Ohio Woman Tells How She Escaped Slavery in Mauritania and Gained Asylum in the United States

map of Sahara

A Mauritanian woman named Marieme (a pseudonym) who lives in Cincinnati recently shared her story with CNN, telling how she escaped a life of slavery in her home country and obtained asylum, followed by citizenship, in the United States. Asylum is a means by which people who fear persecution in another country can obtain legal immigration status in the United States. Her story demonstrates how people who fear the conditions in their country of origin may find hope here.

Mauritania, a country in west Africa, was the last nation in the world to formally abolish slavery, according to CNN, only doing so in 1981. Still, slavery remains an “open secret,” with as much as ten to twenty percent of the Mauritanian people living in a state of slavery. The CIA’s World Factbook states that half of the population still relies on livestock and agriculture to survive. The country has extensive natural resources, but most are subject to extraction by foreigners. A military junta currently runs the government, according to the CIA, after a 2008 coup deposed the democratically-elected president. The country faces conflict between different ethnic groups.

Marieme reportedly began working for her master at the age of 3 or 4 in an area of southern Mauritania near the border with Senegal. Her brothers and sisters disappeared from the master’s household when Marieme was 12, possibly because he made gifts of them. The master began sexually abusing Marieme around this time as well. Luckily, the master’s son helped her, teaching her to read and write and telling her about the outside world. This gave her the courage and the resources to escape.

After one unsuccessful attempt, Marieme escaped across the border into Senegal. She had to leave her six children behind. She spent about two years living with a man who hosted a group of refugees in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The man eventually put her on a cargo ship bound for a place she had never heard of, the United States. She spent some time in a Mauritanian community in the Bronx before settling in Cincinnati in 2003. She sent as much of her salary as she could back to Senegal, where the people who helped her escape were working on a plan to get her children out. Gradually, all six children made it to Ohio.

While she was working to bring her children to the U.S., Marieme was also working on obtaining legal status for herself. She gained asylum as a political refugee in 2001 based on her experiences as a slave, and because of her well-founded fear of persecution or death if she returned to Mauritania. In 2010, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. People who claim status as a refugee can apply for asylum affirmatively through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) if they are present in the United States. A person who is in deportation or removal proceedings can also claim asylum defensively, in which case an immigration judge, rather than an asylum officer, will consider the person’s application.

Ohio immigration visa lawyer Gus Shihab helps people understand and navigate the U.S. immigration system, which includes the constantly-changing politics of our immigration laws. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us through our website or at (800) 625-3404.

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Photo credit: Mauritania map [Public domain] hosted by Central Intelligence Agency.