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For a brief moment, the tragic demise of a Gambian immigrant named Bakary Darboe was big news.
On February 2, he was murdered in his Bronx apartment building in the Melrose neighborhood under circumstances so horrific that the Daily News shouted from its front page: “MUSCLE MADMAN: Elevator Opens and Hulking Psycho Beats to Death Innocent Dad of Six.”
In the early evening of that Thursday, Darboe, 46, was heading out to night class at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry. Realizing that he’d forgotten his wallet, he took the elevator back to his ninth-floor apartment. On the way back down, the doors opened on the seventh floor, where an addled ex-con named Junal Jordan had been shadowboxing.
Authorities allege that Jordan dragged Darboe into the hallway and beat him to death with his fists and a cellphone, a scene captured on surveillance footage. The two had no prior relationship. Jordan then fled. He was apprehended a few blocks away by police. He faces murder and manslaughter charges.
The crime hit the airwaves at the height of the debate over the White House’s “Muslim ban” executive order, but nobody much noticed that a central aspect of Darboe’s life story was applicable to our historical moment: He was a political refugee from an unstable Muslim-majority country who developed into a model citizen worthy of emulation. Bakary Darboe was the embodiment of an American ideal, a rebuke to Trumpian paranoia about the malign intentions of those fleeing the instability of the old homeland for the possibilities of the New World.
“He was one of those immigrants whose contributions to this country are underestimated,” said Lamin Drammeh, a Gambian in the Bronx who was close to Darboe. “He was an inspirational leader for us. Bakary had a love for this country. He would’ve made a better leader than Donald Trump. That is an indisputable fact.”
In 2004, Darboe, then 34, packed up and fled his home in the West African nation officially known as The Gambia, which was in the grip of the repressive rule of dictator Yahya Jammeh. Darboe, an active member of an opposition political party, was worried he was about to be arrested or killed by the government forces, which was standard procedure for anyone who was thought to pose a threat to Jammeh’s rule.
By January 2005, he reached New York with a few thousand dollars in his pocket. Living with a cousin in the Bronx, he struggled to find work until he was approved for political asylum in March 2006.
Darboe made a home for himself in the community. He was one of the founders of the Jarra Association for Cooperation and Development – many Gambians in the Bronx are from the Jarra region – and secretary general of the Gambia Islamic Center, the second-floor mosque above a dentist’s office on the Grand Concourse. He initially worked as a security guard at Whole Foods but he soon earned the educational credits to work in the health care field. He was able to bring his wife and six children over from Gambia, finding a home in the mid-rise building on East 156th Street at the corner with St. Ann’s Avenue.
“He was a very hard worker,” said Momodou Sawaneh during a Gambian Independence Day celebration at the Golden Palace banquet hall in Parkchester, struggling to be heard over the booming strains of “Senegambian” dance music. “He took care of his family. He was always smiling and he loved to debate. He didn’t keep to himself.”
Many partygoers were outraged over the failure of the legal system to keep Junal Jordan off the streets. Since the murder, Jordan’s parents and wife have come forward, claiming that they sought to have Jordan institutionalized in three separate hospitals during recent months.
“Why was he walking around on the streets in the first place?” asked Tom Gaye, a 29-year-old Gambian-American who works as a mail carrier for the US Post Office. “They knew he wasn’t stable, that he was mentally unstable. Once somebody is gone, he’s gone. If that was my family, I would freak out.”
At the time of his death, Darboe was employed as a lab technician at NYU’s Langone Medical Center while pursing advanced studies at Mercy College. On Saturdays, he traveled up to the Rosary Hill Home, a hospice in Westchester County, where he worked as a nurse’s aide, caring for those who are near death.
“With Bakary, when you met, you always got a big hug, a big smile,” said Anthony Donovan, a co-worker at Rosary Hill for eight years. “I can’t remember him in a bad mood. He had a very infectious smile.”
Donovan, an independent filmmaker, interviewed Darboe for a film about the history of anti-nuclear activism but the battery on the camera gave out after less than a minute, preventing Darboe from completing his thoughts. “Africa as a whole doesn’t need weapons of mass destruction,” Darboe said in the 2013 interview. Instead, Africa needs sound agriculture, improved education, economic assistance, and good governance “to get rid of the dictatorships.” Darboe was among those Gambians who were overjoyed at the downfall of Yahya Jammeh, who lost a democratic election at the end of 2016 and has since fled to Equatorial Guinea.
Donovan worked with Darboe for the last time on Saturday, Jan. 28, five days before Darboe’s death.
“At lunch together, we had an animated discussion of our shared concerns, about Trump’s seeming cruelty and thoughtlessness with our refugees, immigration,” Donovan recalled. “We saw the protests as positive, hopeful that democracy was coming alive. He was so grateful for this land.”
“I said, ‘Bakary, our motto is no fear and no hate – from the Left or the Right,’” Donovan continued, expressing his belief about the proper response to the Trump presidency.
“‘We have to be vigilant within ourselves. That’s our enemy, fear and hate.’ He had his big, bright smile, completely in synch and enthusiastic with that message, echoing throughout the day, ‘Yes, no fear, no hate!’”