Mauritanian refugees make new home in Ohio
One thing that unites Mauritanians in Ohio is a desire to help their home country.
March 17th, 2012
09:53 PM ET

Mauritanian refugees make new home in Ohio

By John D. Sutter, CNN

Cincinnati, Ohio (CNN) - In the back of an African grocery store in northern Cincinnati, Bakary uses a jigsaw to slice the heads off frozen fish.

This life is a dream come true - something he never imagined growing up as a slave in Mauritania, a West African country in the Sahara Desert.

“Life is a lot better” in the United States, he said. “You are free.”

This Rust Belt city on the border with Kentucky, from an American perspective, has its glory days well behind it. But for Mauritanian refugees like Bakary, whose full name is not used because, despite the distance, he fears the government still could retaliate, the city has become a symbol of hope.About 4,000 Mauritanians live in the area, according to locals. Most came because they are outcasts of one sort or another in Mauritania. A few, like Bakary, are from Mauritania’s slave class of Black Moors. If they had stayed in Mauritania, they say, they could have been killed by their masters or brought back into slavery.

As CNN recently reported, slavery is still common in Mauritania.

You can read a detailed account of one slave’s escape to Ohio on CNN.com.

Others are White Moors. They traditionally were the slave owners in their country. Some who ended up in the Cincinnati area had a falling out with the government - either because they supported an opposition candidate for president who didn’t win, or because their families spoke out against government policies, including slavery.

Still others are “Afro-Mauritanians,” meaning they have darker skin but never were enslaved like the Black Moors. They speak another set of African languages, while White Moors and Black Moors speak dialects of Arabic.

No one that CNN spoke with was sure who was the first Mauritanian to move to Ohio. But, as is the case with refugee communities all over the country - from Somali refugees in Minnesota to Burmese people in Indiana - once one refugee arrives and finds some success, many tend to follow. It’s easier for new immigrants to settle with people they know because of cultural and language barriers.

Several people did mention the obvious difference in climate. It snows in Ohio, after all. Mauritania is in the Sahara Desert. For that reason, one refugee said he wanted to make it all the way to Arizona, where he’d heard the climate was similar to home.

In Cincinnati, some 4,000 miles from Mauritania, it might seem ethnic differences and long histories of tension and discrimination would melt away.

But some of these barriers have followed Mauritanians all the way to Ohio.

White Moors mostly live across the river from Cincinnati, in Erlanger, Kentucky.
Black Moors and Afro-Mauritanians, meanwhile, are scattered in the north of the city, with many concentrated in an area of town called Mulberry. (There’s another Afro-Mauritanian community in Columbus, about two hours to the northeast, centered on an intersection that indicates the situation there: Refugee Road at Citizens Place.)

In Erlanger, near the Cincinnati-area airport, Mohamed El Hassen runs La Badiya, a Mediterranean restaurant that’s right off the exit ramp from Interstate 75.

He said he is the president of a community association called Mauritanian Community and Friendship, which is comprised mostly of White Moors.

He was unaware a similar association - called the Mauritanian Community Association of Ohio - is operating just across the river that separates him from Cincinnati.

That group is made up almost entirely of Afro-Mauritanians, although both community associations say they would welcome members from other ethnic groups.

El Hassen also was unaware that escaped slaves, like Bakary, live in the area.

Along with different geographies, Mauritanian ethnic communities in the Cincinnati metro area also gravitate to different professions.

El Hassen and a few other Arab Mauritanians own taxi companies. In a random sample of cabs on the streets in downtown Cincinnati, two of four drivers said they were Arab Mauritanians. Mohamed said he employs mostly Arab Mauritanians - since those are the people he knows.

Darker-skinned Mauritanians tend to work in factories or in small shops, said Saidou Wane, a surveyor for the city of Cincinnati.

Many came here via New York after they heard factory jobs paid well and didn’t require fluency in English. They also like the lower rent and having more personal space.

Despite the lack of commingling, it’s clear these communities are trying to leave the past behind - and it seems hate-filled divisions are not present here.

“The community is not divided,” said El Hassen. We are “trying to be united here - trying to teach people to respect humanity.”

He added: “Who we are today is not who we were a long, long time ago.”

“Here, if you’re Mauritanian, you’re Mauritanian. Nobody cares” what ethnic group you’re from, said Yacoub Cheickh, a man in his late 40s who was sitting in the front of El Hassen’s restaurant. “You’re a brother. You’re a friend.”

One thing that does unite Mauritanians in Ohio is a desire to help their home country.

An estimated one-fifth of Mauritanians live in slavery.

The country was the last place in the world to abolish slavery, in 1981, and didn’t actually pass an enforceable anti-slavery law until 2007.

The fight for human rights has become a rallying cry for the community here.

“I think the biggest problem in Mauritania is the government pitting different groups against each other,” said Wane, a member of a recently formed activist group called Touche Pas, which has members in Mauritania and Ohio.

It’s the desire of most of these Mauritanian immigrants to go back to their home country when it’s safe to do so, he said. “We want to be part of the change.”

Bakary, the man who works as a butcher in the African market, left his wife behind in Mauritania. She is still a slave, he said, and was forced by her master to remarry.

Because of that, Bakary has moved on from that relationship, too. He has an American wife and children.

On a recent afternoon, his son brought his dad a leftover apple from his school lunch.

The father said he tells his children about his life as a slave.

Even if they can’t really understand, it’s important for them to know what he went through, he said, and what his family members in Mauritania still endure.

“I pray every day: ‘God, open the door and change this country.’”

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Filed under: Where we live • Who we are
soundoff (85 Responses)
  1. Emma Jo

    I hope only for the best for the refugees. Now it is up to the refugees,to go on with their lives. This is not the time for a pity or pot party. Learn from the past and go on with life.

    March 23, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  2. asiaticman7

    What is a 'white' Moor? Never in history from my understanding has there ever been a person/people. Unless they are using it as a term of status. We do not refer to ourselves as "Black Moor" either we are simply Moors. This article is nothing but fake white liberal propaganda.

    March 20, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Rachel

    Cincinnati "glory days are well" behind us...YIKES! ....really?

    March 20, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Gorbachof

    Hey retphxfire, you ever here of the 14th admendment. Now Iv'e got nothing against immagration, but ILLEGAL immigration p!sses me of.

    March 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. TJS

    White trash like you need to be beaten to a pulp and castrated so that you never reproduce. Legal immigrants, especially grocery stores and other business owners, contribute more to the growth of America than you have ever done. You are a cesspool of trash that America will soon flush.

    March 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jim

    I hope they contribute and are not just looking for a handout. Freedom does not make everything free. America is truly a great country but obey our laws and become citizens first. A person who does not Assimilate by learning english should be booted out!

    March 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • ok

      The article said they came to Ohio for the factory
      jobs. They are not looking for handouts.

      March 20, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
      • jez

        Thank you! Too many people look for something to hate – its nice to see one who doesn't!

        March 20, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • i_know_everything

      and learn English

      March 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Starfishflinger

    Wow! I live in Cincinnati, and I had no idea this community existed. I hope that these individuals, these families have found a safe place to call home, and that Cincinnati has welcomed them. Most of us come from somewhere else (my own family is from Ireland and Italy) and are blessed that our families were able to establish themselves here in the US. God Bless each and every one of them. My family will make a trip to LaBadiya as soon as we can.

    March 20, 2012 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • goobernutt

      Well said, Starfish...This is America and they came by way of New York and they are looking for work and they seem to be working just fine. We truly all did come from somewhere else and have been blessed immensely. Welcome to the melting pot of the world were you can achieve anything and as for anyone claiming to "send 'em back" if you ain't American Indian you have no voice in that matter as they are the only indigenous race in America and they seemed to be pretty fair minded in these matters despite the obvious oppression we put upon them.

      March 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  8. GuyDelarge

    Hey John Sutter, what's with the disrespect to Cincinnati? Not every American has that perspective!

    March 20, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  9. Assimilation

    @ Jack

    That's alright jack! Perhaps the darkies will marry whities and call you uncle! You racist rightwing trailer trash!

    March 20, 2012 at 8:49 am | Report abuse |
  10. Maureen

    I used to live in Cincy and am really proud that this city has offered hope to new immigrants. Hopefully these new people will start businesses (it sounds like many already have) and help get Cincy back on its feet it is a really great city. These articles on CNN have really opened my eyes. The one yesterday about the women who escaped slavery brought tears to my eyes. CNN please keep reporting on these vital social issues and not the Kartrashians. Just sayin.

    March 20, 2012 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
  11. TheTruth

    The Truth is Cincinatti Does not Want them Here does not need them Here and Cant support them.. I am happy they are free... but with unemplyment at an all time high and our goverment hemroging money like we do... We cant Afford a Bunch of Ex slaves.... We need to Close the Borders and Ship all these new people to Detainment camps like we used to do to Cuban Refugees. and anyone who Lives in Cincy like I do .. Knows the Racial Tension in the Area.. and More African Americans coming here in these numbers will only make it worse.

    March 20, 2012 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Seline

      You did read that all of these person are EMPLOYED and running businesses right... I guess not. Employment might be at an all time high, but somehow Ex-slaves managed to get employment. I suggest you borrow their example and figure out a way to add to the infrastructure of Cincinnati instead of trying to bash those who did as your ancestors once did.
      You ancestors came to the US and made something of themselves and so are they.

      March 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Assimilation

    You say they will contribute to babies, crime and welfare? Perhaps like your European ancestors who came here in the 20th century?

    March 20, 2012 at 8:35 am | Report abuse |
  13. tcat

    Next time I begin to complain about something stupid I'm gonna remind myself that I could be a slave in the desert and how lucky I am to even live in this great country. Then I'm gonna get p*ssed that there is still slavery somewhere out in the desert and find a charity to donate to.

    March 20, 2012 at 6:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Keep your money. It just goes into someone pocket. If you want to help. Write, call, visit or what ever the organization fighting this and call and write your Rep. in State and Fed. Government. That would do good and not make someone rich.

      March 20, 2012 at 7:55 am | Report abuse |
  14. Marie Lowgren

    I consider myself fairly educated but the last day's articles in CNN on Mauritania and their crazy social system of slavery have totally blown me away. The majority of the people posting need to do what I did, research and google the country, the differences between White and Black Moors and Afro-Black Moors, about deep seeded cultural, social, religious, and economical norms and boundaries in countries so foreign to us. We Americans can't afford to stay ignorant and passive in a world that is becoming smaller and smaller. There is ROOM for all of us! Thanks "jodsafjsd" for not tolerating stupidity!

    March 20, 2012 at 1:35 am | Report abuse |
  15. retphxfire

    Wow, you are a cliche. When every immigrant group arrives the bigots who are already here pipe up. 'No Irish Need Apply', anti-semitism, Italians are all dirty and criminals, Greeks are loud and violent...etc etc And they were ALL lazy. Plus, heaven forbid we allow any Catholic to immigrate or live in my neighborhood. We'd rather people like you leave, I'll start the donations.

    March 20, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Assimilation



      March 20, 2012 at 8:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Thomas

      Good point!!!

      March 20, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Burn AmeriKKKa

    It's ignorant whites like u we need to shot on sight.

    March 20, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  17. retphxfire

    Show us your families papers that THEY arrived legally. Just because you aren't Latino and perhaps third or fourth generation does not mean you're family is 'legal'. Prove it.

    March 20, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
  18. Veritas

    And yet they allow you to live here. These people want to come to America to find a better life and contribute to our society, just like immigrants have been doing since the founding of our nation. Racist comments like these are unamerican and show that you really don't belong here. Why don't you and the rest of your Tea Klux Klan buddies leave this nation. You are not wanted here and you don't fit in with our values.

    March 20, 2012 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      How many automatically get a government check. Just for showing up?

      March 20, 2012 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Assimilation


      Well stated!

      March 20, 2012 at 8:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Thomas

      Well said Veritas!!!

      March 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  19. john cougar

    Black and White Moors. I guess the third group are Red Moors. Sounds like neopolitan ice cream to me......

    March 19, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thenextstep


      March 20, 2012 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
  20. Joe

    Refugee Rd. is gigantic and very, very old. This article makes it seem as if the location was named in light of a group of people living on 1/1000 of Refugee Rd.

    March 19, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Chloooo

    Omg! Are you racist? This is ridiculous! I can't believe you still believe in that stuff! are you EDUCATED

    March 19, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  22. bridget

    I have never been so ashamed – the bigotry in the USA seems to grow and grow. Ignorance is destroying all of us. SHAME!!!

    March 19, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Have Faith. The people on here that talk trash are just that. Thay can hind behind a computer and say thing just to make people mad. They are not a majority just some punks that would never say the same things to your face.

      March 20, 2012 at 8:00 am | Report abuse |
  23. jodsafjsd

    Are you retarded?

    March 19, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  24. AMERICA 1st

    If theyre not AMERICAN, get rid of them!

    March 19, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • jodsafjsd

      If you're not educated, get rid of you.

      March 19, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • J

      All that would remain are the Native Americans lol

      March 20, 2012 at 4:25 am | Report abuse |
      • Assimilation

        @ J

        Your response was lovely!

        March 20, 2012 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
      • Geronimo

        All three of them, lol.

        March 20, 2012 at 8:51 am | Report abuse |
    • wolfman

      Immigrants move to this country to become Americans and they have the right to. Our forefathers laid out that rule so everyone would have a fair chance at life and fulfill their dreams. This is after all 'the land of the free.'

      March 20, 2012 at 6:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Assimilation

      @ America 1st

      You say if they're not Americans send them back? So were your immigrant ancestors who came here in the 20th century Americans? No, your ancestors were foreigners too! Moron!

      March 20, 2012 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
  25. Realdirect

    Watch out for those white sheets.... and white hoods...with red crosses.

    March 19, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  26. justicefor7

    URGENT – Please read more about VERIZON. Things they don't want the public to know! I was tormented by racial comments that were ignored, then racially discriminated against and wrongfully terminated for making complaints about the racial injustice.

    Please visit my Blog Page to see what Verizon did to my family. What they have done to my family, and continue to do is horrific. Today they still will not accept responsibility. So I will not stop this FIGHT for JUSTICE! It has been 8 years and I refuse to give up!

    You can read my stories about what VERIZON did to my family by GOOGLING:
    • “Verizon Raped My Family – Cover Letter”
    • “Verizon Raped My Family – Press Release”
    • “Verizon Raped My Family – Requesting Criminal Punishment”

    From there you can access the other letters through the recent post.

    I am a man who has stood up against racism, discrimination, bullying, harassment, hostile environment, belittlement, threats, and retaliation, all while working for Verizon Communications, as they conspired to terminate me.

    I am a man who is trying to hold his family together while in the process of trying to fight for my rights to be heard. I am a man who has brought up his family on morals, discipline, character, hard work, dedication and conviction to believe that good things happen to good people. I am a man who could not be more proud of my family for all their trust and faith in my conviction. I am man who is a proud servant in my community and deserves to be heard, as I am begging for JUSTICE!

    I have learned that: “If you have no Money, A lot of Power, unlimited amount of Connection and resources, you have no chance at receiving justice within our country!

    Even though I know this to be true, that justice of only for the few, I refuse to allow Verizon to beat me! I will fight them until I die. I will never give up, I will let the world know of the abuse I suffered and the lack of justice I have received.

    Neal W. Dias

    March 19, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • smithapple

      Write Verizon and leave the rest of us alone.

      March 19, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Mike

    Where is Al and Jesse and the black community when actual Africans are modern day slaves? They scream at the top of their lungs about slavery that happened before anyone in living memory was born, but when it comes to actually helping out real life African slaves, where are they?

    March 19, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • olololololol

      They are only there when it involves making whites look bad

      March 20, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
  28. Chris

    If I'm not mistaken the above roads and signs are in Columbus, not Cincinnati. I don't think I'm mistaken because I lived in Columbus for 5 years while I went to OSU, and Refugee Rd is right off I-70

    March 19, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cincy1981

      You are correct

      March 19, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shawn

      Ya, it stated that in the article...

      "(There’s another Afro-Mauritanian community in Columbus, about two hours to the northeast, centered on an intersection that indicates the situation there: Refugee Road at Citizens Place.)"

      March 19, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
  29. Babbs

    White Moors and Black Moors sounds exactly like an Americanized terminology.

    March 19, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  30. Patti near Erlanger

    To anyone in the Erlanger area: Please go to the LaBadiya restaurant. It's fabulous food and the Mauritanian man who runs it is delightful. I am a frequent diner there but I am not affiliated with anyone who owns the restaurant. I just want them to stay in business.

    March 19, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • jodsafjsd

      Thank you for posting a useful comment. You're one of the few.

      March 19, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
      • Patti near Erlanger

        Thank you. Reading online comments will usually make you weep for humanity. How did we get this way?

        March 19, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
  31. Tom bishop

    Somehow someway the slavery in Mauritania is George W Bush's fault. That's what Obama will tell you.

    March 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • jodsafjsd

      Why did you waste your time posting that, and why am I wasting my time replying?

      March 19, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
      • Your Panties

        Grins and a few Farts.

        March 19, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
  32. truefax

    Ever see Alien Nation? The moor (pun intended) that's published about Mauritania the moor it sounds like Alien Nation.

    March 19, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  33. ann west

    🔴 Ohio Sucks!

    March 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
  34. Dave_Memphis

    States primarily associated with the Rust Belt include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. Bordering lands include parts of Wisconsin, New York, Kentucky, West Virginia and Ontario, Canada. Some major industrial cities of the Rust Belt include Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit.

    March 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
  35. Dave_Memphis

    Cincinnati is ranked right below Memphis at number #8 on this list:


    March 19, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • clark

      Cincinnati has a higher GDP per Capita than half the cities in the USA. @ Author is an idiot. @ so are you.

      March 20, 2012 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  36. Rustbelt?

    On what plane of existence is Cincinnati part of the Rust Belt? By that logic Cleveland is also part of Megalopolis on the east coast and Chicagoland.

    March 19, 2012 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Cincinnatian

      Did the author of this story even visit Cincinnati? It's not the Rust Belt and its glory days are far from "behind it." So sad to see the author effectively diss Cincinnati.

      March 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jo

      I agree. In no way shape or form is Cincinnati rusted out. It's a vibrant city.

      March 19, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
      • Cincy1981

        Yes I guess by dissing Cincinnati it gave the story the feel he was going for. But clearly he's never been here

        March 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave_Memphis

      Just google Cincinnati and rustbelt. Its pretty consistent through the years that Cincinnati is part of the rustbelt.

      March 19, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
      • clark

        google cincinnati and highest per capita city GDPs, also google Cincinnati for it's unique German culture. Also google P&G, Chiquita, GE, and WellPoint, each employing thousands in the city, and each among the biggest GDP contributors in America. Also NFL and MLB teams. You CAN say rust belt, but you absolutely can't say poorest, and you can't say "glory days behind it"

        March 20, 2012 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
    • bignevermo

      Cincinnat IS considered part of the rust belt...they lost a lot of manufacturing jobs there in the 1*980's
      Since the term described a set of economic and social conditions rather than denote a region of the United States per se, the Rust Belt has no precise boundaries. The extent to which a community within the northern United States may have been described as a Rust Belt city depends at least as much on how great a role industrial manufacturing has played in its local economy—and, moreover, on how well it has adapted to the decline of manufacturing—as it does on geography alone.

      so there!

      March 19, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
      • Cincy1981

        I don't think the issue is that he is referring to Cincinnati being in the rust belt, but that he stated the city's glory days are behind it. Which if you have been to Cincinnati you would realize that statement is incorrect. He's implying that Cincinnati has nothing to offer. And as for industry we have P&G, GE Aviation, Jim Beam, Miller Brewing Company among many others. I could care less about the rust belt reference. It's what he's implying that's irritating.

        March 19, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
      • clark

        Who cares, to 25 highest GDP per capita cities in America, eat it.

        March 20, 2012 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Amazed at the ignorance

      The phrase "rust belt" is in no way a dis to Cinncinnati or Cleveland or any other city. The Rust Belt is a term that is used to refer to the manufacturing heart of the country. As stated by a previous comment, cities in the rust belt also include Pittsburgh andChicago. Pay a little attention to what is actually written, as well as in History class, please...

      March 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
      • little attention

        ??? "glory days well behind it" is the phrase at issue, don't change the subject.

        March 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  37. Tom

    George W Bush did it !!

    March 19, 2012 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
  38. Dennis

    "White Moors"..new one to me.How about Black Moors and Mauritanian slave owners.I doubt these slave owners are whites living in Mauritania.

    March 19, 2012 at 10:10 am | Report abuse |
    • marc

      Can't you read...didn't it say White moors who owned slaves living in Mauritania. Yes.....White Moors, you are all connected.

      March 19, 2012 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
      • Dahlia

        The "White" Moors are actually Arabs

        March 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jane

      The White Moors are brown and the Black Moors are black.

      March 19, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |