A place where Muslim migrants arrived in Europe en masse – and integrated

Part 4 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.'

Borja Suarez/Reuters/File
A rescue worker aids a migrant, who is part of a group of 45 intercepted aboard a makeshift boat around 60 miles off the coast, upon arriving at Arguineguin port in the Canary Island of Gran Canaria, Spain, in January.

Two-year-old Amadou Oury zooms around his living room in La Perdoma, just narrowly missing the bookshelf where the photo of a young girl's First Communion sits upright. But the photo isn't of his sister. It’s the daughter of one of his father’s Spanish co-workers and sits nestled among other trinkets and Oury family photos.

Amadou and his parents are Muslim, and since his father, Algasim Diallo, arrived in the Canary Islands in 2007 from Guinea, the family has been learning to embrace the diversity of the island.

"I don't have a problem with how other people live,” says the soft-spoken Mr. Diallo. “I respect it."

The Diallo family is part of a growing number of Muslims in the Canary Islands who are learning to integrate into European life as the continent attempts to navigate the biggest wave of migration since World War II. While the rest of Europe attempts to meet its migration challenges, the Canary Islands are a decade past their own migration crisis. As they continue to integrate religious and cultural minorities with increasing success, the islands serve as a positive story within an often bleak European migration narrative.

The president of the Muslim Community on Tenerife, Mohamed Mohamed, says that while Roman Catholics still count for around 80 percent of the population, there are no problems with how Muslims are received.

“It’s marvelous, Muslims are truly integrated here,” says Mr. Mohamed. “There really is a rich mix of religions and cultures.”

The Western African route

The Canary Islands have a long history of immigration that dates back to the Spanish conquest in the 15th century, with large numbers emigrating and returning to the islands over the centuries, to and from Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The original inhabitants are thought to be related to indigenous Berbers from nearby Morocco.

But it wasn’t until 2006 that the islands saw large-scale migration akin to what the rest of Europe is experiencing today. In 2006, Spain and the Canary Islands together received more than 600,000 migrants. And in the last decade, upwards of 60,000 people arrived in the Canary Islands via the Western African sea route – once the busiest entry point into Europe – in search of a better life.

While the period between 2006 and 2008 saw about 50,000 people arrive on the seven islands via the Western African route, by 2010 those numbers had dwindled to 200. In 2015, more than 850 people braved the Western African route again. Most, like Diallo, arrived in medium-sized fishing boats called pateras to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

While a massive effort was made to either send undocumented migrants home or redistribute them to other parts of the Spanish mainland, a significant portion – like Diallo – chose to stay.

This lack of saturation meant that after the initial crisis passed, Tenerife was able to offer adequate services and aid in integration, says Vicente Manuel Zapata Hernández, a professor of human geography at the Universidad de La Laguna and the director of the Immigration Observatory of Tenerife.

“A significant amount of migrants did not remain on the island,” says Mr. Zapata. “So the people who actually stayed permanently in the region were integrated successfully into Canary society.”

'A very unique situation'

La Perdoma is a humble town in the hillsides of Tenerife and home to an aging farming community. This is where Diallo lives with his wife and son, along with Salim Sajna, an outgoing young man from Senegal. Down the street is Guachinche Lala, a local restaurant that serves wine from the nearby vineyards and dishes like roasted pork. The guachinche (traditional restaurant) is owned by sisters Herminia and Lala Luis, who have become surrogate mothers to Diallo and Sajna, giving them work in the kitchen and renting out apartments to them. Recently, Sajna celebrated his birthday at the restaurant.

“They’re great guys, so caring," says Herminia. "There's never any problem with them.”

Most say similar things about the Muslim population on Tenerife, the largest island in the Canaries. Down the hill in Puerto de la Cruz, a nondescript shopping street – where Semana Santa processions marched ahead of the Easter holidays– gives way to the only mosque in the north of the island. Despite its lack of turrets, the prayer space, which glitters with brightly colored mosaics, can hold up to 100 people. Observers pass in and out of the mosque’s doors without the slightest glance from neighbors and residents.

The Canary Islands’ current openness to new cultures stems not only from its long history of emigration and immigration between Europe and the Americas, but also from its intense tourism business. Tourism to the islands – whose total population equals just over 2 million – bring in more than 12 million people from around the world each year. In addition, relations with Africa have increased in recent years, bringing with it a broader acceptance of new cultures and religions.

“In my point of view, this has caused a very unique situation in regards to migration flows,” says Zapata, “whether we’re talking about emigrants or immigrants.”

While the influx of migrants a decade ago came at a time of economic prosperity for Spain – the country boasted budget surpluses of 2 percent in 2006 and 2007 – today it faces highly different prospects. While Spain is one of the rare countries in Europe that has not seen an anti-migrant populist party take root, it has experienced a massive spike in joblessness. The mainland has a 22 percent unemployment rate, while there is nearly 29 percent unemployment in the Canary Islands.

Aaron Lorenzo Gonzalez, whose family has given Diallo and Sajna work in construction and picking avocados, says this could be a reason why – despite a relative openness – part of the island population has called for a closing of the doors to immigrants.

“There are really two mentalities here in terms of immigration, those on the right and those on the left,” says Mr. Lorenzo, who adds that for many years, the island’s primary newspaper, El Dia, used anti-immigrant rhetoric. “Some people have said that migrants are stealing our work. But I think this land is no more mine than theirs.”

'Not a problem, but a circumstance'

Accepting new cultures goes both ways. While small communities on Tenerife like La Perdoma have had to adapt to the presence of new faces and cultures, Diallo and Sajna have worked to maintain their religious and cultural identity in their new European homes. Diallo does weekend work for Lorenzo’s uncle, who is openly gay and married to a man – something he couldn’t have imagined back home in Guinea.

“I know that he is [gay] but we don’t talk about it,” says Diallo. “It doesn’t bother me. I’m here thanks to him.”

He and Sajna must also navigate the social challenges of life in Tenerife, where ordering plates of pork-based dishes to share, plus beer or wine, and wearing skimpy beach attire are often the norm. Sajna says that when he goes out with his Spanish friends, he has to stick strong to his beliefs.

“My friends are respectful of my religion but they tease me,” he says. "They say, 'you can’t drink alcohol but you can have four wives.'"

Despite their integration into Spanish life, both Sajna and Diallo chose to go back to their home countries to get married. Diallo’s wife, Haussainatou, arrived two years ago and soon after, Amadou Oury was born.

Sajna got married last year to a woman in Senegal and is waiting to bring her to Europe. “It’s not that I don’t like Spanish girls, but I preferred to go back to Senegal to find my wife,” he says.

As Europe’s migration crisis threatens to push people to take new routes to reach the continent, there is always the possibility that the Canary Islands will once again become a prime destination for those seeking better jobs or security. The regional government on Tenerife says that if this should happen, it will be prepared, but that it's careful about how it addresses the issue.

“We don’t use the word ‘battle’ when discussing immigration,” says Carmen Acosta, director-general of social policies and immigration within the Canary Islands' regional government. “We don’t think of immigration as a problem but instead as a circumstance.”

'I'm happy here'

For Sajna and Diallo, this is good news as they look to create their lives here, finding a balance between their upbringings and all that they are learning in Spain – like the language. Because they speak different dialects, the pair communicates in Spanish. “When I’m older, I want to go back to Guinea,” says Diallo. “But for now, I’m happy here.”

Sajna also thinks about going back to Senegal one day but says it’s “whatever God wants.” For now, he’ll continue working, earning money for his family back home and playing on the local soccer team.

As night falls in La Perdoma, Diallo stays in to eat with his family, while Sajna heads into the street, calling hello to the owners of the nearby Scorpio Cafe before popping in for chat and out of sight.

This was part 4 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.

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