October 16, 2018
I admit I had to use a map to locate Mauritania, which is officially the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and located in northwest Africa. In the past few weeks, I have learned a lot about this country, including the fact that Columbus is home to about 3,000 Mauritanians, many of whom came to the U.S. nearly 30 years ago as refugees.
Refugees are people who have nowhere else to go. They do not choose to leave their homelands but are forced to flee because of political, ethnic, religious and other types of persecution or natural disasters.
Mauritania is dominated by a ruling Arab class that led an ethnic cleansing almost 30 years ago to purge the country of its black residents. The country arrested, tortured and violently expelled more than 70,000, rescinding the black Mauritanians’ citizenship and erasing records.
Many Mauritanians immigrated to the United States and some settled in Columbus.
Today, Mauritanians in our area — who ironically reside in the area of Refugee Road — live in their new country as grateful, law-abiding and taxpaying residents.
Recently, however, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials began targeting the Ohio Mauritanians. Government officials claim the Mauritanians had fraudulent papers when they entered the U.S. as refugees and should be deported to Mauritania, where they will likely face persecution, enslavement and even torture.
Mauritania was the last country on the planet to outlaw slavery in 1981 but still retains the highest rate of modern slavery in the world.
Some local Mauritanians have sold their cars and homes and liquidated their 401(k)s because they never know when they may be detained or deported. Others have fled to Canada to avoid deportation.
The Dispatch recently published an article describing how the Federal Board of Immigration Appeals halted the deportation of five Mauritanians living in Ohio. The piece quoted an immigration attorney who states that the individuals “would not be here if they didn’t have community support.”
As people of a country founded on the principles of liberty and freedom, I urge others to join me in showing support for our Mauritanian community. We cannot sit by and watch our neighbors be deported back to a country where they may very well face the horrors of slavery.
Immigrants and refugees contribute $345 million a year in state and local income taxes and spend $2.8 billion in the local economy. And, they add so much more to the fabric of our central Ohio culture.
Our region’s largest employers already struggle to find and attract high-quality, skilled talent to Columbus. Do we want to become known around the world as America’s “Deportation City?” Columbus is a place that is smart, open and global. We pride ourselves on our welcoming attitude and commitment to inclusion. It’s time to put our words into action.
And, we can look to our community’s young people for inspiration and leadership. A recent Hilliard Darby High School graduate who attends Ohio State University started PeaceBuilders, a group of young people who strive for a unified nation by breaking the chains of intolerance and building bridges among different cultures and religions.
An Olentangy High School student recruited classmates who were born outside the U.S. to meet with fifth-grade students as volunteers and make presentations to help foster awareness and understanding of other ethnicities and customs.
Consider following their lead. Start a social media campaign that shows everyday citizens demonstrating small acts of hospitality and inclusivity. Inform your elected officials of your viewpoint. Discuss the situation at your office, your place of worship, your dinner table.
Learn more about the plight of the Mauritanians and other refugees and immigrants by meeting them and listening to their stories. Our organization, the Columbus Council on World Affairs, will be glad to facilitate this interaction.
Let us inform the world that Columbus stands for freedom and justice and does not tolerate the disregard of human dignity. Let us become “America’s Most Welcoming City,” known for inclusivity, hospitality and our dedication to preserving freedom for all.
Patrick Terrien is president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Council on World Affairs.