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A Voice of Protest Heard Far From Home

To have the opportunity to freely discuss and criticize the policies of their government without the fear of punishment or imprisonment is something that the group of Mauritanians hold very dearly and appreciate.

Written by Megan O'Brien, Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience Case Manager

Coming from a country that is unknown to most Americans, Mauritanians often feel obligated to place their country in the context of its neighbors, Senegal and Mali, which are more familiar in the U.S. In spite of the fact that Mauritanian human rights violations, including slavery, racism, and discrimination, echo those of the American past and present, the injustice black Mauritanians have endured remains relatively unknown to the average person in the U.S.

This is a map of Mauritania.

At NSC, we work with people coming from a diverse range of countries, many of which we have some familiarity with through media outlets or country condition reports. When I first started receiving referrals for clients from Mauritania, I realized that I would be working with people from a place that I had never heard of and knew nothing about. In the past year, I have been working with a group of six Mauritanians, each of whom served as an activist against the racism and discrimination that is perpetrated by their government. Given the lack of awareness on the situation in Mauritania by the American public, I asked some of my Mauritanian clients to share some of their experiences and what led them to come to the United States. 

After gaining its independence from France in 1960, Mauritania established a white Moor as president, and a coup d’état organized by a group of black Mauritanians was suppressed by the new regime. From 1989 to 1991, the Arab-dominated government attempted to conduct an ethnic cleansing of black Mauritanians in an effort to forcibly displace, deport or remove such African-descended groups from the country. Even though the groups of black Mauritanians shared the same Muslim religion as their government, they were viewed as inferior because of their skin color, and these acts of state-sanctioned genocide resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, leaving many children orphaned and spouses widowed. The Mauritanians that I work with at NSC explained that they were born into a nation where slavery was condoned and racial segregation, even in schools, was the norm. They had to live with the knowledge that their own parents or family members had been killed or imprisoned by the state.

The Mauritanians I know feel angry toward their country’s previous colonizer, France, which has  taken little responsibility in bringing attention to or attempting to resolve the racial problems that continue there. Because of the wealth of resources and oil found in their country, Mauritanians believe that the French feel content to ignore the human rights violations that persist. In the opinion of one Mauritanian, if France truly wanted to prevent further discrimination and enslavement of black Mauritanians, it could easily stop such violations from continuing, as it has done in some of the other countries it once colonized.  

At NSC, the Mauritanians with whom I work are young men who have risked their lives to expose the problems and the lack of rights that continue to grip their country. The group that I know at NSC identify as black Mauritanians (of African descent, as opposed to Arab). They discuss the blatant racism, slavery—in spite of a law passed in August 2015 which abolished slavery, the practice continues—and segregation in Mauritania, explaining that these rights violations continue under the blessing of the government, and they remain relatively unknown and unexposed to the outside world. As protesters and activists against such racial discrimination, these men were punished and in some cases imprisoned by the state for their actions. They managed to flee the country, obtain the necessary documents to come to the United States, seek asylum in this country, and now are in the process of awaiting the decision of their asylum applications. Life here is not easy—many among them left families and children back home, and others are awaiting the arrival of work permits and thus are not yet able to apply for a job. In spite of all these challenges and the frustration of waiting for a court date, there is a strong community of Mauritanians here in Philadelphia—one where people look out for each other, providing emotional support and friendship, and going to the mosque together. The group I know includes people from different ethnic groups, Fulani and Soninké, which may have had their differences back home, but here in the U.S. try to band together and support one another through the asylum process and through the experience of being a new immigrant to the U.S.

An important aspect of life here for all the Mauritanians with whom I work is keeping up with politics in Mauritania and actively following the situation there. During the past two years, members of the Mauritanian community went to Washington, D.C. and New York City to participate in demonstrations in front of multiple African presidents (including the president of Mauritania himself), the president of the African Union, and President Obama. The purpose of these demonstrations was to display and to discuss the experiences and the realities of life in various African countries. The Mauritanians who attended brought signs and banners to display and they distributed flyers describing the situation in their country. In the words of one of the men who attended, the goal was to openly share and expose to the international community the reality that racism and discrimination against the black population persists in his country. 

To have the opportunity to freely discuss and criticize the policies of their government without the fear of punishment or imprisonment is something that the group of Mauritanians hold very dearly and appreciate. In Mauritania, the government controls the majority of information and news that come in and that leave the country. In the words of one of my clients, “everything that the Mauritanian government does, is closed.” Here in the United States, the Mauritanian group describes their appreciation for the opportunity to freely express themselves and fight for the rights of the black population in their country in an open and honest manner, without the threat of imprisonment for speaking out. Here in the United States, far away from the oppressive government of their home country, black Mauritanians benefit from these opportunities to expose the injustices of their government. They are a courageous and resilient group of people who inspire me and who have taught me a lot. Even though they grew up in a place that told them they did not deserve the same rights as everyone else, the Mauritanians that I know at NSC have incredible internal strength that keeps them going and that gives them the hope and determination to continue to fight for the equal rights of all people.