How 2 young Black men bonded over their shared experiences in small-town Alberta

Calgary·Black Prairies

Baptist Abushaka and David Bowers grew up in separate towns, but shared the same experience.

David Bowers (left) and Baptist Abushaka bonded over their shared experiences growing up Black in small Alberta towns.(Tahirih Foroozan/CBC)


Baptist Abushaka and David Bowers grew up in separate towns, but shared the same experiences.

Both have parents who migrated to small-town Alberta seeking a better life for their children.

Both also spent the majority of their childhoods as the only Black boy in their communities.

Their love of sport brought them together. Their shared experiences created an inseparable bond.

"You get to talk about what you're feeling," Bowers said. "You can't really talk about it with white friends."

'Get back up, keep going'

Abushaka, now 21, sits on the bench at the outdoor skating rink in southwest High River where he taught himself how to skate.

"When I was a kid I always wanted to play hockey," he said. "I remember one winter my dad bought me some skates and as soon as I got the skates I ran to the backyard and started skating around."

Baptist Abushaka poses on the hockey rink in High River, Alta., where he learned to skate.(Tahirih Foroozan/CBC)

From the bench, Abushaka can see his childhood home and the windows his dad would peer out to keep an eye on him.

"I remember, when I was a kid, I kept falling and kept getting back up. I remember seeing my dad watching me. He was like, 'Hey, get back up, keep going.' That motivated me," Abushaka said.

"I was a huge Flames fan growing up so I guess I kind of just picked up on it. I kind of just imagined myself on the ice and just imagined how my body would move. Pretty quickly I started to pick it up."

Like many Canadian kids, Abushaka played hockey throughout his childhood. Those years played a pivotal role in his life.

"For me it was just being with other kids. Ya sure, I might look different. I might come from a different country, but I was still able to keep up with them and build a bond with them too."

Abushaka was born in Egypt and his parents are originally from Sudan. They immigrated to Canada and moved to High River when he was around five years old. When he started hockey he was the only Black player on the ice.

"There were some instances where honestly racism would play a part. Being the only Black kid playing hockey against a bunch of kids that haven't been around Black people, they'd say some stuff," said Abushaka.

He recalls driving home with his dad after a hockey game and telling his father that another player had called him the N-word. He said his dad warned him that people will say things and he shouldn't be shocked. It bothered Abushaka, but he loved playing hockey and his main focus was to keep getting better.

Baptist Abushaka in his hockey gear at seven years old.(Submitted by Baptist Abushaka)

Despite facing racism from opposing players, he found it easy to create bonds with teammates.

"The main thing people would ask me about is how do you say your name," said Abushaka. "There would be instances where, lets say, a certain song would come on and the N-word pops up and people would look at me and say 'Can we say that in front of you?'

"But other than that no one treated me different. No one tried to harass me or nothing like that."

Abushaka was also the only Black kid in his classroom for most of his youth.

"During elementary school I didn't really notice, because we were kids. We didn't really know the concept of race," said Abushaka. "But once I got older I started to think I am alone."

Through the years he continued to excel athletically in everything from hockey to track and field.

Then he met his match at a track meet in the nearby town of Okotoks, Alta.

'To not be all alone'

In Grade 6, Abushaka was a strong track runner. On that day in Okotoks, he was confident he would win the 100-metre race. Then he noticed another Black runner, David Bowers, also lining up to compete.

"I'm ready, right. I look over. I see David. I don't know this kid, but I thought OK, I'll beat this kid," said Abushaka.

He soon realized he was mistaken.

"Boom! This man just drove past me. I came in third," Abushaka said. "That's when people were like 'Yeah, that's David.'"

Baptist Abushaka (left) competes at a track meet in 2018.(Nick DiMaulo)

Abushaka and Bowers didn't become friends until high school, when a mutual friend introduced them. Bowers, now 20, said their connection was instant, even though they lived in different towns.

"I remember in high school and junior high I was the only Black kid in my class. So meeting Bap[tist] … I felt it was well needed. To not be all alone in a small town," Bowers said.

A chance at a better future

Abushaka and Bowers bonded over their similar backgrounds.

Abushaka's family came to Canada when he was a baby. His parents fled war in Sudan and were forced north to Cairo, Egypt, where Abushaka was born.

His parents immigrated to Canada shortly after that, settling in Calgary where they had the support of the city's strong Sudanese community. But after Abushaka's father got a job at the Cargill Foods meat packing plant just outside of High River, the family relocated to the southern Alberta town.

"I remember coming here. I didn't have lots of money. I was probably one of the poorest kids in elementary school at times. I remember seeing my parents just bust their asses every hour of the day," said Abushaka.

His parents' sacrifices helped Abushaka and his two siblings fit in through sport and gave them a chance at a better future.

I have amazing friends here, they're great guys, but I never really fully belonged.

– Baptist Abushaka

Bowers's parents wanted the same for him and his siblings.

His father and mother are originally from Dominica, a small Caribbean island just south of Guadeloupe. They immigrated to Toronto, where Bowers was born. When work became scarce his father moved out west.

"At that time the economy was going really bad so my dad found a job out on the western side and moved first. Actually when he started out he was homeless for a little bit," said Bowers. "He actually met a mutual friend that gave him a place to stay … [he] worked really hard to get us over there and we finally made the move."

His family came to Calgary first, then eventually settled in Okotoks, where housing prices were more affordable.

Like Abushaka, Bowers was the only Black student for most of his school years. While he didn't understand racism when he was younger, the negative experiences weighed on him as he grew older.

'He's right there for me'

The two have now been friends for five years. Bowers has always looked up to Abushaka as an older brother and guide.

"I love him," Bowers said.

"I wouldn't be who I am without the people who I've met and known and that's for sure Bap. Bap has been a huge role model to me."

Baptist Abushaka and David Bowers at a party in 2018.(Submitted by Baptist Abushaka)

Bowers is the oldest brother in his family.

"I feel like I haven't been perfect in a lot of scenarios and I look up to all of my older friends and take stuff from them, especially Bap."

Abushaka said their friendship has been just as important to him.

"David has been there for me through my darkest times. I'm not really an open person. I hate talking about my emotions, being vulnerable in front of people," Abushaka said. "But David is one of those guys that if I do feel upset and need to air out my emotions he's right there for me."

'I never really fully belonged'

Abushaka still lives in High River and Bowers in Okotoks. They get together when they can, but pandemic restrictions have made their visits less frequent.

In the future, Abushaka sees himself elsewhere. His sights are set on either Calgary or Toronto. He said when he's with friends in the city, he can truly be himself.

"I think what I'll get in Calgary or Toronto that I won't get in High River is just a sense of belonging. Belonging to a group that I can call mine. I have amazing friends here, they're great guys, but I never really fully belonged," Abushaka said.

Being from Toronto, Bowers understands and supports his friend's desire to move to a bigger city. He said he faces struggles he wouldn't in a big city, even for simple things like getting a haircut.

"There's no Black barbers in Okotoks. Like I have to call Bap and be like 'yo Bap want to come up 45 minutes to the northwest so we can get a haircut?'" Bowers said.

David Bowers (right) sits with his friend Baptist Abushaka.(Tahirih Foroozan/CBC)

Bowers remembers his aunt taking him to get a haircut in Toronto when he visited for Christmas in 2018.

"We spent three hours in the barber shop. Like it's just a different vibe," Bowers said. "Bap, when he says he wants to travel to Toronto, I told him he'd love it cause it's just a different setting, different people."

Bowers said he's tempted to go back to Toronto, but that things are changing in Okotoks and Calgary, and he's hopeful.

Abushaka said no matter where his future takes him, he will take parts of Prairie life with him. Despite facing some racism, he said he also saw moments of acceptance and understanding.

"There were lots of people that didn't look at my colour, they looked at my character and accepted me for who I was," he said.

"When I get out of town and start doing my own thing I will take people as they are."


(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tahirih Foroozan is a reporter with CBC Calgary.

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