Born to Run: Help Issa escape poverty

- Despite abuse, neglect and malnutrition, Ba Issa from Senegal has been training as a sprinter since he was seven
 - Following his dream of becoming an Olympic athlete, he risked his life to get to Spain
 - After ten failed attempts and nearly drowning, Issa made it to the Canary Islands
- He now lives in Almeria, where he is training alone until he can obtain a legal address to join an athletics club
- Issa is seeking donations towards better-quality nutrition, the gym and other training centres, documentation to get registered for track and field so he can compete, and other equipment to improve strength and speed

MY STORY: Chasing my dream from Senegal to Spain
I was only seven years old when my father died suddenly and I had to leave my beloved mum and Senegal to live with my older half-sister in Gambia. This had been my father´s dying wish: that I should be educated in English to give me better opportunities in the future.

Although my mother and half-brothers in Senegal helped contribute to my school fees, my sister in Gambia was the final link in the chain. Unfortunately, she frequently held back funds intended for me, to benefit herself.

This meant that in addition to being malnourished at home, I only received half of my transportation fees to school, 11km away, and no school meals.

The School Run

I had always loved sprinting, so I started running either to or from school, which took me about an hour. A small loaf of bread, sometimes with beans or soup, was my food allocation for the day.

Being underfed was one of the challenges that forced me to drop out of school twice, in addition to my half-sister not paying the fees on time or making sure I had errands to run for her when I got home, so I didn´t have time or energy left to study.

I felt I didn't belong anywhere. After eight hours of school, I was treated like a slave at home, only to spend the nights thinking of my deceased father and far-away mother, crying inside and always hungry.

My mother´s sacrifice

While in Gambia, I was only able to see my mother three or four times. However, after graduation, I returned to our village in Senegal, only to find out my mother had been surviving from forest produce, picking and climbing trees for fruit, for less than five euros per 50kg bag. Not only was the forest her second home, but also her only hope to support herself, me and my two sisters.  

Determined to become an athlete


Around half of the sixteen million population of Senegal lives below the poverty line. Without family connections, there was little work available, so I spent the next three years helping my mother, and teaching a little English and sports to young people who had no way to pay me. More than 60% of the population of my country is aged under 25.

During this time, I moved around my country, studying the way of life of other young people, particularly getting to know and trying to teach disadvantaged young boys and girls from minority ethnic groups.

I knew change would never come if I stayed in Senegal. I had always dreamed of being an athlete, but aside from running every chance I got, I wasn´t given the opportunity to compete in races after primary school, or join an athletics club, due to lack of funds and my high school not being interested in sports.

Deciding ‘better late than never’, I decided to embark on a journey abroad where I might have the chance to train as a professional athlete. 

Eventually, I was able to borrow money from my family to pay some ‘agents’ (people smugglers) to help me make the dangerous trip by ocean from Africa to Europe. My mother also borrowed money and sold fruit she had picked locally to keep me going the months I was stuck in Morocco.

Ten failed attempts to cross

In August 2019 I left Dakar airport for Morocco to commence my perilous journey. It would be a full year later, on my eleventh attempt, that we were finally rescued off the coast of Gran Canaria and taken to safety.

Initially, we tried to set sail from Tangier in the north of Morocco, on the relatively calm Mediterranean Sea which leads to mainland Spain. Four times we were caught in the city of Tangier by the police, who jailed us for a night before dumping us hundreds of kilometres away at remote locations.

On four other occasions we were picked up in the water, either capsized by the huge waves of Moroccan navy boats, or being thrown ropes to grab before being pulled into the water and almost drowning. Eventually we were taken out and returned, wet and freezing, to dry land. This was their way of deterring us from trying again.

The total of eight attempts starting in Tangier lasted several months, with our agents spending hundreds of dirhams to bribe bus and taxi drivers, police officers, mafia crew and navy guards  - all to be trapped in the middle of the sea by one phone call informing the authorities: “they are heading in that direction".

After months of hunger, constantly hiding from police officers and mafia gangs day and night, we realized that leaving from Tangier wasn´t going to work, and headed instead to Laayoune, in Western Sahara bordering with southern Morocco.

Five times further on rougher seas: The Atlantic Crossing

This was a much more dangerous route - 100km to the Canary Islands, on the wilder, more unpredictable Atlantic ocean. Contrast this with the 20km distance from Tangier to mainland Spain, and you will understand why 85% of migrant deaths to Spain last year took place en route to the Canaries. A total of 45 shipwrecks in one year, with well over two thousand deaths. This was partly due to increased border controls in North Morocco, but also because of a reduction in rescue ships (source:

On our first two attempts to cross, we got lost and were picked up by the Moroccan navy. Then, on the 31st of July 2020, we set off from Laayoune, driving through deserts while hiding in car boots.

On arriving at the coast, we pumped up the Zodiac inflatable boat and set off: forty men, two women and one little girl aged seven.

However, we had hardly made any progress when the waves got terrifyingly strong. While the rough seas tossed us around, threatening to overturn our dinghy, we argued furiously about whether to turn back or risk our lives by continuing.  

We carried on.

Three nights at sea without food or water

Although we hoped to get sight of Fuerteventura the following morning, our GPS stopped working and we got utterly lost, spending an interminable three nights at sea. The high waves were terrifying, constantly threatening to capsize our boat, and we had nothing to eat or drink. The little girl came close to death.

We had almost lost hope and even the will to survive, when suddenly, close to midnight and at the peak of the highest waves, we sighted the Salvamento.

They saved our lives.

No sooner had we boarded the rescue boat,  our Zodiac capsized. They had found us just in time.

We were frozen, shaken, exhausted and confused, but crying tears of joy at our miraculous rescue.

Our ‘halfway house’ in Gran Canaria

Three hours later, we arrived at the port of Arguineguin in Gran Canaria, where we slept in tents for four nights waiting for the results of covid tests. Next, we were transferred to Tunte for our two-week quarantine. After a few days in Las Palmas, we were given temporary accommodation in Maspalomas at the Vista Flor Bungalows.  While some of my compatriots were deported back to Senegal, I was spared, perhaps due to having family on the mainland, although they can't or won't help me financially anymore.

In Gran Canaria, the Red Cross team were helpful and kind, especially Magnolia and her family, who helped me find an athletics club where I could train with a coach three times a week. This Canarian family also got me a training kit and gave me extra food when I didn’t have enough after training. I found a local language exchange online, and joined the Maspalomas group to improve my Spanish.

However, constant lockdowns as thousands more migrants poured into the island after me meant I was rarely allowed to leave my room, let alone the compound.

The only racism I experienced came from a British guy who shouted insults at us Africans while we were training, not realizing I spoke English. I kept calm but defended our group, saying we didn´t want to bother anyone.

I don´t understand how you can hate someone because of the colour of their skin or country of origin.

In late November, I was finally given permission to travel after my half-brothers living in Barcelona sent my passport and a plane ticket to the mainland. Some friends from the language exchange (English, Dutch and Canarian), collected donations to help me buy warmer clothes. So many people have been kind to me.

Unbeatable spirit

Despite the challenges I had faced during my school years, the horror of my journey from Africa to Spain, and the lack of funds for sports clubs, I never gave up my daily training, or fervent desire to be an elite athlete.

All my life, whenever I can, I sprint, setting myself increasingly challenging goals.

Using the available studies, advice from other coaches and my personal experience, I´ve formulated a program aimed to boost my 60 meters and 100 meters sprint time to faster than I have ever been.

It remains tough, both physically and mentally, to keep up without proper nutrition, coaching and resources. But I am determined.

Ghetto life

I have managed to talk with several coaches from Las Palmas, Barcelona, Almeria, and Malaga, but due to being an undocumented immigrant, my chances of being allowed to join an athletics club are slim.

First, I need documents which I can only obtain by providing a legal address – something which I cannot afford to do until there is agricultural work for migrants again.

However, I cannot afford to wait until I get my papers to pursue my athlete career, so I continue to train alone, with my dream being to qualify for the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Right now I´m sharing a room with other Senegalese migrants from near my hometown. We live in a kind of ghetto, because there are hundreds of us in this building, which we cannot give as our permanent address as it´s not legal.

Running has acted as therapy for me, as well as being my passion.  I´ve seen from my voluntary work with other young Senegalese, how sports can transform the lives of those who have nothing. 

Although my goal is to compete as a sprinter in the 2024 Paris Olympics, I will settle for competing at any level!

In the long term, I really want to support my mom, who has sacrificed everything for me.

But first, I need to make my way on my own. 

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Theresa Coe 
San Bartolomé de Tirajana
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