Sunday, 15 July 2007

The Gambian Godfather

by Hakeem Babalola

In the early 90's shortly after the collapse of communism, Africans started exploring another part of the world in order to experiment whether the Central Europe would become another haven just like the Western Europe where majority of Africans considered as their second home. Among these explorers were Steve Aboaba and Mufutau Hassan. These two men wanted to remain in Hungary but Foreigners' Police Office wouldn't renew their residence permit, even though both had reasons to stay. Aboaba had Hungarian wife, a daughter and a job. Hassan was then an expectant father and an athlete. But they were told to leave the country.

The two men's plight seemed impossible to resolve until one man came to their aid. Like almost every African living in Hungary they turned to the man who is known across Hungary's vibrant African community as a fighter for their rights. But who is this man? He is Mr. Deen. (That is what they call him). He is a Gambian, who is now Hungarian citizen, but prefers African. One can describe him as the godfather with passion for helping people though some see him as a show father who loves blowing his own trumpet. Today, although Aboaba has left the country, Hassan is now a naturalized Hungarian, living with his Hungarian wife and children.

Unlike most godfathers, this one is not rich, he does not wear ostentatious clothes or jewelry, and he does not kill or inspire violence. Instead he is a fighter for human rights, which is why he founded the Mahatma Gandhi Human Rights Movements in 1992 with the aim of fighting injustice, integrating with Hungarians and promoting African culture. Gibril Deen, who turned 60 on February 17, is also the organizer and team manager of Afrikai Star Football Club.

Stocky in build with an imposing presence, Deen left the shore of Africa when many of us here were either in primary or secondary school, or not even born yet. He came to Hungary to study history and political science, and later printing and graphics arts. Like most of his contemporaries, he stayed after completing his studies. He then attended courses on trade unionism and sport management. "I've devoted all of my life to human rights activities and I'll fight for anyone," he says.

And he had fought many of those battles especially in the early 90's when things were rough for Africans living here. For instance, he secured the release of Austin, a Nigerian imprisoned for drug related offenses. "Mr. Deen is a superman," says Austin who is now in Canada. "He did everything possible to get me out. May God bless him."

The godfather's citywide web of contracts had also helped students obtain scholarships that allow them to stay in the country. Abubakar Toure, a Liberian, whose parents were reportedly killed in that country's civil war, describes Deen as a good man. "When all hopes seemed lost, he secured a scholarship for me. I will never forget him."

Although skinhead attacks are not heard of these days, the Mahatma Gandhi Movement was formed partly to combat discrimination by some disgruntled youths as well as official discrimination against Africans living in Hungary. "In the 90's, political freedom encouraged the growth of racism and helped trigger skinhead attacks," says Deen. "They waged war against us and we had to defend ourselves by peaceful means. We are living here, working here, we have family here, and we have been given permission to stay. But the nationalistic thinkers want to drive us away."

According to Deen, more than four hundred African students left Hungary in 1992 because of racist attacks. "Under communism it was safe for everyone to walk the streets, whatever their colour. During the 70's nobody disturbed you or asked what you were doing here. People were sympathetic and friendly in those days, although even now most people still are. But integration into Hungarian society is not easy because of the language, and partly because many Hungarians still find it difficult to accept foreigners in their midst."

Deen says police prejudice against Africans is still there. Not even the godfather could escape police brutality. He once stayed two days in police custody because he did not carry his identity card with him. Deen also cites the case of a Nigerian who was reportedly beaten with truncheons and planks and kicked until he lost consciousness by two police officers at a detention camp. However, the godfather admits some Africans engage in criminal activities, but he believes this does not warrant such hypothetical reasoning that all Africans living in Hungary are the same.

The courts offer no relief. "Judges don't judge things right," says Deen. The godfather also frowns at the way the Interior Ministry treats cases involving Africans married to Hungarian women. "They don't respect intermarriage that much," he says, adding that police seldom answer court summons in such cases. "In fact, the foreigners' law is still difficult for many foreigners to understand. Hence they should always seek legal advice."

Although Deen has helped asylum seekers from Africa and Middle East secure refugee status, he claims many Hungarians "see us as economic refugees", who should go back to their different countries. Even with refugee status, "you're treated as a second class citizen". Deen thinks their prejudice stems from ignorance. He argues that most Hungarians have not met African intellectuals, so they don't really know us that much. Another reason, according to him, is because of the negative reports on Africa. "It definitely takes a strong mind not to be swayed by constant false portrayal of Africa by the Western media."

Unemployment is one of many problems confronting Africans in Hungary. Deen says it's difficult for Africans to secure a reasonable job. Even if Africans find a position, "we would be the first to go in case of redundancy." Although he believes everybody has a future, Deen doesn't see that future for Africans who wants to work in Hungary. "Language," he says, "is number one predicament." He suggests that new African immigrants should "learn the language as quickly as possible."

As a result of unemployment, many Africans have resorted to self-employment, raging from forming their own Human Rights Organisations to selling in the market to having their own shops to forming musical bands. Perhaps it was unemployment problems that prompted Deen to establish Afrikai Star Football Club in 1994. However, one thing is certain: He strongly believes sports and football in particular, is a great way to bring interpersonal awareness. The Afrikai Star Football Club represented Hungary in FIFA's Fair Play Football Against Racism in Europe, which took place in Italy recently. "But unfortunately many Hungarians do not like the fact that Africans are representing Hungary in such competitions," he says with a little grimace.

Although Deen is admired and respected by some, others dislike him for blowing his own trumpet. Biodun Alabi, a pharmacist and former member of Afrikai Star Football Club, says Deen talks too much but sees him as an interesting, responsible and a Saviour. "If Mr. Deen helps you, hundreds of people will know.”

Williams Ejalu, a legal practitioner, agrees with such accusation. He describes Deen as an elderly that should be respected, but unfortunately he seems to always chew more than he could swallow. "He is fond of boasting that, he had helped every African in Hungary,” adding that such behaviour is not a characteristic of elderly person.

While some of his associates see his self-promotion as a fault, Deen sees it as a virtue. "They say I talk too much, but they don't know it is part of my job," he asserts. The godfather does not deny his love of publicity. "They use me. They gain from me. Even they once accused me of embezzlement, yet they want me to keep quiet. The problem is African man doesn’t want another to progress. That is our problem. If they can't thank me, they should leave me in peace."

It does not end there, as some even accused him of being naive. They alleged that Deen often allowed himself to be used by those involved in shady business like human trafficking. "Many have exploited him," says Godwin Njoku, an English teacher cum Human Rights activist. "Deen works a lot and does his job with good heart but can’t keep a client’s secret."

It’s certain the godfather is now guiding against his name being dragged into the mud. "Deen has done his best, and is now protecting his name," says Peter Ihaza, Nigerian Union President, adding that if Deen suspects someone is up to something shady, he’s most likely avoid you. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, they say. Maybe that's the price this man has to pay for caring about the plight of fellow immigrants in a foreign country.

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