The Beginning Was Dim, But Abdulai Bundu’s Future At Quinnipiac And Beyond Couldn’t Be Brighter
Original Source: https://www.courant.com/sports/hc-abdulai-bundu-quinnipiac-feature-20170208-story.html
Everybody seems to have an opinion on immigration, a polarizing topic in our country and society. Quinnipiac basketball player Abdulai Bundu, however, might have a keener perspective than many. Having been born in Sierra Leone, having lived in refugee camps and having been separated from his parents for years, the 6-foot-6 forward for the Quinnipiac basketball team has escaped horror and death and reaped the benefits of immigration. His life has changed for the better. He prays laws do not become too restrictive.
“I find it unfair for families just trying to come here for a better life,” he said. “There are restrictions for certain people. I just don’t feel like it should be happening.
“To be able to do this, be here, I always thank God. I just feel like I have to take advantage of the opportunity I have because you never know when you’ll get another one.”
His first opportunity came when his parents finally got their two sons out of Sierra Leone.
The two blue-clad banners that day in 2003 stood out because the letters were written in pink. One read “Osman,” who was 14 at the time, the other banner was for “Abdulai,” 7.
Their parents, Abibatu and Mohamed Bundu, made the banners so that when the boys arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport they would know where to go. It was the only way.
They had not seen their parents, who won a lottery to leave the war-torn country, in seven years. They had only talked to them a handful of times by phone. When their parents fled the country, Abdulai was too young to have any recollection of his mother and father.
The boys also had two younger brothers, Ibraheem and Mohamed Jr., born in the United States, that they would be meeting for the first time.
“It took a lot to get them here,” Abibatu said. “We spent a lot of days and nights here crying, knowing our boys had suffered. It was very painful and is very hard to talk about to this day, but it was a part of our life. Things are much better now.”
Osman is a barber in Maryland, where the Bundus live. Mohamed, 17, is a senior and plays basketball at Largo High School. Ibraheem is 16 and a junior on the team. Abdulai is in his second year of college basketball.
He was just 11 months old when he was separated from his parents.
When Abibatu and Mohamed won the lottery in 1996 to leave the West African country, they couldn’t bring anyone else. They had to make the gut-wrenching decision to leave their boys behind and get them out later. The boys would be with family; they would live with their grandmother, Zainab Koroma, and call her mom out of a sign of respect. But leaving the boys behind was something few parents have to face.
The elder Bundus lived in Virginia initially, with Abibatu working as a nurse’s assistant and Mohamed a dishwasher. They always sought ways to bring the boys to the U.S. They would often send money home, too, even taking out loans to help support them, but the overall goal was to get Osman and Abdulai to the United States.
That process began in 1998 when Mohamed joined the Army as a means to get Osman and Abdulai with them more quickly. The family moved to Watertown, N.Y., with Mohamed stationed at Fort Drum.
The civil war in Sierra Leone, in part fueled by the country’s primary resource of diamonds, stretched from 1991 to 2002 and left 50,000 dead. Abdulai, along with his brother, grandmother and aunt, Marie Kabba, were captured and lived in refugee camps four times during the conflict after Abibatu and Mohamed left the country.
Not too long after Abibatu and Mohamed left West Africa, when Abdulai was about 1½, rebels broke into his grandmother’s home, picked him up and swore to blow his head off if she did not turn over all the valuables in the home. She did. Moments later, rebels burned down the house.
A Rough Delivery
When Abibatu was giving birth to Abdulai, she and the nurse spotted someone peeking through the window of the nurse’s home. This was wartime. There was no hospital to go to, and they had no way of knowing if the man was a rebel.
Mohamed was not there as the birth was going on. He did not have a job, but he would sell fruit for money to get food for his family. That’s where he was.
Gunfire was erupting just miles away. Abibatu was tired of pushing. The nurse was doing the best she could and promised Abibatu if it came down to it that she, the nurse and her baby were going to die together.
The man dressed in dirty, ragged black looked on. Abibatu told the nurse to ask him to come and help deliver her baby. She did not care if he was a rebel. Through tears she told the nurse, “If he is, tell him to come kill us. I am tired.”
To this day Abibatu does not know who the man was. But he helped deliver Abdulai, then left, never to be heard from again.
Abdulai, named after the prophet Muhammad, has a 3.2 grade-point average, majoring in physical therapy at Quinnipiac. On the court, he started 29 of 30 games and averaged 5.3 points and 4.1 rebounds.
“He’s a big, strong, physical player who gives you everything he’s got in every game,” Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore said. “He’s had injuries here and there and will just play through them. He’s developing on the offensive end, but he’s been a player who has contributed in many different ways for us.”
Abdulai is thankful for the chance to go to college and play basketball.
“I know a lot of people back home — if they had my opportunity — they would love to do what I’m doing right now,” Abdulai said. “I’m focused on what’s in front of me right now. This is a privilege. This isn’t something that has to happen or was given to me. It’s something that was earned and you’re working for every day.
“As far as basketball, I’m not the best player, but I want you to remember me as the kid who never stopped going, you know, he goes hard because the one thing I can control is my level of competition.”
He said he is reminded of what his mother has always told him, that if you get a good education, you can get a good job.
“I’ve always been focused on that,” Abdulai said. “I’m proud to say I’m from Sierra Leone, though. Sometimes I wear some of the garb around campus, silk material, bright and colorful, not a lot of it. I don’t want to bring a lot of attention, but it’s my culture. I know who I am and I know where I’m from. Why try to hide it?”
Abibatu, a registered nurse, and Mohamed, now a nurse practitioner since leaving the Army after eight years with a medical condition, drilled the importance of education into their boys. All of the Bundus, except Osman, are U.S. citizens.
“First thing my parents instilled was education, education, education,” Abdulai said. “All throughout elementary school, middle school and high school I’ve been on the honor roll. I think I missed one honor roll … I wasn’t allowed to do anything without the grades. If you had good grades in our house, you were all set.”
Moore wasn’t all that familiar with Abdulai’s background in Sierra Leone, but it did not take long.
“I didn’t know about the separation from his family until they came up on his official visit, and it was fascinating,” Moore said. “I’m sort of glad I heard about it from his mom and dad in person. It’s a pretty special family as a result of that and Abdulai is an appreciative kid for the opportunity. He’s appreciative of the sacrifices his parents made.
“It’s been neat to be a part of his life these last couple years because all of these kids that I have, I get them when they’re older teenagers becoming young adults, and we’re trying to polish them up and just get them ready for the real world. And their families have done most of the molding and shaping, but the neat thing about Abdulai is that I’ve noticed an appreciation for his parents’ sacrifice. As he gets closer to someday having children of his own, I can sense he gets how difficult that must have been for his parents to do with him at that age.
“There is absolutely an appreciation for his parents’ struggle. He can’t let them down. Not with the opportunities he has. The way he sees himself doing that is to excel in the classroom and carrying himself the right way.”
Andrew Delohery, an associate vice president of retention and academic success at Quinnipiac, had Bundu in a class that involved developing an opinion and being able to support it. “He’s an incredibly bright and thoughtful young man. … I think it’s safe to say we can count on him to make some significant contributions wherever he ends up landing.
“I have not seen many students who are as compassionate as Abdulai. His presence in the classroom would make other students feel more comfortable to participate.”
Adjusting To America
The week leading up to Osman and Abdulai’s arrival on Sept. 22, 2003, was filled with anxiety and excitement at the Bundu home in Maryland. Many of the nights were sleepless, Abibatu said. No one knew what to expect, but they knew all the uncertainty, the refugee camps, the brushes with death were coming to an end.
“It’s not easy for me because the family and I love my sons; they suffered at the hands of rebels,” Abibatu said, breaking down in tears. “… They suffered.”
Abdulai says he does not remember most of it, “but I know it wasn’t fun. That, I can tell you that for sure.”
As Abibatu prepared for the arrival of her sons in America, she busied herself getting the house ready, shopping for food, not knowing what they liked, and shopping for clothes, not knowing sizes. “I wasn’t sure how tall they were, but we had some pictures, so we had an idea,” she said. “It was a nervous time but also an exciting time.”
The adjustment to the U.S. was anything but easy.
For one thing, any loud sound, or even a loud clap, would rattle Abdulai for the first five or six months because he thought it was gunfire. And one day, he asked his mother a question she had to expect would come one day.
“Why did you leave us with the rebels?” Abibatu recalled. “Why did you leave us? Did you want us to die? I felt like I was going to go to my grave. I just told them that they were too young to understand, that we did everything at the time we could. It just wasn’t easy when the country was in that state of the war. It took them awhile. We asked them for forgiveness as to why we were not able to bring them. We didn’t have money. They weren’t given visas.”
Abdulai has a different view now.
“I thank them for what they did,” said Abdulai. “I have a clear understanding now of how hard it was.”
So he is thankful for his opportunities.
“He has a strong, prideful sense of who he is, who his family is and what they’ve sacrificed for him, and he puts pressure on himself to not let them down,” Moore said. “I think it manifests itself in all aspects of his life, on the court, academically and socially. I mean, socially he is very responsible and mature. He’s got, well, let’s put it this way, he’s more than holding up his end of the bargain if you have a pact with your parents as a teenager. He’s more than holding up his end.”