizing times. Times that would seek to divide us instead of unite. The words ‘refugee’ and ‘immigrant’ have been buzz words in the news lately. It’s probably no secret, based on the work that I do and the people that I share my life with, that both of these words carry a lot of weight to me. Most of the time I don’t say too much because I don’t want my voice to be one that merely adds to the noise and brings division. So I find myself asking the question: How can I add to the conversation constructively? And the best thing I can think to do is to tell stories. . .

In 2005 I was living in Madrid, Spain. One Sunday morning I was sitting in Bible Study at my Spanish-speaking church when one of the ushers came and called me out of the room. “We need your help,” he said. “A man has arrived who only speaks English, and we need a translator.”

On any other day, they wouldn’t have called for me. Both of the pastors at the church spoke English as well as the piano player in the worship band – but for some serendipitous reason, none of them were there that day. So as the only English speaker available, I was led to the back of the church where a tall African man sat. His humongous hand gently engulfed mine as he introduced himself as Abu Bhakar.

He had a kind and innocent face and through our conversation I learned that he had arrived by boat to southern Spain. A volunteer who had received him at his point of entry had given him a piece of paper with the name of our church. She’d told him, “When you’re transferred to the refugee center in Madrid, find this church. They will help you.”

Abu Bhakar told us how cold he was in the refugee center so the first thing we did was help him to find a winter coat from the church’s clothing donation box – quite a challenge as he was much taller than your average madrileno! Over the next weeks, I served as his translator during our worship services. My husband, Estith (my boyfriend at the time) and I forged a friendship with him. One day we invited him to eat lunch with us at Burger King. I’ll never forget how he took the tiniest, slowest bites of his sandwich and fries and ended up wrapping up more than half of them to eat later. I’ll never forget how he described the horrors that had caused him to leave his war-torn homeland behind. The horrors of the over-crowded boat he came in where mothers had dead infants wrenched from their arms to avoid the spread of illness. I’ll never forget him describing his worries for the grandmother he’d left behind, wondering who would provide for her, and then the look of sheer joy on his face when we took him to a locutorio, a Spanish call center, so he could let her know he was safe.

A few weeks later, we took him on another adventure. In the newspaper, I’d read about Burrolandia, a place for “retired” donkeys to spend their last days after years of hard labor and often brutal treatment. I have always loved donkeys, and I was determined to go. So one day after church, Estith, Abu Bhakar and I set out for Burrolandia. We made the trip by bus and were dropped off in a remote area where the three of us walked a dusty road in search of donkeys. We were a most unlikely crew – the tall, dark-skinned Sierra Leonian, the long, dark-haired Colombian and the blonde-haired, blue-eyed American.

We spent the day petting old, mistreated donkeys and taking pictures with them. We sent Abu Bhakar back to the refugee center with a bar of soap made with donkey milk. He said it was one of the happiest days of his life. Judging by his smile in the pictures, I believe it was true.

After a time, we didn’t see Abu Bhakar again. He stopped coming to the church, and I wondered what had happened to him. The question lingered months later after I’d moved back to the states to begin the process of getting Estith a fiance visa – a process that would take nine months.

Then one day Estith called me with excitement in his voice. He said that he’d received a call from Abu Bhakar. He wanted to let us know that he had been transferred to another refugee center in the southern part of Spain. The weather was much warmer there and more like his homeland. He said he just wanted us to know that he was safe and doing well.

As I type those words, I can feel the tears stinging my eyes. That call meant the world to me. I was filled with so much joy to know that Abu Bhakar was okay and to know how much it mattered to him to let us know that. That was the last we ever heard from him. I have no idea where he is today.

I hope that he was able to carve out a life for himself in Spain. I hope that he was able to find a way to achieve his goal of financially assisting his grandmother. I have so many hopes for Abu Bhakar, and I will never know if they were fulfilled.

What I do know is that the word “refugee” is more than a buzz word to me. It’s a word that describes a real person with whom I laughed, shared meals and had a crazy donkey adventure. It’s a word that describes someone I will never forget.

That’s why in these difficult times I will do one of the only things I know how to do . . .  I will keep telling stories.

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