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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 come to Lockland to escape persecution, but still cast ballots for change back home

A group of young Mauritanians waits outside the Roselawn Mosque to cast ballots in the Mauritanian presidential election June 29.
Nick Swartsell
A group of young Mauritanians waits outside the Roselawn mosque to cast ballots in the Mauritanian presidential election June 29, 2024.

Ibrahim Guisset stands in the parking lot of a low-slung, nondescript mosque in Roselawn on June 29, the day of Mauritania's presidential elections.

Around him, hundreds filter in and out of the building. Cars idle, women and men in colorful traditional attire or jeans and t-shirts come and go; political conversations buzz.

The Roselawn mosque is serving as a polling location for Mauritanians to cast a kind of absentee ballot. About 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 running against 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 U.S.," he says. "The only reason they left the country is because there is slavery. There is no justice, and people can't find work."

Ibrahim Guisset stands outside the Roselawn Mosque as voting takes place in the June 29 Mauritanian presidential election.
Nick Swartsell
Ibrahim Guisset stands outside the Roselawn mosque as voting takes place in the June 29 Mauritanian presidential election.

More than two decades ago, Guisset fled to the U.S. to escape persecution in Mauritania, a country on the western coast of Africa.

He settled first in Ohio's small industrial village of Lockland, following others he knew who had made the trip.

"Well, Lockland, one of the main reason we moved here is because you have your family members around you," he says. "You come here, you find your family, and they're going to support you."

Now hundreds of younger Mauritanians are making a similar journey to Lockland during a pivotal moment in their home country's politics.

But they haven't forgotten Mauritania and its politics.

'It's not a complete democracy'

Ghazouani was declared the winner of the election shortly after polls closed, though his opposition says the contest was rigged. Mauritanian security forces killed three people during anti-Ghazouani protests after the results were announced.

Mauritanian activists say the country's government sometimes refuses to issue citizenship papers for Black residents. In interviews, a number of recent arrivals report having been detained, imprisoned and physically assaulted without cause by Mauritanian security forces before they fled the country.

RELATED: Mauritanians in Lockland fix bikes, await immigration fate

Not everyone at the Roselawn polling place on election day is opposed to the current regime though.

Abeidi Sidne lives in Greater Cincinnati and worked on Ghazouani's reelection campaign. He says Mauritania's president has worked to increase political freedom, boost the economy and improve security in a country that has experienced multiple military coups since it established independence from France in the 1960s.

"You see all Mauritanians — Black, white, whatever — enjoying the politics freely," he says. "That's only happened under his presidential time."

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

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

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

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

"It's not a complete democracy," Adou says. "The process is not completely fair and transparent. So considering all of these things, I think it's a big victory for him."

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

A Mauritanian voter outside the Roselawn Mosque shows the inked finger he used to authenticate the diaspora ballot he cast in the country's June 29 presidential election.
Nick Swartsell
A Mauritanian voter outside the Roselawn mosque shows the inked finger he used to authenticate the diaspora ballot he cast in the country's June 29 presidential election.

For Mauritanian activist Houleye Thiam, human rights issues made the election pivotal. She drove down from Columbus to cast her ballot.

"We love this country, but we'd rather be in our own country working to fix our own country," she says. "Because that's where you have your childhood friends. That's where you have your long-lost cousin. That's where you have parents. Especially this year and last year, we've seen so many Mauritanians come. These are young people leaving the country because they don't see any hope."

The economics at play

But why has Lockland specifically seen so many Mauritanian immigrants? That's where another major factor comes in: economics.

Amadou Dia also showed up to vote. He came from Mauritania and settled in Lockland in the early 2000s. He says an affordable apartment building close to jobs at a food processing facility called Club Chef led the first immigrants there.

RELATED: The Lockland Split is going away. Will that help the village?

"Mainly that's the reason why everyone is living in Lockland," he says. "Those apartments — the company was less than 500 feet away from them. So people could walk and go to work."

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

Club Chef is long closed, but there are other opportunities nearby once Mauritanian immigrants get work permits. Dia eventually relocated to Forest Park and got his citizenship. Guisset also moved out of Lockland to West Chester.

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

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.