By Nancy Sullivan
Color barriers have outlasted slavery in the US: equal access to voting, education and jobs, secure land tenure, protection from arbitrary detention and even torture or death.
Did you know that hundreds of Mauritanians have come to Cincinnati in recent months to escape racism in their own country? Many of them flew to Brazil, then made the almost unthinkable walk 4,200 mile trek through seven countries to the US-Mexico border; not all made it. Others with a little more money flew to Ecuador or Peru and took multiple buses north. At the US border they look for Border Patrol agents so they can apply for asylum. Our new neighbors passed their initial “credible fear” interview, (the government’s screening for migrants seeking asylum), and traveled to Cincinnati, one of the largest two Mauritanian communities in the US.
Why would they leave everything behind in fear for their lives, rather than seeking an escape from poverty or corruption? Although Mauritania, a former French colony in northwest Africa, outlawed slavery in 1981, but in practice it still exists. The ruling elite, (the former slave holders), are light-skinned Moors associated with the northern part of the country. The rest of the population live in the Sub-Saharan region and are very dark-skinned. Malnutrition is one way to assess the difference: 3.6% of the Arab population is malnourished, but over twice as many Black Mauritanians suffer from malnutrition. They have been subject to atrocities for generations: in 1990, to celebrate the country’s independence from France, Moorish soldiers took 28 of their fellow soldiers, all Black, and hanged them.
Today 50-75,000 Black Mauritanians are literally stateless: in 1989 during a power play the year before independence they were expelled from their own country. Many ultimately returned, but have been unable to get legal identity cards because of lost birth certificates or “bureaucratic errors” from the forced expulsion. Without the ID they can’t vote, reclaim stolen property or assert their legal rights. Recent immigrants report that White Mauritanians increasingly expropriate Black land, force people into domestic servitude or to work as unpaid fisherfolk. There is no legal recourse. I’ve seen bystander videos of police and military, (dominated by the lighter-skinned Moors), arbitrarily throwing grenades into civilians’ homes or viciously beating old men.
Cincinnati and Columbus have the largest Mauritanian populations in the US, so in June community organizers planned a meeting to explain to the newcomers the next steps in the asylum process. They rented a huge hall in a Sharonville motel, expecting 200 recent arrivals. Instead, 500 showed up.
Because there is no emergency shelter to accommodate them, most are living with already-established Mauritanian families. Right now 19 young men are living in the home of the president of the Mauritanian Association. He explained that over the past two years he has housed 200 people. Many of his associates who still bear the scars of torture from Mauritanian jails have similarly opened their homes and their hearts to their countrymen.
Are there African Americans in Cincinnati who could also provide temporary homes to several asylum seekers?
Or teach English as a second language or computer literacy or perhaps drive a newcomer to their immigration lawyer or a clinic?
Would your church take up a collection to assist families who are feeding and housing newly-arrived Mauritanian (and other Africans and Haitians) until they can get on their feet?
Contact email@example.com if you have ideas or want to help.