Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
It's never been more important to understand our neighbors on a deeper level. With careful, embedded reporting and engaging long-form narrative journalism, Community Dispatch will regularly bring you a series from one of our region's varying communities to explore their experiences, their concerns, and their defining sorrows and joys.

Mauritanians in Lockland fix bikes, await immigration fate

Mauritanian cyclists at a Friday bike workshop in Lockland
Nick Swartsell
/
WVXU
Mauritanian cyclists at a Friday bike workshop in Lockland.

Khaladou Sy is waiting.

He's waiting to see whether the journey he made to Lockland earlier this year will be permanent. Waiting to see if he'll be sent back to his native Mauritania. Waiting for a work permit so he can support his young child.

Mauritanians have been coming to Lockland since the 1990s to escape harsh persecution against Black people in the West African country. Recently, their numbers have increased dramatically, adding significantly to the population in a village that had about 3,500 people a year ago. Like Sy, they wait to see what their fate will be in the U.S. immigration system.

In the meantime, there are English classes. Volunteering at the local food pantry.

And, there are bicycles.

"The bikes are very, very helpful," Sy says. "My bike, I take it to the laundry, I take it to the grocery, it's my car. I'm driving around the city with my bike and it's very good."

He's not the only one from Mauritania spending a lot of time with bikes.

On a recent Friday, a group of young men gathered around an old beach cruiser bike in a small cinderblock garage.

They've been working on fixing a flat tire — wrenching off the nuts that keep the wheel secure, pulling it out from under its fender, and peeling the tire off to get to the punctured tube inside.

An attendee at a Friday bike workshop in Lockland repairs the cranks on a donated bike
Nick Swartsell
/
WVXU
An attendee at a Friday bike workshop in Lockland repairs the cranks on a donated bike

Arabic, French, African languages like Fulani, English and even a little Spanish buzz as others work on their own bikes among extra parts, tools and lunch waiting in pizza boxes.

RELATED: Immigrants have always been integral to Camp Washington. This place wants them to feel welcome

Vincent Wilson started this makeshift bike shop earlier this year. He's been teaching English in Lockland's Mauritanian community for two years. As their numbers increased, he started seeing how much time it was taking his students to walk to their daily destinations.

"A lot of these men had to make a choice between going to English class in the morning or to the mosque at noon," he says. "The bicycle really allows them to do both, and to have a sense of empowerment and freedom as well."

Wilson coordinates the Friday shops with a handful of other volunteers who teach repair skills and solicit bike donations. The shop has given out about 300 bikes to cyclists from Mauritania on the condition they help fix them up.

An attendee at the Friday bike workshops with his Schwinn road bike. The ad-hoc bike shop has helped about 300 Mauritanians in Lockland repair donated bicycles.
Nick Swartsell
/
WVXU
An attendee at the Friday bike workshops with his Schwinn road bike. The ad-hoc bike shop has helped about 300 Mauritanians in Lockland repair donated bicycles.

Why 'all the people ran away'

Samba Diallo frequents the weekly makeshift shop. He says he's thrilled his mechanical skills have improved through the visits.

"Every Friday I come here," he says. "I can fix the wheels, the tubes, the brakes, the pedals, the seats. Everything I can. It's very good for me."

Diallo came to Lockland about six months ago from Mauritania.

Prior to 2023, there were about 8,000 people from Mauritania in the U.S., immigration data shows. They began coming in the 1990s, when a brutal crackdown on Mauritania's Black population lead to massacres, arrests and displacement to neighboring countries like Senegal.

The country was the last in the world to criminalize slavery in 2007. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights estimates more than 90,000 Black Mauritanians are still enslaved there.

Columbus and suburban Cincinnati had the largest concentrations of the diaspora in the U.S., with more than 3,000 living in those cities.

RELATED: Vietnamese refugees make Song Long a family tradition, neighborhood staple

Now new waves are coming. The pace of their arrival has increased dramatically, with thousands more coming to the U.S. to apply for asylum over the last year.

Last year, more than 15,000 Mauritanians were taken into custody while presenting asylum claims at the U.S. southern border, The World reported in January. Another 13,000 came from neighboring Senegal.

Many of the new arrivals are Fulani, an ethnic group persecuted in their homeland. Some, like Diallo, fled after intimidation over their advocacy for human rights.

"Three times they arrested me," Diallo says of the authorities in Mauritania. "Sometimes they beat me. They called me 'Black dirty.' They didn't give me anything to eat. It's very hard. That's why all the people you see here ran away."

Hundreds of those new arrivals started showing up in Lockland. They found shelter wherever they could, sharing small apartments and sometimes becoming the subject of fire code concerns due to their crowded living spaces.

An attendee of the Friday bike workshops with a newly-repaired bike.
Nick Swartsell
/
WVXU
An attendee of the Friday bike workshops with a newly-repaired bike.

Why Lockland?

John Keuffer is the CEO of the Valley Interfaith Community Resource Center, a social service organization in Lockland. He says the influx caught the organization by surprise.

"I came back from vacation in July of 2023, and there were a hundred Mauritanians here," he says. "We found out there are about a thousand living here, right around the corner. Sometimes ten or more to a room. We had to really readjust."

Keuffer says at first it was a struggle to provide enough food for the new arrivals along with the food pantry's regular clients, and some tension flared up between the groups. But he says that's largely died down now.

Sy volunteers at Valley, working the front desk and translating for other Mauritanians who come for assistance.

"The Mauritanians, we've found, quite frankly... if I ask for some help, I haven't had a single problem," Keuffer says.

It's not totally clear what's caused the recent uptick in immigration to Lockland specifically. Some say they came because they have family or friends here already. Others say they've seen viral posts on TikTok and messaging groups in WhatsApp showing how to get to America.

RELATED: This parent reclaimed her heritage because of where her son went to college

Khaladou Sy came to Lockland from Mauritania six months ago. He says he fled the country's repressive government to protect his wife and child.
Nick Swartsell
/
WVXU
Khaladou Sy came to Lockland from Mauritania six months ago. He says he fled the country's repressive government to protect his wife and child.

Sy came to Lockland because of family ties.

"We know some Mauritanians who came here a long time ago," he says. "Some of them were my wife's family members. When we came here, they gave us shelter."

Before he had a family, Sy moved frequently from one place to another to avoid arrest for his human rights activism. But after he got married and had a baby, he realized he was putting his loved ones' lives at risk. So the family made the arduous, month-long journey from West Africa through Central America to the United States.

Immigrants like Diallo and Sy are allowed in the U.S., but only pending judicial hearings on their asylum claims.

They have to wait six to nine months before they're eligible for work visas. Things like a driver's license are even further down the line. A bill in Congress sponsored by a bipartisan group of Ohio lawmakers could make work authorization and avoiding deportation easier through a program called Temporary Protected Status, but it hasn't passed yet.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden this month issued an executive order cutting off border crossings by unauthorized asylum seekers once their numbers reach an average of 2,500 a day.

Proponents of that move say it's needed to keep asylum seekers from taxing local resources in places like Lockland. Some critics of the asylum process allege asylum seekers get cash or other government benefits, though the Associated Press reports rumors about payments to people who haven't attained legal status arefalse.

Outside the political debates, Sy says he's just hoping to work to support himself and his family.

"Six months and you have babies and stuff," Sy says. "It's not only me, it's the situation of thousands of others. We have no choice but to wait."

While they wait, Sy, Diallo and many others fix bikes and ride.

Diallo rides all over with his friends, including to his mosque 10 miles away. And he's found joy in helping others who have recently arrived.

"I want to help," he says. "Some people, they don't know this place is here. So I show them the place, and next time I see them, they're like, 'Thank you, thank you, you helped me get a bike.' "

This article has been updated to reflect the number of asylum seekers a day allowed into the U.S. before the border is closed under President Biden's recent executive order.

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.