Mauritanians in Ohio vote for changes in their country

Mauritanians in Ohio vote for changes in their country

Mauritanians in Ohio vote for changes in their country

Ibrahim Guisset stands in the parking lot of a low, nondescript mosque in Roselawn on June 29, the day of Mauritania’s presidential election.

Around him, hundreds of people are entering and leaving the building. Cars are stopped, women and men in colourful traditional costumes or jeans and T-shirts are coming and going; political conversations are taking place.

The Roselawn mosque serves as a polling place for Mauritanians to cast a sort of mail-in ballot. Some 29,000 members of the diaspora will do so, a small portion of the 2 million votes cast in the election.

Many, including Guisset, are coming to support Biram Dah Abeid, an anti-slavery activist and the most popular of six challengers to incumbent Mohamed Ghazouani.

Critics say Ghazouani has continued Mauritania’s long record of human rights abuses against its black citizens.

Guisset says it’s time for someone new.

“There are more than 20,000 young Mauritanians who have fled the country to come to the United States,” he says. “The only reason they have left the country is because there is slavery, there is no justice and people cannot find work.”

Ibrahim Guisset stands outside the Roselawn Mosque as voting takes place in Mauritania's June 29 presidential election.

Ibrahim Guisset stands outside the Roselawn Mosque as voting takes place in Mauritania’s June 29 presidential election.

More than two decades ago, Guisset fled to the United States to escape persecution in Mauritania, a country on the west coast of Africa.

He first settled in the small industrial town of Lockland, Ohio, following other acquaintances who had made the journey.

“Well, Lockland, one of the main reasons we moved here is because you have your family around you,” he says. “You come here, you find your family and they’re going to support you.”

Now, hundreds of young Mauritanians are making a similar journey to Lockland during a crucial moment in the politics of their home country.

But they have not forgotten Mauritania and its politics.

“It is not a complete democracy”

Ghazouani was declared the winner of the election shortly after polls closed, although his opposition claims the result was rigged. Mauritanian security forces killed three people during protests against Ghazouani after the results were announced.

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Not everyone at the Roselawn polling place on Election Day, however, was opposed to the current regime.

Abeidi Sidne lives in the Greater Cincinnati area and worked on Ghazouani’s re-election campaign. She says the Mauritanian president has worked to increase political freedom, boost the economy and improve security in a country that has suffered multiple military coups since gaining independence from France in the 1960s.

“All Mauritanians, black, white, whatever, freely enjoy politics,” he says. “That has only happened during his presidential term.”

Despite the high stakes, tension is low at the polling station. Although they favour very different candidates, Guisset and Sidne ask to pose together for a photo.

Although his 56% margin of victory in the election was wide, some experts say opposition to Ghazouani is growing.

Baba Adou is a PhD student at the University of Florida and a researcher in the school’s Sahel Research Group, which studies West African politics. He was in Mauritania observing the recent elections.

Adou says that despite the electoral system being controlled by Ghazouani and tilted in his favour, opposition leader Abeid is gaining popularity. The anti-slavery activist received about 22% of the vote this time, significantly more than he got in the previous election.

“It’s not a complete democracy,” Adou said. “The process is not completely fair or transparent. So, given all these factors, I think it’s a big win for him.”

Adou says the political climate in Mauritania is one factor that could be driving recent immigration to the U.S. He also brought Mauritanians from hundreds of miles away to the Roselawn mosque to vote.

A Mauritanian voter outside the Roselawn Mosque displays the inked finger he used to authenticate the diaspora vote he cast in the country's June 29 presidential election.

A Mauritanian voter outside the Roselawn Mosque displays the inked finger he used to authenticate the diaspora vote he cast in the country’s June 29 presidential election.

For Mauritanian activist Houleye Thiam, human rights issues made the election crucial. She traveled from Columbus to cast her vote.

“We love this country, but we would rather be in our own country working to fix it,” he says. “Because that’s where our childhood friends are, that’s where our long-lost cousins ​​are, that’s where our parents are. Especially this year and last year, we’ve seen a lot of Mauritanians coming. They’re young people leaving the country because they don’t see any hope.”

The economy at stake

But why has Lockland received so many Mauritanian immigrants? That’s where another important factor comes into play: the economy.

Amadou Dia also turned up to vote. He is from Mauritania and settled in Lockland in the early 2000s. He says an affordable apartment building near jobs at a food processing plant called Club Chef was what brought the first immigrants there.

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“That’s the main reason why everyone lives in Lockland,” he says. “Those apartments… the company was less than 150 yards away. So people could walk to work.”

Over the years, many more followed their families and friends to Lockland, as did Guisset. Like others, he worked for the Club Chef company.

The Chef Club has long since closed, but there are other opportunities nearby once Mauritanian immigrants obtain work permits. Dia eventually moved to Forest Park and obtained her citizenship. Guisset also moved from Lockland to West Chester.

Both have found well-paying jobs and stability. They hope that recent immigrants can find a similar path, or that a future election will bring changes that will allow them to prosper in their home country. In the meantime, many continue to arrive in Lockland.