Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Algassimu Bah, March 17, 2019

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:01 - Introduction

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Partial Transcript: My name is Isatu Kallon and I am interviewing today Algassimu Bah.

Segment Synopsis: Bah describes that he was born in Liberia and grew up during the country's civil war. He describes moving from Liberia to the United States when he was 11 years old, in 1998. They moved to Gambia before arriving in Michigan in 1999.

Keywords: Gambia; Immigration journey; Liberia; Liberian Civil War (1989-1997); Michigan; Refugees; Second Liberian Civil War (1999-2003)

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants

00:01:46 - Living in Liberia

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Partial Transcript: So what were the condition in the country when you left?

Segment Synopsis: Bah describes the violence and lawlessness in Liberia during the civil war when he was a child. His family lived in Gambia for a year where he attended school and got settled, anticipating that they would soon immigrate to the United States. His father had immigrated to the United States in 1996 or 1997 and was able to prepare for the rest of the family's arrival. Bah immigrated with his mother, older brother and younger sister, traveling by airplane from Gambia to Senegal to the United States.

Keywords: Chain migration; Gambia; Immigration journey; Liberian Civil War (1989-1997); Refugees; Second Liberian Civil War (1999-2003); Senegal

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants; Liberia

GPS: Liberia
Map Coordinates: 6.335445, -9.441391
00:04:59 - First impression upon arriving to the United States

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Partial Transcript: So how did other people treated you when they knew you guys were travelling to America?

Segment Synopsis: Bah recalls that people in Gambia treated his family kindly. He remembers his first impression of arrival in New York City and eating KFC, which he loved. His family came to Philadelphia and again everyone treated the family well. He quickly learned that he needed to speak English rather than his native language, Fula. He recalls how different it was not hearing the Muslim call to prayer or seeing mosques on every corner. But he observes that children are all the same in each country.

Keywords: First impressions; Fula (Language); Immigration journey; Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC); Language acquisition; Mosques; Muslim call to prayer; New York City (N.Y.)

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Gambia; Immigrants; Philadelphia (Pa.)

00:07:56 - Educational differences / Expectations of and reactions to the United States

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Partial Transcript: So education-wise, how was--like, how did the kids treated you at school?

Segment Synopsis: Bah recalls that when he began school in Michigan after moving from Philadelphia he was the first African kid in his middle school, so he kept quiet and did not run into any trouble. When in Africa, he imagined the United States would be like heaven with money growing on trees. In Michigan it first snowed in October, and he had never seen snow in his life or experienced such cold. Bah has few memories of school in Liberia as he only attended elementary school, but notes that parents beat children for poor grades; there they had to stand in the school assembly and say prayers before going to class. He remembers the school in Michigan as very big, with students having their own lockers, rather than students staying in one room all day as they did in Liberia. He has attended middle and high school in the United States and attended Michigan State University studying Media Arts, interning at a TV station. Soccer and wrestling are other hobbies he enjoys.

Keywords: African; Education; Liberia; Media arts; Michigan State Spartans; Scholarships; Soccer; Sports; Teachers

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants; Michigan State University; Philadelphia (Pa.)

00:20:52 - Current job

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Partial Transcript: So, um, where do you work right--presently?

Segment Synopsis: Bah describes the kinds of work he has done in Austin, Texas, including as a coach, substitute teacher, and currently as a firefighter in Manor, Texas. He talks about how much he loves helping other people, and shares that he volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. When he was younger, he was in the national society so he always wanted to be a firefighter. He likes teaching and helping the community. He says that he likes the hours at his work as a firefighter; 24 hours of work and 48 hours off, which gives him plenty of time for other pursuits. How much work he did at the fire station will determine what he does on his day off. If they had more fire calls at work, he will just stay home on his day off and sleep, but if they had fewer calls, he will assist with coaching at the school, or playing soccer.

Keywords: Austin (Tex.); Austin, Texas; Coaches; Community; Firefighters; Habitat for Humanity; Manor (Tex.); Manor, Texas; Michigan State University; Occupations; Referees; Soccer; Substitute teachers; Volunteers

Subjects: Austin (Tex.); Employment; Fire fighters; Immigrants; Occupations

00:24:31 - Community and neighborhood

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Partial Transcript: Describe your neighborhood where you live.

Segment Synopsis: Bah says that since he moved to Texas, he has been living in the same area/neighborhood. Next to his two-bedroom house is a police station, which makes him feel safe. He likes the quiet of central Austin because when he comes home from work, he needs a quiet place to go to sleep. He says he talks to his neighbors once in a while. He shares that he has made friends with a neighbor from Spain who shares his love of soccer.

Keywords: Austin, Texas; Neighbors; Police stations; Soccer; Spain; World Cup

Subjects: Austin (Tex.); Community; Immigrants

00:26:20 - Hopes and dreams / Religion

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Partial Transcript: So what are some of your hopes and dreams in the future?

Segment Synopsis: Bah shares that he aspires to be promoted within the ranks of firefighters, as there are different positions including captain, or lieutenant, which he hopes to be in the next ten years. He also thinks about owning his own business or moving back to Africa if possible. He talks about how important his Islamic religion is in his life. He reports that he fasts during Ramadan and prays his five daily prayers, except if he is fighting fires, and goes to the mosque every Friday.

Keywords: Fasting; Firefighters; Islam; Mosques; Muslim; Prayers; Ramadan; Religion

Subjects: Austin (Tex.); Employment; Fire fighters; Immigrants; Occupations; Religion

00:28:51 - Relationship with his family

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Partial Transcript: So describe your relationship with your family.

Segment Synopsis: Bah describes his relationship with his family is as close. After the family moved to Michigan, his older brother moved to Texas and he and the rest of his family followed. It takes him three hours to travel to where his mother lives and he visits her often. During the interview, he is in Philadelphia visiting family and friends.

Keywords: Detroit, Michigan; Texas

Subjects: Austin (Tex.); Detroit (Mich.); Families.; Immigrants; Philadelphia (Pa.)

00:30:22 - Muslim holidays and ritual celebrations

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Partial Transcript: So what holidays do you celebrate?

Segment Synopsis: Although Bah states that there are not many holidays in the Muslim religion, he goes on to describe Eid Mubarak, the Muslim holiday that is celebrated after breaking the fasting during Ramadan. During this time is when everyone comes together to cook, eat, and celebrate. He compares it to the American holiday of Thanksgiving. He says that for Eid, everyone calls or sees family members who they haven't seen in a long time. He explains that he fasts during Ramadan from sunset to sundown, which is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The pillars are fasting, believing in God, prayers, going to Mecca and Zak-at, and donating to charity. He discusses that he has done four of the five pillars and that going to Mecca is the only one he has left.

Keywords: Christianity; Eid Mubarak; Fasting; Mecca; Muslims; Pillars of Islam; Ramadan; Religion; Zak-at

Subjects: Immigrants; Religion

GPS: Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where Bah hopes to go for Hajj.
Map Coordinates: 21.410319, 39.859569
00:33:28 - Feelings about the United States / African food

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Partial Transcript: So looking back, how do you feel about the United States? Do you regret it or no--

Segment Synopsis: Bah states that coming to the United States was the best thing that ever happened to him. Although he laughs and says he was joking, he said coming here has opened new doors and opportunities. He does not know what would have happened if he had not immigrated. He describes some African food, but says that he is not the perfect cook. He lists several African foods, including cassava leaf, potato leaf, and peanut butter stew, which he knows how to cook. His mom sometimes cooks for him when she comes to visit, and his brother’s wife cooks African dishes as well. He jokes that he is ready to get married so his wife can cook African cuisine.

Keywords: Cassava leaf; Hakor bantara; Hakor putteh; Jollof rice; Mafeh Tiger; Peanut butter soup; Potato leaf; Senegal

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Food habits; Immigrants

00:36:32 - United States citizenship

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Partial Transcript: So are you a U.S citizen?

Segment Synopsis: Bah talks about how he became a citizen in either 2007 or 2008. His family arrived with a visa that his father obtained because he worked for the United States Embassy. Then his father helped the rest of the family come here to the United States. After they arrived, they went through the process of naturalization in which he took a test to become a citizen.

Keywords: American Embassy; Citizenship; Liberia; Naturalization; Visa

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants

00:37:41 - Challenges in the first six months in the U.S.

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Partial Transcript: So what challenges did you face in the first six months?

Segment Synopsis: Bah says that the primary challenge upon immigrating was the weather, which was already cold once he arrived in Michigan. He had to acquire snow boots and a heavy jacket. Another challenge was the lack of fresh African foods. His mom bought the ingredients, but it did not taste the same because it was not fresh. In Detroit where he grew up, kids misbehaved and did not get beaten up, in contrast to back home where the teachers hit students if they misbehaved. As a soccer lover, he was surprised that in Michigan people played soccer and other sports inside homes because it was too cold outside. He was surprised by taking a school bus. The way houses were built in the U.S. is different than Liberia.

Keywords: African cuisine; Detroit, Michigan; Liberia; Michigan; New York; School buses; Soccer; Weather

Subjects: Detroit (Mich.); Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants

00:42:25 - Advice and solving problems / Comparing Detroit, Michigan and Liberia

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Partial Transcript: So who do you go to for advice and solving problems?

Segment Synopsis: Bah describes that when he moved here, he went to his dad for advice or his teachers since they have been here longer and they knew more about the culture than he did. He said in Detroit most of the kids in the school were black so there was less discrimination, except when they asked to copy his homework and he refused, then they called him “African booty scratcher." He adapted to the name calling and didn't get into fights. He comments on how in the United States he had to do homework after school, and could not run around and play soccer. His father gave him other reading to do as well, or he had to watch the news with him.

Keywords: Bullying; Detroit, Michigan; Discrimination; Harassment; Homework; Name-calling; Schools; Soccer

Subjects: Detroit (Mich.); Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants

00:46:55 - Cultural adaptation and lifestyle changes

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Partial Transcript: So what lifestyle changes have you made since you came to the U.S.?

Segment Synopsis: Bah says he learned to adapt with school and kids in school because they did things differently. In Detroit, he ate in the cafeteria. In contrast, in Liberia children bought food in the street or people came to the school’s fence to sell food. Here, he eats at the table rather than on the ground. He also changed the way he dresses. When driving here you needed to be careful he said, and do not argue with the cops. He observes that some of these changes are because he has grown up, not necessarily related to emigrating from Liberia to the United States.

Keywords: Adaptation; Assimilation; Culture; Detroit, Michigan; Liberia; Police; Schools; Teachers

Subjects: Detroit (Mich.); Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants

00:48:30 - Cultural differences

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Partial Transcript: Which place have you found that reminds you most of your home country?

Segment Synopsis: Bah reminisces that Philadelphia and New York reminded him of home in Liberia because of the way the houses are built closer to each other and how people come out to play outside, as compared to Texas where the houses are far apart from each other. He has been to Philadelphia visiting family and friends, and when he first arrived to the U.S. He said the hardest thing for him to get used to was the weather. The summer in Texas is way too hot for him, but that reminds him of Africa.

Keywords: Adaptation; America; Assimilation; Culture; Food; New York; Schools; Sports; Texas

Subjects: Austin (Tex.); Detroit (Mich.); Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants

GPS: Austin (Tex.)
Map Coordinates: 30.273938, -97.742510
00:52:11 - Speaking with an accent / Thoughts on returning to Africa

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Partial Transcript: And to get used to, I guess the people.

Segment Synopsis: Bah talks about the challenges he has experienced when native born Americans can't understand him due to his accent. Bah says he did not care, because he was there to get an education and avoided getting in fights. He recalls "embarrassing" classmates who made fun of his accent by excelling at soccer and running faster than them. He again discusses the weather, both the cold in Michigan and the heat in Texas, not liking either. His final complaint is traffic and the increase in toll roads. He then reflects on why he might in the future want to move to Liberia, perhaps when he retires, if Liberia is in a more stable state.

Keywords: Adaptation; African culture; Assimilation; Culture; Education; English language; Michigan State University; Soccer; Traffic

Subjects: Austin (Tex.); Detroit (Mich.); Emigration and immigration.; Immigrants

00:58:06 - Involvement with the African Student Union at Michigan State University

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Partial Transcript: Is there anything else you would like to share that I haven't asked you already?

Segment Synopsis: Bah closes by praising the Spartans of Michigan State University, and mentions being involved with the African Student Union (ASU). In high school he hung out with African American friends, but in college he began hanging out with African students and started dressing like an African. He enjoyed college by being active with international students and playing sports. He notes that there were many Nigerian students. He discusses the events the ASU held at MSU, including eating African foods, having fashion shows, and hosting a gala.

Keywords: African Student Union; African culture; College life; Ghana; Michigan State University; Nigeria

Subjects: College environment; College students--Social conditions; Detroit (Mich.); Education; Emigration and immigration.; Immigrants; Universities and colleges.

GPS: Michigan State University
Map Coordinates: 42.701895, -84.482075