Samba Baldeh: Madison Alder, District 17

Baldeh helps fight for all people
Samba Baldeh: Madison Alder, District 17
Paulius Musteikis & Romulo Morishita
Samba Baldeh

Business owner turned politician Samba Baldeh was living in the United States nearly 18 years before he decided to run for local government. “I went into politics to fight for my people,” says Baldeh, who comes from Choya, a rural village in Gambia. In 2015, he became the first Muslim elected to the Madison City Council. “And my people are American people, my people are Muslim, my people are immigrants, my people are the city of Madison,” Baldeh says.

“Fight” is a strong word for the self-described “peaceful guy” Baldeh, but he feels he’s forced these days to actively defend the honor of his fellow immigrants, Muslim or not.

Baldeh helped facilitate a community forum “Know Your Rights–United We Stand” that drew an estimated 2,500 attendees to the Monona Terrace Convention Center on Jan. 29. Although it was in the works for months (in response to many constituents worried about their rights after Trump’s election), the Sunday afternoon event happened to fall just two days after President Trump capped his first week in office by issuing eight executive orders, including banning the entry of refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, sparking nationwide protests. “You can be a legal resident of this country and you can still be sent out of this country, so we have a lot to be fearful of,” says Baldeh. “But what I want all of us to understand is that we are all Americans.”

Baldeh was only visiting the U.S. when he met the student life coordinator of Madison Area Technical College (now Madison College) at a Washington, D.C., conference, which, along with realizing a family member lived in Madison, prompted Baldeh to move to Wisconsin (by way of New York) in 2000 to study information technology at the college. Although he became a U.S. citizen in 2005 and calls the U.S. “the best country that God has created,” he says there is nothing more difficult than leaving one’s family and homeland behind–and that’s why he feels it’s ridiculous to fear immigrants.

“This is the country I choose and I left everything else I know. And the reason I choose this is because of the promise that this country gives to everybody: the possibility of hitting the sky,” he says. “And so you cannot come for that opportunity and yet hate this country. It doesn’t make sense.”

It’s not lost on Baldeh that many critics of America’s first African American president chose the word “Muslim” as the deepest insult they could hurl at him. He’s frustrated that Islam is portrayed in the U.S. media as a violent religion, when other criminals committing acts of terror are never identified by their faith. For example, the U.S., a majority-Christian country, is only 6 percent of the world’s population, but incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s criminals.

“Do we say all Americans are criminals, or they are committing those crimes because they are Christians? No,” says Baldeh. “Every religion, in my opinion, is peace. If it cannot bring peace, then you should never follow it.”

Click here to read the full Muslim in Madison feature.