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Black Mauritanians are seeking asylum in Ohio. Advocates want federal protection

Ten people from Mauritania stand in an immigration office posing for a photo. Two hold posters asking for justice.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
People from Mauritania are seeking asylum in Ohio cities, like Cincinnati, where Charleston Wang's immigration office is.

When Oumar Ball first arrived in Cincinnati, he was alone.

His first night in Ohio was spent on the floor of a mosque. He left his home in Mauritania, fleeing political violence and an oppressive government. Twenty-seven years on, the problem in his home country persists. Young men with stories just like Ball’s continue to arrive in Ohio.

“I've been in the same situation, suffering,” Ball said. “They left the country for slavery, discrimination, torture, killing, every single day and they never stop.”

So, he takes them in. Around 20 refugees live in his 6-bedroom home, including Ndahirou Tambadou. Speaking through a translator, Tambadou said his father was killed by a government official in Mauritania.

“Anytime we try to do a peaceful march, we are asking for justice for the people being killed like my dad, we end in prison,” Tambadou said in Fulani.

Slavery isn’t a thing of the past in the West African country of Mauritania. Human rights groups have documented systemic oppression of an ethnic group there for decades. Many Black Mauritanians, or Haratines, have fled, or have been forcefully deported from Mauritania. An estimated 8,000 of these migrants have made Ohio their new home.

A man in a suit holds a poster with faces of men lost to discrimination in Mauritania.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Oumar Ball arrived in the U.S. almost three decades ago. He said he's still fighting for justice for those who have been killed by government officials in Mauritania.

Community leaders say their numbers have surged dramatically in the last year. As their presence in Ohio grows, advocates are pushing for the federal government to protect their legal status in the U.S.

Temporary protected status

Tambadou, alongside many of the new arrivals, has started the long, complicated process of applying for asylum. He will need to wait at least half a year for a work permit. Then he’ll have to drive to Cleveland, where Ohio’s only immigration judges are, to prove his case.

If Tamadou’s application is denied, he will likely be put into removal proceedings and potentially deported.

“Deporting people to that chaotic situation, it's just inhumane,” said Lynn Tramonte, director of the Ohio Immigrant Alliance.

Tramonte said temporary protected status, often referred to as TPS, would help. TPS is a federal designation that pauses deportations to countries deemed unsafe to return to, whether it’s for war, natural disaster or human rights abuses. A person who is granted TPS status is automatically eligible for a work permit.

That would make a real difference for the Mauritanians living in Ohio, Tramonte said.

“Just to take off that initial anxiety that everybody has about not being able to work, worrying that you're going to be deported,” she said. “Temporary Protected Status is absolutely a bridge that is needed.”

Three men stand together smiling in an immigration office, with shelves of legal books behind them. One looks down at a new piece of paperwork in his hands.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Oumar Ball and Charleston Wang, an immigration lawyer, celebrate the arrival of a work permit for a Mauritanian asylum seeker at Wang's office in Cincinnati.

Migrants could still apply for asylum and, if they choose, eventually apply for a green card. But TPS would allow migrants to start working right when they arrive, which would help them get on their feet faster, said Houleye Thiam, a Mauritanian community leader in Columbus and the president of the Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in the U.S.

If new arrivals can’t work right away, Thiam said, it puts a strain on the resources that people like she and Ball provide. She said many Mauritanian families are taking in new arrivals, but there’s only so much they can provide.

“When people come in, they’re trying to find a better life,” Thiam said. “But when they come here, they’re struggling even more.”

Awaiting change

Beyond the logistical benefits, TPS would mean a federal recognition of what Black Mauritanians are going through. That’s something Thiam’s organization has been working toward for the past five years.

“We've been sounding the alarm, needing help from the international community to really put pressure on the Mauritanian government to change things on the ground so that no one has to leave, but that hasn't happened,” she said.

A window with a poster that of the Statue of Liberty reads "United We Stand." It looks out onto the street where men are gathered.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Mauritanian asylum seekers wait outside an immigration office in Cincinnati.

Thiam has written letters to the Biden Administration urging action. So have Ohio politicians. Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown and Republican U.S. Representative Mike Carey both urged the president to take action early this year.

There’s been no movement. So, people like Tamadou wait. He left his wife and his four kids to be here. And he’s still mourning their absence.

Ball relates: Two decades later, he still yearns for Mauritania. Tears come to his eyes as he recounts what he’s lost.

“Nothing can replace [my] hometown. I have peace. I have a house. I have everything that I want. Just, I am still missing my hometown,” he said.

So long as the terror in Mauritania persists, Ball will never be welcomed home. So, for now, he’ll keep welcoming others to his new home instead.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.