West African immigrants build a new life in Steamboat Springs
February 17, 2013
When Adama Dia looks out over the landscape of Northwest Colorado, he's reminded of a past that's distant in memory and geography.
The cattle and sheep that dot ranch land in the Yampa Valley recall a home almost 6,000 miles away in a village in the West African country of Mauritania, where his job for many years was to watch the village's wealth of livestock and, in turn, protect his people's livelihood.
Although he's about to turn 61, Dia has few wrinkles on his face. His head is smooth and bald, and his beard is strung with silver strands. His French — one of the official languages of Mauritania — is admirable. And in his patois dialect, he says to translator and Steamboat Springs resident Ralph Whittum that he'd love to tend sheep and cattle again.
"That's so good," Dia said he thought while on a recent road trip that took him through picturesque Colorado ranches. "I would be so happy to be doing that again."
But he can't.
In America, watching sheep and cattle wouldn't pay enough to support his wife and the nine children he loves and thinks about every day. So he spends 40 hours a week working at City Market, and he sends every penny he can spare back to his immediate family and other needy friends who call his house in Dakar, Senegal, home.
From halfway across the world, he takes care of them all with wages he earns in Steamboat, and there are many more like him here in the Yampa Valley.
Refugees from Mauritania and West African countries began arriving in Steamboat in 2001, and about 25 of them call Steamboat home.
Generally reserved and shy, the African men share many similar values with the Steamboat community. That's something Integrated Community Executive Director Sheila Henderson has learned throughout her years with the nonprofit resource center that helps immigrants in the community. "Their values of family and just wanting the best for them," Henderson said about what drives the African men.
Most residents might recognize the men from their jobs at City Market and Walmart, but Henderson said they're not recognized enough for the kindness and selflessness they exhibit despite the hardships they've endured.
For example, she said several of the African men take payroll deductions to donate to Routt County United Way.
"It's just their thing of, 'If you have food, you share it. If you have a paycheck, you share it,'" she said.
The refugees, who hail mainly from Mauritania and other West African countries including Ivory Coast, received green cards and have permanent residency as political refugees who have fled the chaos of their home countries.
They can work, they can eat and they live free from persecution. But that doesn't mean their struggles have ended.
Separation from loved ones, language barriers, cultural differences and health problems continue to confront the immigrants.
Yet they're grateful for the jobs and support they've found in the Yampa Valley.
As Dia said, "I like it here. No problems."
A 'very dangerous' place
Where Mamadou Niass lived in Mauritania was out of the Sahara Desert and deep in the rolling savannah that characterizes the southern part of the country. His village, called Sorimiale, is home to about 700 people, including dozens of his relatives.
"It was nice," he said. "But mostly very dangerous."
Niass had been a member of the military for almost 20 years when racial tensions escalated as Arab moors, a lighter-skinned class of Mauritanians, came into power and persecuted those with darker skin, like Niass.
They pushed the black Mauritanians farther to the south and eventually out of the country. In the military, Niass said, the black soldiers were accused of trying to overthrow the government.
"They have the government. They have everything," Niass said. "Black people, they have nothing."
He didn't hesitate to compare the situation in Mauritania to apartheid in South Africa.
"It's the same thing," he said. "It was very dangerous for me."
Niass was jailed for two months and then put on house arrest before he escaped south to Senegal. He spent time in Ivory Coast before applying for a visa to the United States, where he dreamed of being free from persecution and allowed to earn a living.
He wants to return someday to Mauritania to see his extended family and visit the village that once was his home, but it's ill advised. Even his immediate family relocated to Dakar, Senegal, for safety.
"I am worried," he said about Mauritania. "They have a lot of crazy people that is still there."
For others, the desire to return to Mauritania is long gone. Dia wouldn't even point out where he was from on a map.
"Forget Mauritania," he said.
He considers his home Senegal, and he counts the days until he'll have the money to visit his family there again. It's been more than two years, and that's two years too long.
A resident of Steamboat for 1 1/2 years, Abdoulaye Sow said he also would like to move back to Senegal to be with his family, but he can't work there because there are no jobs, and his family needs his financial support.
"You have to leave," he said about escaping the poverty and oppression faced in Mauritania and then Senegal. "But it would be very expensive to leave with your family."
But he's grateful he didn't have to stay in New York City, which is where he lived after coming to the U.S. in 2001.
"I like better here," Sow said. "Life is very quiet."
Life in a mountain town
That's one of the main praises the West Africans sing about their new home in Steamboat Springs.
The peace and quiet is unlike the buzz of New York City, through which many of them traveled before they arrived in Northwest Colorado.
Calm compared with the bustling streets of Dakar, and calm compared with conflict-ridden Mauritania.
And calm it was on a snowy February morning as Micailou Sall donned his jacket and gloves while readying to take his 9 a.m. lunch break. He greeted customers on his way out the door, recognizing person after person who entered Walmart. The customers greet him by name, and he exudes a chatty friendliness even when off the clock.
But Mic, as his name tag reads, needs a nap. He arrived at Walmart before dawn after only a couple of hours of sleep because he worked a night shift at the West Steamboat Kum & Go.
"I am always happy," Sall said despite his rigorous schedule. "Even if I get angry, it makes me happy."
Sall left the conflict in Mauritania in 1989. He moved to Senegal, where he taught kindergarten for years, eventually following his wanderlust to business ventures in bustling markets and then to New York City on Jan. 6, 2001. He rattles off the date as though it were his son's birthday.
He then moved to Silverthorne, where he said the police followed him and the city's other African immigrants for months. Sall said the police soon learned that the men traveled only from home to work and from work to home.
In late 2001, Sall and two other African men were the first of the political refugees to move to Steamboat Springs. Although he wasn't the first black person to live in Steamboat, Sall said, he was the first African, and Steamboat residents were curious.
"They asking me questions and how I can handle the cold," he laughed.
The cold? No problem. But there are qualities that set the African men apart from much of the Steamboat community.
Sall, like many of his fellow immigrants, practices Islam. But he emphatically said religion is not what makes people different. What's important is how you carry yourself and how you treat others, he said.
"We are Muslim, yes. We still know our roots," he said. "We know why we're here, and the people we live with, we like them, and we respect them."
The Muslim men pray five times each day, but they never let it interrupt their work. Sometimes, they pray during their lunch breaks, and sometimes they wait until they get home.
Sall said routines also go uninterrupted during Ramadan.
Throughout the holy month, which falls deep into Colorado's summer, the men fast from sun up until sun down. The daylight hours are longer during that time of year in Colorado than they are in West Africa.
"We still doing what we do," Sall said. "We do not call in sick for Ramadan."
Some of the Mauritanians live together, but with the number of hours they work, there is little social time. Still, they cook for one another to ease the burden, and they communicate in Fulani, an African dialect spoken among Afro-Mauritanians.
The men have access to an African cable channel that offers news and sports in French, and Niass particularly is attached to the TV show "Maury."
Sow said the most important thing to him on his day off is resting.
It made him laugh to talk about the furiously paced American culture of work.
"People don't relax," he explained in French through translator Judith Lehel (the Africans know her as Mama Judith). "Money is very important, and everyone is running around trying to make money and doesn't take time to relax."
Sall said that when he's not working, he's at home or walking to Bud Werner Memorial Library with his 6- and 2-year-old sons. He's received invitations to go out on the town before, but like the others, it doesn't interest him.
"In the summer, sometimes I run, do sport," Sall said. "But mostly work."
Even through his broken English, there was no doubt. Dia wouldn't stay here if it weren't for Henderson.
The local nonprofit she runs helps the men navigate the difficult bureaucratic and legal systems of the United States. Henderson helps them fill out job applications, file taxes and apply for passports for trips to Africa. She also pairs them with an organization that helps the men get new dentures.
She blushes as the African men compliment her support. They bring her gifts from Africa and greetings from their families.
Those who have helped the men settle into their Steamboat lives have had a profound impact on the immigrants, but the bonds formed by compassion extend in both directions.
When the West Africans began to arrive in 2001, Steamboat resident Luther Berntson volunteered to help with the transition.
"We got to be very good friends," he said. "It was a pleasure to work with these guys. If I can help people … that's what it's all about. It's been a privilege."
Berntson quickly learned that Mauritanian men like Niass are fastidious in their gratitude.
"I come here, I don't know anybody, and (Luther) comes to different apartments to bring things we need," Niass said.
Even though that was 10 years ago, Berntson said Niass still won't accept payment when he helps his dear friend shovel snow or do yard work.
Berntson never has ceased to be impressed by his friend's loyalty and honesty. Niass is a man who sends every penny he can spare to his family in Africa. He's also a man who returned a $100 bill he found in the pocket of a shirt he bought at a yard sale, Berntson said.
"They're not takers," he said. "They do what they can."
Whittum, a former Steamboat ski patroller, also found friendship in the presence of the reserved but warm African men.
After a Peace Corps stint in Cameroon, Whittum said he found himself longing for West Africa until he saw the Mauritanians bagging groceries at City Market. He excitedly asked where they were from and chatted in French. Now, he translates for them at medical appointments when they need extra help.
"I admire these guys," he said. "What they do for their families — just look at their lives."
But he thinks they're not well understood by the community.
"There needs to be more mixing," he said. "The community should make a point of going up to these guys and saying hi. They're very shy."
He said he's amazed at the way the African men take care of their families, friends and others who might be lacking in food or anything else. Niass' income supports 32 people in West Africa, and Dia said he's supporting his wife's sister's family as well as his own since her husband died.
It's never a question when it comes to family.
Some want to return to West Africa, some want to stay. But if the reality is that they have to remain here to earn a living, all of the immigrants would give anything to have their families with them.
The challenge is more than financial, however. It's legally difficult to move family here with only a green card. The most promising path is to become an American citizen, but it's not an easy road.
The citizenship test comprises 100 questions that delve into American history and government specifics that many, if not most, U.S. citizens wouldn't be able to recall from grade school classes.
For men who didn't grow up in America — some of them don't even read or write in their native languages — it's a daunting challenge. But Integrated Community arranges tutors for the men to help them study.
Although Niass hasn't begun to study for the test, he's thinking about it. Life is good here, he said, and he thinks his family could find the same joy here that he has.
In the Steamboat condo that he shares with three other African men, Niass holds up pictures of his wife in colorful African dress and his daughter in front of a crashing wave on a beach in Ivory Coast.
His roommate Moussa Ba excitedly brings out photos of his own wife and children, and they pass them around the room gushing over the beauty of their faraway faces.
A video of an African concert blares from the TV screen, and Niass shows off his emerald green traditional African Woutti, the equivalent of a three-piece suit that he wears to special occasions. The culture of their home country still is alive in this condo, and it fits perfectly into the landscape of Steamboat.
Niass thinks his wife would like it here very much and said he pictures Helen Berntson, Luther's wife, taking her into their First World kitchen and showing her how to bake cookies.
The thought makes him smile.
"We have a lot of people helping us here," Niass said. "I want to live here. I want to die here. It's my second village." ■