The World We Share: Meet Cheikh

The World We Share: Meet Cheikh

March 20, 2024 8 min read

Even before meeting Cheikh in one of our conference rooms in Madrid, we know we’re in for an inspiring story. In his four years at Ria, it seems that everyone he’s ever crossed paths with has been awestruck by his strength and resilience. It makes sense that many had been eagerly waiting for Cheikh’s story to be shared with the world. As it turns out, Cheikh is not only an exceptional employee and colleague, he’s also a caring single father and primary provider for his mother and siblings back in Senegal.  

Dressed in traditional Senegalese attire, Cheikh is ready to share his story with us, though he doesn’t seem to think there’s a lot to say. At first, his replies are short and to the point, but as he starts trusting the process, he smiles and says, “what else do you want to know?”. 

Growing up and studying in Senegal 

The eldest son of a family of eight, Cheikh was born in the southern region of Ziguinchor. As a child, Cheikh looked up to his uncle who spoke Spanish, instilling in him an interest in languages from a young age. When the time came for Cheikh to move to Dakar for university, he chose to pursue a degree in Spanish Literature. 

“I liked languages. I liked German as well, but my uncle was my point of reference. Even though he couldn’t finish his degree, he had studied Spanish,” shared Cheikh.  

The first year was tough for Cheikh. At first, he didn’t have anywhere to live in Dakar until a friend’s brother took him in. The abrupt change and uncertainty had left a teenage Cheikh lost and distracted to the point where he had to repeat his freshman year. He believed he wouldn’t make it, but then he thought of his mother and everything she’d done to make sure he could go to university. He just knew he couldn’t let her down.  

Growing up, Cheikh’s mom would always give him chores, such as ironing, sending him to the market with a grocery list, and going to fetch water from the well. “One day I even asked her if I was really her son, because she was brutal with me. Later, when I left for college and had to start doing things on my own, I realized she had done it for my own good,” said Cheikh. “When I moved to Spain and became a single father, her lessons resonated even more, and I called her to apologize.” 

Cheikh went on to finish his degree and even complete a Master’s certificate. All he was missing was to finish writing his thesis on the costumes of the Spanish Golden Age, but opportunity had come knocking.

Finding work and moving to Spain 

Thanks to an agreement between the Spanish and Senegalese governments, Cheikh was able to land a job in Madrid in 2007. His friend Isaie and current Ria colleague was already living in Spain and gave him the extra push he needed to take the leap at the age of 24.  

“When I got here, I wanted to go back within a week. I’ve always been very close to my mom and it was very hard to get used to living so far away. I was calling her all the time, and I didn’t know how to cook anything beyond rice and eggs,” he recalls.  

For Cheikh, nothing’s more difficult than being without his family, but it was his mom who convinced him to stay. “She made me realize that life isn’t that easy back home and that by being abroad I could help them, too. When you’re the eldest son, people depend on you, and it’s made clear every time you call.”  

Landing a job at Ria and joining the Operations team 

For many years, Cheikh worked at a supermarket chain, happy to have a way to provide for his family. But another Senegalese friend and Ria employee kept pushing him to find something better so he could put his degree to good use.  

“I always knew of Ria because I often sent money home and knew people who worked there. But I didn’t dare to apply because I had a stable job and many years to my name. My friend was insistent, so in 2020 I spoke to my boss and applied for the job,” says Cheikh. 

He started out in our customer care team, providing support for French-speaking customers and building lasting relationships with Ria agents from Senegal. But his friends weren’t done pushing him. Isaie, the same friend who encouraged him to move to Spain, let him know about an opportunity in our Operations team, where Cheikh is now working as a business development assistant.  

Isaie and Cheikh by their desks at our Madrid offices.

Single Parenthood: Challenges, Pride, and Love 

We know Cheik as a diligent employee, but there’s a lot more than meets the eye. At home, he’s been raising his son on his own since the boy was five. “Life here is hard, especially when you’re raising a child on your own and there are sleepless nights. Thankfully, I had help from my cousin who wasn’t working at the time and could look after him,” shares Cheikh. “But I still had to manage my time to drop him off at school, go to work, pick him up and sign him up for school canteen services.” 

He’s proud of his son every day, especially because of how well he’s grown despite not having his mom around. One of his fondest memories was Father’s Day some years back. He came back from work late and tired, but his son had been waiting for him with a card. Just the memory was enough to bring tears to his eyes, making it hard for him to get into details. He did manage to share that it said he was the best father in the world. “It moved me deeply. I recall perfectly how exhausted I was, but that note and his smile were enough to wipe it all away,” says Cheikh. 

His son is an avid football fan, a passion they both share though they support different teams. Sometimes they play football together, and other times they just watch the games and tease each other over who’s winning. While his son has mentioned wanting to become a cop, Cheikh’s main concern is making sure he finishes his studies. 

Though his son can speak Cheikh’s native tongue perfectly, he usually answers back in Spanish. Cheikh understands it’s because he’s shy. We ask him if he sees any part of him in his son, he says. “He’s very shy, respectful, and stays out of trouble.”  

Staying Connected to Senegalese Culture and His Family Abroad 

Cheikh keeps his culture alive by cooking traditional dishes at home. His diet is heavy on rice and fish, but his son has developed a rather Spanish palate. While he enjoys white rice, he’ll have it with sausages or eggs. “I never force him to eat anything he doesn’t like, but there’s always Senegalese food around if he wants it. Other Spanish staples like lentils and beef have also found their way to Cheik’s kitchen. 

Despite the distance, Cheik is still very close to his family, staying in touch with them regularly through WhatsApp. 

Though it’s been two years since Cheikh was last in Senegal, his son visits yearly. When Cheikh can travel, he tries to visit for Eid. His siblings, many of whom live in Dakar and Cap Skirring with their families, return to their hometown for the festivities. “Everyone gets together at my mom’s house, and we spend the day laughing. I love it.” Though he doesn’t go into details, the joy in Cheikh’s eyes as he reminisces is evident.  

Lessons learned: respect, accomplishments, and standing up for himself 

Cheikh’s philosophy is to be easygoing without letting others walk all over him. For him, harboring hate is a waste of energy. He believes he got this mantra from his mom. Growing up, he was always encouraged to say what he thought, and his mom would respect his perspective. “Respect is the most important thing. I try to teach the same thing to my son. For example, whenever I mop the floor, I make him sit on the couch and wait until it’s dry.” 

Looking back on everything he’s accomplished, Cheikh feels like the struggle has been worth it. “I was scared when I moved here because I didn’t know anything about the culture or way of life,” he shares. One of the biggest challenges has been dealing with the fear of something happening back in Senegal and not being able to travel back. This fear came to life with his father’s passing. Being far away means all he can do sometimes is pick up the phone and receive the news. 

Migration takes a toll, even if you reap the rewards, and Cheikh is counting the days until he can retire and move back home. Before parting ways, we ask Cheikh a final question. What would he say to his 24-year-old self? “Well done. Even though it was hard, you stood up for yourself, pushed forward, and kept fighting.”  

Looking to send money to Senegal? We’ve got you covered! Visit any of our locations or download the Ria Money Transfer app to get started. 

About the author

Gabrielle van Welie

Gabrielle van Welie is Ria's Global Content Manager. Originally from Dominican Republic, she specializes in the cultural impact of remittances and migration across the globe.

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