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'An example of coexistence'

by Maria Jesus Corrales

The violence of the attacks that caused the death of Diego Valencia, the sacristan at La Palma de Algeciras church, and the wounding of the priest at the nearby church of San Isidro has convulsed the inhabitants of Algeciras, a city with a long history of multiculturalism where, today, people of 129 different nationalities live in peace.

Of the 122,369 residents in the city, more than 10,000 are of foreign extraction. Of these, 6,339 originally came from Morocco, making up 5.1% of the population.

Ever since the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, Spain’s Ministry of the Interior has monitored the activities of any persons suspected of plotting Jihadist terrorist attacks.

The ministry has confirmed that 34 Moroccan nationals are currently under surveillance but, in his visit to pay his respects to the deceased on Thursday, minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska reported that the investigation was ongoing, that “all hypotheses were being explored” and that there was a growing belief that the suspect, Moroccan national Yassine Kanjaa, acted alone.

The Fundación Márgenes y Vínculos is a charity that seeks to defend the rights and improve the lives of the socially disadvantaged, such as migrants, the poor and the disabled, and its spokesperson, Francisco Mena, spoke to the Chronicle.

“Practically 15% of the population of Algeciras are immigrants and Moroccans make up the majority,” Mr Mena explained.

“Of this 15%, more or less 80% are Moroccan, followed by Bolivians and sub-Saharan Africans.”
Census records show that, historically, migrant families have settled into the southern neighbourhoods and lower elevations of Algeciras where the rent is cheaper.

There, any social issues that arise out of the multicultural makeup of the neighbourhood are overshadowed by those caused by simple poverty, which has meant that relations between the many nationalities have been generally on good terms.

Mr Mena said that the Fundación has been running social integration projects for immigrants and the local population since 2008 and, in his words, “Algeciras [given the circumstances] is a model example of coexistence.”

He also explained that the number of irregular migrants in the Campo de Gibraltar is much lower than in other areas.

“Those who cross the Strait tend to do so because they want to get to other places, such as Almeria, Barcelona, Lleida… and a great majority move on to France and Belgium, because their families are there and they know that they will have more opportunities there than here.”

The schools of the southern and lower districts of Algeciras “have a high percentage of Moroccan pupils, completely integrated, with a level of spoken Andalucían Spanish equal to ours and you only notice that they are Islamic when a girl wears a hijab.”

These children are second and third-generation immigrants, Spaniards that maintain both Islamic and Andalucían lives.

“They have their roots just as our family members who emigrated to France and Germany in the 1940s have theirs,” Mr Mena said.

"They have two hearts, one Moroccan and one Andalucían, beating in unison."

"This is where they feel they belong."

Candles and flowers lie where Diego Valencia died. Photos by Brian Reyes

This sense of belonging in Algeciras is the reason why the Muslim populace has been left reeling after Wednesday’s attack.

Dris Mohamed Amar, the spokesperson for the Islamic community in Algeciras, spoke to the Chronicle on the day after the incident and his voice carried the strain of his emotions.

“What has happened has wounded us,” he said.

“A delusional maniac has killed one of us, a man of peace, a man of God and innocent. We are still feeling the pain.”

Mr Mohamed Amar sees the Moroccan community as an integral part of the fabric of Algeciras.

“It’s not just that we are integrated, it’s that we are part of the city, we are the city, we are now third-generation immigrants,” he said.

“Our children are born here. We live, coexist and die here. We share the good times and the bad.”

“This is our home. The same culture embraces both sides of the Strait.”

Christians and Muslims have sat together over Christmas dinner, just as they sit together for Eid Al-Adha.

They shared both the joy and the disappointment of watching Morocco beat Spain in the World Cup.

And daily life in Algeciras, with its vicissitudes and trials, impacts both communities.

That is why Mr Mohamed Amar was one of the first community leaders to arrive at the city’s Plaza Alta when news of the attack spread, and why he released a statement repudiating the killing.

It was, he said, one of the worst days of his life.

“I went to where it happened, gave my condolences to the mayor and to representatives of the churches in Algeciras, and I shared those moments with them.”

Mr Mohamed Amar has made a plea for calm and believes that the killer acted alone.

“This is an isolated incident and it does not represent a religion, an ethnic group or even a nationality.”

“[The Islamic community in Algeciras] did not know this man, nor did he have a wide circle of friends,” he added.

Mr Mohamed Amar just hopes that “these horrible days pass quickly and that [such an attack] is never repeated again.”

But he did express his concerns for the days ahead.

The day after Diego Valencia’s death, while residents were paying the last respects to the deceased, Spain’s Vox party held a press conference on the site of the attack to criticise the government’s immigration policy.

“Unfortunately, [this incident] has offered right-wing extremists an excuse to use what has happened as a political weapon and they are attacking an entire ethnic group for a regrettable, but isolated, event,” he said.

Francisco Mena has also witnessed the disquiet of the Moroccan community.

“They are very worried about the stigma this event could place on them,” Mr Mena said.

The imams of the various mosques around the country, and the wider Islamic community in Spain, have reiterated that Islam is a religion of peace, something that the Spanish Episcopal Conference, which is comprised of the bishops from all the Catholic dioceses in Spain, has echoed with its statement that the incident was not the result of a conflict between religions, but the act of a lone man.

And yet, Mr Mena said that many Moroccan women had expressed their fear that a campaign of hatred and exclusion will be the result.

For Mr Mena and the people who work with him to ensure good neighbourly relations and social inclusion across Algeciras and the Campo de Gibraltar, this is evidence that their work is far from over.

“The grandson of an immigrant is still being considered an immigrant when he is [, in reality,] a Spanish national of the Islamic faith,” Mr Mena said

“Over many years, we have seen the ugly face of migration; the Strait’s dead, those we have seen and those who the waters have claimed.”

“They say that the first man came to Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa.”

“The Campo de Gibraltar has always been a land of immigrants, we are accustomed to immigrants arriving, establishing themselves and living with us,” Mr Mena said.

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