“Everything that happens to you, even if it’s bad, there is something in there,” says Sy Alassane softly. The rising actor from Senegal knows this more than most. He was born in Mauritania but had to flee the country in 1989 during the Mauritania-Senegal Border War.
Racial tensions between the Moor and sub-Saharan African populations led to a conflict in which 70,000 black Mauritanians were forced into exile in Senegal and Mali. Hundreds of people were killed. Amidst the violence, Sy’s heavily pregnant mother had to take her five young children, including a seven-year-old Sy, to Senegal where their grandmother lived. It was a chaotic, traumatic experience.
“Things were going crazy, there were a lot of people,” he remembers. They got flown out of Mauritania by the UN. “People were falling apart, the wind was really strong. I lost my shoe. And then we got to Dakar and find a bunch of food that the Senegalese brought for us to eat. After that, the cars of the UN took us to the camp. My mum got them to take us to my grandmother’s house late at night. It was only when we got there and we were safe that my mother finally started to cry. That stayed in my mind.”
As they settled into life in Senegal, his mum focused on getting the kids back to school. “No matter the situation, we had to go to school,” he laughs. “We started life again. It was tough. My mum was making a little bit of money [selling incense] but my dad was still searching, what can I do?” His dad eventually went to Côte d'Ivoire to work and when Sy was 18 he went to join him. His mum wanted him to stay in school but he was restless. “Deep in me, at that age what I was feeling was just...moving.” There he got a visa to go to Amiens in France where his uncle lived and went back to school while he went through the process for political exile. A trip to London opened his eyes to a whole new world. “I knew I had something inside of me that I wanted to express.” A wise old Senegalese friend in London encouraged him to pursue his acting dreams, which led to Sy going on the move again - this time to New York.
In New York he worked in a Chinese store and then in an Italian restaurant, learning English on the job. A chance meeting with a photographer led him to being introduced to the owner of Boss Models. “He signed me on the spot.” His modeling career very quickly took off, culminating in opening a show for P Diddy’s Sean John fashion brand in 2008. While it was exciting, it was also overwhelming: “I wasn’t really used to this kind of world. I could feel deep in me that was not the only thing I wanted to do. I wanted to act.” His break came when a friend told him about a film that was being made about a Senegalese immigrant in New York. Despite his worries about not acting before, he won the lead role in what would become the Sundance celebrated film Restless City.
“I realised I just did an acting school, which was a movie. This was my school, actually,” he laughs. “I went with my feeling. That’s what I learned from this experience: go with your heart. Just let it go.” His first film shoot was an emotional experience and after it wrapped he decided he had to go home. “Everyone was like, where are you going? Your acting career has just started, your modeling career is going great. But they couldn’t understand that I had to see my family, I hadn’t seen them for five years. I had to go!”
Back home he opened up a general store that his sister now runs, building it himself and getting a friend back in Amiens to design a logo. Knowing from first-hand experience that moving away isn’t necessarily the easy option, he wanted to make a point to his younger siblings: “I’ll show you that you can make it here.” While Sy is now preparing for his next film role in Italy, he’s also strengthening relations with Solidarite Amiens-Rufisque, the foundation that his brother had set up to raise awareness and support for the children of Rufisque. “The idea was there is no need to send money to kids in Africa, what they need right now is nothing else but education,” he says with passion. “If you have something to teach please come. Let’s focus on the education of those kids you see walking on the streets begging for money, because those kids are tough. They are tough because most of them are orphans. I believe that if somebody gave them the tools they could help not just themselves but the entire continent.”