//Ousman Ba stands in front of Mountain View United Church holding images of his friends, the Diol family, who were killed in a fire on Aug. 5, 2020. Photo by Madeleine Kelly | firstname.lastname@example.org
In the video that circulated following the death of the Diol family, Djibril, often called Djiby, can be seen singing on the 16th Street Mall. Using a busker’s microphone while the performer plays the accompanying guitar, Djibril sings “Happy Birthday.” A few feet away, his wife Adja Diol stands holding their nearly two-year-old daughter Khadija. Surprised, Adja covers her mouth in a mix of joy and embarrassment as her husband serenades her. At the end of the video, Djibril tells the busker to keep playing, “so I can sing in my language.”
“He did that every single year, even when Adja was in Senegal,” said Maryam Tidjani, a fellow member of the Senegalese community. “He would buy a cake for her and make us all sit and facetime her and sing Happy Birthday.”
Within a few months of that video, the small family along with Djibril’s sister Hassan and her eight-month-old daughter Hawa Baye would be killed in a house fire on Aug. 5. While the alleged perpetrators of the crime were arrested on Jan. 27, members of the Senegalese community are still processing the loss.
Djibril came to Colorado from Senegal. The country’s struggles with civil war provided little upward mobility and few opportunities for Djibril.
He immigrated to Colorado in 2012, quickly finished high school and studied at a community college in Dillon until he transferred to Colorado State University as a civil engineering student. Through his membership in the Africans United group at CSU, Djibril became someone well-known, well-respected and famous for bringing kindness to the rooms he entered.
“Even with his friends he took care of people,” Tidjani said. “I knew I could always count on Djiby. He came to every single one of my family celebrations. He was really part of my family, too.”
Tidjani had recently arrived from Senegal when she met Djibril at CSU. She is still a student and refers to herself as the baby of Djibril’s group of friends. It’s a group that ushered her into her new life in America.
Echoing the huddled masses beckoned by Lady Liberty, the Diol family arrived in a trickle. After Djibril graduated and landed a project engineer position with Hewitt, Adja and Khadija were able to immigrate as well. Later, Hassan and Hawa Baye, often called “Baby Hawa,” joined the family. At the time of the fire, Djibril was in the process of buying a larger house for more family members to move to Denver.
“For Djiby, the most important thing was family. I feel like it was his fuel on the day-to-day,” Tidjani said. “After they got married and he became American, [Adja] came here with his daughter. They were really happy.”
On the Instagram page titled “Justice for Diol Family,” videos show the adults doing a TikTok challenge while Khadija makes her own toddling attempts at a dance. In another, Khadija giggles wildly as Djibril plants raspberries on her belly. The portrait of a loving family falls away as posts of what would have been Hawa’s first birthday, marches demanding justice, security footage of three masked figures and a house ablaze overtake the feed.
Ousman Ba runs the page and others like it on various platforms as a program coordinator at the African Leadership Group. Ba and Djibril were both members of Africans United and roommates at CSU. The last six months of Ba’s life have centered around the people he lost. When he spoke to Ms.Mayhem about Djibril, he oscillated between past and present tense, still adjusting to thinking of his friend as only existing in the past.
“Djiby sent me something to edit because he writes plays as well,” Ba said. “When he was presenting that play, he wrote my name as one of the authors. I was like, ‘I didn’t do anything.’ That’s the type of person he is. He really cares about people and is willing to go above and beyond for people.”
Ba referred to Djibril and Adja as makeshift parents for those whose families were still in Senegal. The two would cook communal meals for Ramadan even after working long days. Adja and Hassan both worked at an Amazon distribution center but harbored dreams of personal growth. Ba remembered Khadija as being shy and Baby Hawa as having an infectious smile.
A composite photo of the family dons shirts around the office of the African Leadership Group. Much of the advocacy work for the Diol family has been run out of the office under the direction of President Papa Dia. Dia came to the U.S. 22 years ago from Senegal with a weak grasp of the English language and little money to his name.
“This country has something so unique and something presented so well all over the world, and especially to Africans, and that is the American dream,” Papa Dia said. “That’s what led us here. In that pursuit of happiness and the American dream and knowing that the safest place you can be is your home.”
Dia has been left with a weary community asking questions about police bias and the ultimate question of why this happened. Several sources have claimed that the three juveniles arrested on Jan. 27 had intended to attack a different house in retaliation for a drug deal gone wrong. After six months of living in a fear that Denver Police said was unwarranted, that reasoning has offered little reprieve.
Following the arrest, Dia called for a meeting with members of law enforcement including the Denver Police Chief, the district attorney and FBI agents. According to Dia, community members worried that because of the victims’ statuses as Black Muslim immigrants the case wasn’t offered the priority it should have been. The officers present promised that any lack of communication was only in the service of maintaining the integrity of the investigation.
However, the crime, the investigation and the trial does not exist within a vacuum. Legal battles involving the deaths of Bryonna Taylor and Elijah McClain still remain unresolved. According to Dia, healing from the loss of the Diol family will require an overall shift in how Americans treat one another.
“What we are left to do as a citizen of Colorado, as a citizen of this great nation, is to make sure this is not a representation of who we are as a nation, this is not a representation of who we could be as the great state of Colorado,” Dia said.
At the community meeting, Dia urged DPD to recruit officers from the Senegalese community so the force and the public may better understand that they are also a part of the fabric that makes up Colorado. DPD hopes to do so through ongoing efforts to increase diversity in the force.
As the trial moves forward and the community heals, unfinished dreams reside in the now-empty lot that was once the Diol family home. Djibril hoped to return to Senegal to build infrastructure. Adja aspired to join the medical field. Hassan planned to go back to school. The community yearned to watch two little girls grow up. As Dia continues to lead the community forward, it is certain their memory will not be forgotten.
“I could never imagine that our American dream would result in five precious lives from our community being burnt to death. Never.”
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