By Grace Davis
New York City, New York
Early in the morning on March 24, 2005, when she was sixteen years old, Adama Bah was woken by FBI agents storming her family’s house in East Harlem. The agents forced Bah out of her bed and into handcuffs. They accused her of being a potential suicide bomber, arrested her and detained her in an asylum for six and a half weeks.
The Iris had the opportunity to speak with Adama Bah, (@abah9) an immigration reform activist, food distribution and mutual aid organizer and author of her upcoming first-person account of being detained and falsely accused of terrorism, “Accused: My Story of Injustice.”
During her detainment, the FBI threatened Bah that she would be deported back to Conakry, Guinea, where she has not lived since she was two years old. Bah told The Iris that “after 9/11, a lot of innocent [and many undocumented] Muslims were accused of terrorism.”
Bah did not know she was undocumented and found out after being detained. As she said, a lot of undocumented Muslims “are not here to tell their stories because they were deported.”
The FBI released Bah from the juvenile detention center after six and a half weeks under the agreement that she would wear an ankle bracelet and adhere to a curfew and a gag order. Bah recalled that the fact that she was “never charged with anything” simply proved her innocence.
Bah was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who told her that the paperwork from the detention center that mandated her gag order “had nothing to do with” her. Bah said, “Since then, I’ve been telling my story.”
For Bah, coping with her trauma and telling her story was “not easy.” She was afraid to see a therapist. If Bah seemed angry, she could be labelled as dangerous, and she “couldn’t afford being labelled as a depressed suicide bomber.” For her, because she was not able to go to therapy, “storytelling became a healing tool.”
The FBI continued to harass Bah in the first few years after her detainment; she waited to tell her story until she was eighteen and nineteen years old. Her high school teacher David Sutcliffe, a “white man who was very angry about what happened to her,” helped Bah cope with her trauma and encouraged her to share her story. Sutcliffe is a filmmaker who wanted to help Bah, but she was “still so hesitant” to tell her story. At first, Bah thought that Sutcliffe could be “an agent posing as [her] teacher” and she “didn’t know what to believe.” Eventually, she told herself that she had “nothing to lose,” because even if Sutcliffe were an agent, allowing him into her household might make him see that she was “just a normal young girl.”
Bah shared that the more she told people about her experience, the more she “got this weight off [her] chest.” At first, she was afraid people wouldn’t believe her. After a while, she realized that it “wasn’t about whether or not they believed [her].” She was telling her story, and it was up to the listener to “decide what they wanted to do with that information.” PBS gave Bah and Sutcliffe a grant to make the documentary, “Adama,” which was released in 2011.
Bah had an offer to write a book several years ago but felt she “was not ready.” Now, her first-person book “Accused: My Story of Injustice”, written by Bah and edited by Dave Eggers, is coming out in August 2021. It will be the first installment in the “I, Witness” series, which narrates the first-person stories of individuals who have experienced trauma. Bah encourages everyone, whether it be “adults, children,” to read her book, which is “catered to children, but [she] feels some adults should read it because they need to be educated.”
Bah describes her book as being a slightly more detailed account of her story that offers more of a timeline but is still essentially the same story she has been telling for years. She reflected that the more she tells her story, the more she “remembers details” that, because they were painful or traumatic, she previously “wanted to suppress.”
In addition to authoring her first book, Bah advocates for immigration reform. She initially wanted to be involved with immigration reform “in a political aspect” but felt that “politics are such a game” and politicians “talk about reform but they’re not really about it.” Bah felt that she was “never going to be welcome in the political circle” and that the best way to empower immigrants is by “giving individual support.” Bah gives undocumented community members “all the resources they need to be documented.” She knows that immigrants in the United States have diverse experiences because of “mixed status,” or mixed immigration statuses in the same household; Bah and her mother and father were the only ones in their family who were undocumented, as opposed to her siblings who were already citizens at the time of her detainment. Now, Bah’s children and husband are American citizens, while she is a green card holder.
Knowing that the U.S. government often “does not address mixed status,” Bah works to help all immigrants of different statuses. She does all she can to “support undocumented families and give them the resources they need to be legal.” Bah stated that the “ripple effect of supporting people” is “how we can cause change.”
One of the main resources Bah provides to immigrant families is food. She began conducting food distributions before COVID-19 hit NYC, but “not at the scale” that she is doing pandemic food distributions. As Bah said, “when COVID hit, there were mutual aids all around the city,” but a lot of her undocumented community members who lost their jobs “do not qualify for any benefits,” such as “food stamps or WIC [Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children]”.
In Bah’s words, “COVID exposed food insecurity [in this country and specifically in New York City].” She said that President Donald Trump incited fear in undocumented people and immigrants “to the point that they were afraid to ask for basic necessities, even food and medical care.” Bah recalled that some undocumented individuals were afraid that if they went outside, they could “get stopped by a police officer and have to show their status—then they would get arrested and deported.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, one person in need of food reached out to Bah, and she helped. Bah explained that “of course the word spread that ‘Adama has food,’” and she began doing food distributions in her community. She started with “six to twenty boxes for six to twenty families.” Now, Bah and her team serve 40 families and use the USDA COVID-19 relief truck to transport the food. They distribute food throughout the five boroughs to “communities that are really vulnerable.”
Vulnerable and marginalized communities, Bah says, are the ones that will be targeted if the United States passes new domestic terrorism laws. Bah has a different perspective from those who wanted to “pass domestic terrorism laws after the white supremacists stormed the capitol.”
Bah has observed a trend in which after any terrorist attack in the US, such as 9/11, “all of the sudden people come up with new laws and new regulations.” In her words, “we already have terrorism laws; it’s just a matter of applying them.” In addition, this country already has numerous laws to charge those who attacked the capitol: Bah said “burglary, threatening, trespassing a federal building… I can name a hundred laws they broke, and I’m not even a cop or a lawyer.”
Bah wrote an opinion piece and was interviewed for the New York Times about why we shouldn’t call the capitol rioters “terrorists”. Her belief is that new immigration laws could end up targeting innocent Black and brown people. She explained that new laws will just enable “all the excuses in the world of not charging these white supremacists, and letting them get away with the hate crimes that they have committed.”
Bah was “very upset” by the idea of new terrorist laws because she has suffered under laws such as the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act allows the U.S. government to “charge anybody for any terrorist act” they committed—or in Bah’s case, did not commit. Bah’s biggest fear is that “Black Lives Matter protesters or those protesting for equal rights will be targeted” by new laws.
Bah noted that there is a “history in this country that when something bad happens, we always attack minorities who had nothing to do with it.”
“We only look at the victims that actually died, and the ones that were left behind but [fail to] address those that were targeted after the event. I don’t want to [disrespect] the victims of 9/11, but I also became a victim,” she said.
Bah said, “I think we all come from the same culture…storytelling is how we know our history; how we know who we are.” You can learn more about Adama Bah’s story by pre-ordering her debut book, Accused: My Story of Injustice, today.