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Not all immigration stories are a straight line.

Abdoulaye Baldé's journey, with steps forwards and backwards was a series of difficult life lessons. “I consider Canada to be my university,” he says.

The youngest of four, Abdoulaye grew up in Guinea-Conakry surrounded by a fiercely protective family, and deep connection to his Fulan heritage. “I’m proud, actually, to belong to that great people, known for their cardinal values of restraint, courage and honesty,” he says.

But in his community, undercurrents of division and danger were rumbling. Abdoulaye explains that the Guinea of the time, under military regime, did not prioritize human rights. So when he was 20, and participated in a protest on a university campus, he was imprisoned.

“That was where my life turned upside down.”

Abdoulaye's family immediately mobilized extract him from what was a dangerous situation that would close off his future. They combined resources, sold some land and secured a place they hoped would offer better opportunities, Canada. It was not his choice to leave, “but it was necessary,” he says.

He landed in Montreal and took a taxi directly to SARIMM ( Service d’aide aux réfugiés et aux immigrants du Montréal métropolitain.) He walked up to administration and said, “I am a refugee, I’ve come here, I don’t know where to go or to whom I should speak.”

SARIMM staff gave him some metro passes and directions to the YMCA for temporary lodging. Understanding how to navigate the city was like being sent to a different planet. “It was like having someone explain how my mission to the Moon would be,” he says.

More lessons followed as Abdoulaye learned all new skills to survive on his own. An especially dark time was when he needed an emergency appendectomy. At the hospital he listed his next of kin, his older sister, some ten thousand miles away across the ocean. He had never felt so alone.

“Well, in short… it was an experience that marked me, and that marked my time… Despite everything, I still have a heavy heart when I think back on that event, on that experience.”

But he emerged more determined than ever. He found a low-impact job at a parking both so he could work while healing. He saved, sent money home and got his drivers licence. He was desperate for an education, but his open asylum case meant he was not able to enroll in school. He taught himself as much as he could on the internet, and from the radio crackling out of a small unit in his booth.

In the government building next to his parking lot, Abdoulaye knew his claim for asylum was being examined. He realized any one of the people he let in and out of the lot could be the person who would determine his fate. When the time came to review his case in an interview, he was nervous but optimistic.

Instead of one step forward, it would be two steps back. Abdoulaye thinks it was an error he made on a date that sealed their refusal. He was told that his application for asylum was denied, and he would be deported. “It was like I was thunderstruck. It was the start of a long descent into hell, I guess you could say.”

When he lost consciousness right there in the interview room, he believes the officials must have taken it as sign that he would flee or harm himself, and that's why he was handcuffed and brought to a holding centre.

“That’s one of those expressions that change with time: from dungeon, we went to prison, then to a detention centre, then a holding centre… Prevention centre, and soon we’ll find some other way to say it. But for that man, seeing me faint, it seemed that the best thing to do was to handcuff me and read me my rights.”

He had been in Montreal for two years.

The Guinea he returned to was more open, in particular in the media and the first private radio station had just launched. Abdoulaye saw an opportunity to apply his Canadian lessons and passion for radio. He created a show called Route-Info that shared traffic updates, defensive driving tips and also investigated and reported on police comings and goings.

New connections at the station allowed him to open a small business, and he had a realization. “All these things I’ve done here, which allowed me to recreate what I had over there… Why not try to go back, despite being a deported person?” These were stepping stones back to Canada.

In 2011, Abdoulaye applied for a skilled immigrant program. This time, he was approved, and again facing a journey across the ocean towards new opportunities. He thought about the nomadic movements of his Fulan ancestors.

“My life from before, and my life after I arrived, those reminded me of the journey my ancestors, the Fula, had done when they immigrated from East to West… I had done the opposite.”

Today, Abdoulaye lives in Calgary, Alberta. He says he gained more knowledge on this winding journey than any school could have offered. “I learned more than I ever could have from a university. I consider Canada to be my university.” He carries these lessons into the future, proud to be an example of the multifacted immigration experience. “I am a specimen, a model of all you could know in terms of immigration,” he says. “Peaceful arrival, difficult returns, and then the― the difficult sendback, the easy return, and adaptation.”

“To summarize, if there was one equivalent professional education or degree for this, I’d say it was continued education, because I am still learning, and I will continue to learn.”

Abdoulaye Baldé's story is part of the Museum's Oral History collection, and also appears in Refuge Canada, our travelling exhibition now on display in Nanaimo Museum until September. Learn more about Refuge Canada's travelling schedule here >.

(Abdoulaye's interview was conducted in French and translated into English.)

A man is being interviewed on camera.

Abdoulaye Baldé shares his story as part of the Museum's Oral History program.