by Conner Martinez

Bachir Bah is a Guinean refugee that spent over eight months detained in a rural New Mexico detention center before receiving asylum.

His journey to the United States began one night in December of 2016, when government officials came to his home and attempted to capture and imprison him because of his political beliefs. That was the moment he understood Guinea was no longer safe for him. Speaking out against government corruption and organizing on behalf of the government’s oppositional party, the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), had made Bachir a political target of the government. Luckily, he was able to escape the government’s raid on his home, but the events that night meant that for his own safety, he would have to leave his home country.

The first step of Bachir’s journey was to Brazil, where he spent two weeks before continuing his journey into Mexico. From there he was able to reach the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana. In 2017, Bachir walked across the bridge that leads from Tijuana into the U.S., and immediately handed himself over to the authorities. Seeking asylum from persecution in his home country, he expected to find an immediate sense of freedom when he stepped foot on U.S. soil. However, his first experience in the U.S. was not of liberation. Bachir expressed the disappointment he experienced at the border, saying, “As someone who fears persecution, hoping that arriving in America all my problems will be solved, but in the end I am put in a prison and treated like a prisoner.”

Bachir Bah

A sketch of Bachir made while in detention

He was taken into custody at the border, and then sent to San Louis, Arizona. After spending a few days in Arizona, [RM1] he was then transferred to the Cibola Country County Correctional Facility, a detention center owned by the for-profit prison corporation CoreCivic, the second largest for-profit prison group in the country. The Cibola detention center is a repurposed federal prison that had been closed down in 2016 after numerous deaths in the prison were linked to medical neglect. After changing its name from Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to CoreCivic, the prison group was then contracted by ICE to operate the Cibola detention center.

While Bachir was in Cibola, he found himself faced with an extremely difficult and stressful situation. This was his first time experiencing any form of detention, and it took him by surprise. His expectations of freedom and safety after crossing the border did not come to fruition, and instead he said he was “made to feel like a criminal” as he fought for his freedom. Just as many other refugees, the fact that he was deemed a flight risk made his continued detention possible.

The conditions in Cibola were harsh. According to Bachir, the most difficult part of being detained was “the way officers interacted with us, and the food we were served.” He said that officers in Cibola treated him as though he was a criminal, and when he would ask them to do something as easy as changing a TV channel, they would say something like, “I’m tired” or “I don’t have time.” When he tried to reason with officers by telling them his story, they told him that, “If you are not satisfied, you can go back to your home. This is America, this is our land.”

The fear of being denied asylum and sent home was difficult for Bachir. Unable to think about anything else except how to get out of detention, he often felt no motivation to go outside for recreation. There was a time in Cibola where Bachir did not go outside for three weeks. He was also unable to make contact with his family back in Guinea for six months. He was, however, able to make contact with his uncle, a U.S. citizen with a family that had been living in the country for 19 years.

Obtaining asylum in the U.S. is a difficult process, especially when it is an asylum-seeker’s first time in a new country, and they are faced with representing themselves legally. Asylum-seekers in the U.S. must be able to prove that they faced persecution in their home country due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinions. Even with a strong case, proving credible fear can be difficult. Bachir knew that facing the courts would be tough, and this stressed him out. Fortunately for him, he was able to get help from the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. “I was lucky to meet the Santa Fe Dreamers Association,” Bachir said. The Santa Fe Dreamers Project, led by director Allegra Love, helped Bachir deal with some of the stress that came with the credible fear interview, and provided him with a sense of hope.

Bachir was then able to get a lawyer’s help through the Santa Fe Dreamers Association, and win a legal case that secured him his asylum. He had been in Cibola for over eight months. Finally free to live his life without persecution, he moved to Seattle and began living with the same family that helped him while he was detained. He was then able to find work, and is now planning on going to school for nursing. “I like to help people,” Bachir said when asked why he was pursuing nursing.

Having won his asylum case, Bachir said that he feels at home in Seattle, and that he is extremely thankful for all the work done to help him gain his freedom and safety. Bachir believes strongly in the power of the work done by the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, and hopes that organizations like the Dreamers Project will continue to do as much as possible to help others dealing with the same struggle for freedom he went through. Bachir’s outlook on the future is positive, but he does recognize that if the U.S. immigration system does not change, it will put a great number of people searching for safety in danger.

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