A new hope

West Africans building lives in Steamboat Springs

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— Douda Adama stepped off the Greyhound bus in Silverthorne with the name of someone he'd never met scribbled on a piece of paper.

He'd been in America less than a week.

He walked into City Market with all his belongings and introduced himself to a man named Moussa. Adama got his name from Moussa's cousin in Senegal.

Adama is a refugee, but he did not come to America through a refugee resettlement project. He came alone, with promise that those who came before him would help him find the way.

"Moussa came from Africa, like me, and once he was just like this -- knowing no one," Adama said. "He took me to deli and bought me some food while he (finished his shift).

"I swear that I've never since my life had such good food like this."

As he ate under the fluorescent lights of the City Market deli, watching the Americans work behind the counter, the memories of all he'd been through to arrive here started to wash away.

Adama grew up in a small village in Mauritania, near the Senegal border. He was 16 when a civil war broke out between Mauritania's two ethnic groups -- the Moors (people of Arabic/Berber descent) and the black Africans -- in 1989.

The fight began when Moorish camels were seen grazing on the wrong land and the owners were killed. In Mauritania, Moors retaliated with a program of rape, genocide, maimings, seizure of land, deportations and Gestapo-style raids, Adama said.

Entire villages were rounded up and deposited in the desert without food or water. Morocco, France, Algeria and Spain sent planes to rescue the homeless Mauritanians, who were then sent to Senegal, a country most had never visited.

In total, almost 100,000 people crossed the border to Senegal.

"It was so horrible," Adama said. "I lost my whole family. Only my sister and brother are left."

The Moors went door to door killing black Africans, Adama said.

"My parents told me not to resist because they would kill me. So when they came to my house, I was quiet while they beat my father to death. I was sent to a military camp. By that time I was very tired of life.

He pauses.

"I don't want to talk about it too much, because I am so happy here."

Instead, he would rather talk about his time in America. He would rather talk about all the people who have been so nice to him since he arrived.

He remembers back to that first day in 2001, in the deli of City Market when Moussa finally got off work.

The two men walked out to Moussa's car in the parking lot.

"I couldn't believe that he could have a car," Adama said. "He told me that in America you could have these things.

"I have a strong hope for this place."

Once Adama was in Moussa's care, he was introduced to a network of Mauritanians and Senegalese who had apartments and jobs and were building a better life for themselves in America.

All send money home to their wives and children. Adama has been able to buy land in Senegal and is saving to build a four-bedroom house there for his wife, his children and his brother and sister.

Somewhere along the way, a Mauritanian discovered the jobs available in the service industry of Steamboat Springs and a pipeline opened for Africans between Silverthorne and Steamboat.

"Those first ones are not here anymore, but the ones that are here help the ones that are coming," Adama said.

Today, 17 West Africans live in Steamboat, working jobs at Wal-Mart, City Market and in hotels and restaurants.

They are not seasonal workers. They are refugees, exiled from their country with hopes of a new life and a new home.

One year ago, Adama got work authorization to take a job as a clerk at Wal-Mart in Steamboat. When his papers expired in December, he was given work authorization for one more year.

"After that, I don't know what will happen," he said.

He used to work two jobs -- one at City Market and one at Wal-Mart -- but he took time off from the grocery store to take an English class.

His English is good now from hours of watching closed-caption television with a French/English dictionary.

His native language is Fulani, the tongue of the Fula people, one of the largest tribes in Africa.

"When I first came to America, my English was so bad and people would just say 'Never mind,'" he said. "I kept asking, 'What does never mind mean?'"

Of the West Africans in Steamboat, only one has been able to become a citizen and bring his family to America.

That man, Yaya Ly, originally sold sneakers in Senegal but heard the stories of a better life in America.

Many years, many dollars and reams of red tape later, he is a United States citizen working at Yampa Valley Medical Center, doing odd jobs in the kitchen.

His wife, a tall, beautiful woman named Eissata, is the only woman in the local West African community. They live in a three-bedroom condo with four people to a room. She does not speak English.

"She gets lonely," her husband said. "But at least she has her children."

They have two sons, Aquibou and Bassirou, and she is pregnant with another. Ly has started the paperwork to send their oldest son home to Senegal to finish school.

"I want him to be able to speak English and French," Ly said. "He was doing very well in school over there and I want him to go back. He has already missed a year."

On Monday, Steamboat residents will get a chance to meet the West Africans who live here. There will be a slide show, a question-and-answer session, live music and drumming and West African food.

High school French teacher Nicole Goode and her husband, Matthew Barmann, spearheaded the evening. The couple met in Mali as Peace Corps volunteers.

"They know Africa better than me," Adama said. "I was in a very bad condition when I was there. I was just a poor boy. They traveled around the country and met ministers and important people. My memories are from the refugee camp."

As Adama and Ly settle into their new lives in America, more Africans come.

Bocar Mbodj just arrived. He doesn't have work authorization yet. He is waiting and taking English classes. He has a wife and two boys back home.

"More than anything, I want to bring my family here," he said through a translator. "It is a frustrating time for me right now. I cannot work. I cannot send money home or contribute to the household."

The process is slower for these Muslim West African men because of stricter regulations implemented after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mbodj has hope, however. Many have made it before him and if he is patient, a new life can happen for him as well.

It's a common American story.

"It's the immigrant story," Barmann said.

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