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COMMENTARY

Defending democracy, and freedom, is more important now than ever

I grew up in The Gambia, and saw democracy fall. It’s a situation that I’m seeing begin to play out in my adopted homeland, the US, as well.

In the Gambia, where I spent the first 26 years of my life, women who sought and received abortion and other reproductive health services — as well as with their doctors — were frequently arrested, tortured, jailed, and sometimes “disappeared.” Some fled the country out of legitimate fear for their lives, simply for seeking to access medical care that should be available to any woman.

This oppression and persecution did not stop at healthcare. As the authoritarian regime solidified its grip on power, the government passed executive orders dictating how a woman could dress. If you were a member of the LGBTQI+ community, you also lived in daily fear for your personal safety. The abuses of power evolved over several years, and citizens of this small country failed to act quickly enough to stop the downfall of their fragile democracy.

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It’s a situation that I’m seeing begin to play out in my adopted homeland, the US, as well.

In the Gambia, which I fled in 2006, ascension to power by a “war lord” — who would never voluntarily relinquish his position — was superseded by deep divisions in society. Through a combination of apathy and complacency, Gambians were lulled into thinking that the already poor economy and limited number of opportunities for jobs and education could not possibly get any worse. They were wrong.

I was one of the few that resisted, as I observed these evil and coercive forces overtaking our young democracy, and I nearly paid with my life. Before I was fortunate enough to be resettled in Rhode Island (and earn US Citizenship a few years later), I was arrested on numerous occasions in The Gambia, and tortured. Despite the risks to my personal safety, I continued in my resistance to those who were oppressing my people.

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I do not by any measure consider myself a radical, because I don’t think defending democracy, defending a woman’s right to have an abortion if she so chooses, and defending the chance for everyone to achieve the American Dream are radical concepts.

What is happening in some corners of our country — suppression of the rights of people of color, gerrymandering and repressive voting laws, the threat to gay marriage, access to contraception, and loss of individual freedoms — is pure evil, and must be called out as such.

I want to urge Rhode Islanders to not be complacent in your views of, and engagement in, our democratic processes. We Americans are marching, every day, closer and closer toward a society which oppresses its citizens. I have seen it happen elsewhere, and we are on the same path. But there is still time to get involved and make a change. There is still time to safeguard our fragile democracy.

Dr. Omar Bah is a psychologist specializing in trauma and global mental health, the founder of the Refugee Center in Providence, and a candidate for the state’s 2nd Congressional District.