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.
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.’”