Salma was born into slavery in Mauritania, one of the last places on earth where hereditary chattel slavery is practiced. She smuggled herself across the Atlantic on a cargo ship to freedom, arriving in the US in 1999. The following year, she sought legal asylum through the New York Association for New Americans. An immigration judge ruled that Salma was a slave entitled to US protection.
Salma first told her story in 2003, and updated it here in 2009.
In Mauritania, every ethnicity has to own another ethnicity and my ethnicity owned some other people also. My owner owned only my family. You might see some other people who live next to you but they had their own owner, a different owner, because they were a different ethnic group racially. We lived on a farm but really it is a desert. My owners herded animals, sheep, cows. If you have that you are rich. They used to own that.
I do not remember much about my grandparents. My grandma and grandpa used to work on the farm and in the houses, but I don’t remember much about that because I was very young. They worked on the farm with the animals. When the animals were killed, they took care of the skin of the animals to make it into leather. That’s the most I remember about that. I was around seven when they died.
We used to live all in the same house, in the same concession. They were not houses. They were tents, just tents. There were no buildings. It was one concession with everyone together. The house was in a circle with the owner’s house in the middle and all the slave houses around it, but the owner’s house was very protected from the wind. But we used to have a part to ourselves. The family that owned us lived kind of far from that. But it’s the same house. It’s all considered the same house, it’s within the same perimeter. That’s how the slaves and owners used to live.
When I was a child I saw my owners all the time. We called them by their name, but they would never call you by your name. We called them by their last name, but they didn’t know your name. Hamad Malami was the last name of that family.
They have one type of way to call you. And once they call you that then everyone in that house will know that you are the slave. I can give you an example. Aïssatou. When you pronounce it, it is a very beautiful name. But they won’t call you that. They will call you Aïsa, to minimize your name, or Shita or something like that. They change it to make it smaller. They change it to make it not beautiful to hear. But we know that when you are called by that then someone in that house will know that she’s the one who is supposed to take care of everything. She is the slave. They called me Suidima. My mother’s name was Lorita. They called her Ori. My grandmother’s name was Hamam. They called her Ham.
I did not see my parents a lot because they were never there. My parents would take care of the animals but my mother worked in the master’s house also. I remember that my parents were not happy and were always complaining about the owner, but they were never there with me very much. I used to stay at the concession and my parents were at the owner’s concession working and taking care of the owner’s kids. My mom was at their house taking care of their kids.
My mom used to be at the owner’s house and she used to do every, every, every single thing in that house with my sisters. They did every single thing and the owners never did anything, just would sit and watch. Even their baths, my mom used to give that to them. She gave them baths, took care of the children, cooked, did dishes, washed the clothes, everything. They needed water for the tub, she would go get the water. It might take her one hour to go and one hour to come back to get the water, maybe farther than that. My mom took care of everybody, everybody, the wife and the children. She bathed the wife and the children but she didn’t bathe the owner. Nobody will touch the man. Nobody washed him. He would wash himself. But the wife and children would be washed by slaves.
I used to stay where my mom and dad lived. My parents would never sleep in the owner’s house. They always came back to sleep. They used to come home late at night to their houses. So my mom used to be there with the owner’s children, but they were in a different place.
When my parents were working I used to stay home alone because my brothers and sisters were given to other people. I don’t know if the owners sold them or not. All I knew is they weren’t there. My parents, what they did, I didn’t know about that. I just knew that they weren’t there anymore. They were going one by one. When I asked where they were, they told me that they were gone, they were gone, but they will come back, they will come back. I was the youngest one. My brothers and sisters, they were older than me. They started to leave when they were older, when they started to be able to work hard, when they were teenagers.
I asked my mom, where did they go? She didn’t even know about it. She told me they are gone, they are gone, but they will come back, they will come back. But it seemed like my mom didn’t know. I never heard my parents talking about it. But they were scared to talk about it. If they talked about it maybe the owner would hear. I was the only one asking where they were. The others wouldn’t talk about it. My brothers and sisters wouldn’t ask. I was asking because I didn’t know what had happened. I was younger and I didn’t understand why we were separated all the time, why they were leaving.
I started to work when I was five years old. I used to do the same work my mom did. I would wash the dishes and help my mom. I washed the clothes of the younger children and would go and get wood for my mom. I worked for the owner. Everything I did was for the profit of the owner.
Sometimes I would hear my parents talk about the owners. They would say that they hoped that everything would end one day. But they didn’t really want everything to end because they didn’t have somewhere else to go. They wanted everything to end but they didn’t know where to go and they didn’t have other people where they could go. They couldn’t leave if they wanted to, no, no. They couldn’t leave by themselves. Even if they left, the owners would catch them and bring them back.
My parents never talked about escaping. They never thought about it. I was the only one who thought about how to escape. I was thirty years old when I started thinking about it. I escaped one day and they brought me back.
The slaves know they cannot leave and they believe that they cannot have something else. They believe that whenever they escape, wherever they escape to, the owners will bring them back. So they cannot leave. They will always find them. They never think about going to a different country or going somewhere else. They never think about that. If they do escape they will be punished, yes.
I remember one man. He had a different owner. I heard people talking. I heard a man escaped and then his owner caught him and when he came back, they said, he has been beaten to death. People said that they saw the man. The owner of this man was not far from us. He was just across from us. I was twenty- three or twenty-four years old.
My parents used to talk about it but not very much. They would talk in secret, very late at night, when my mom came back and the owner was sleeping and when my parents were in the place where they would sleep. My mom used to tell me, if you leave that’s how they will do it. She would warn me. She used to tell me, they will do that to you like they did to him.
I knew I wanted to escape. I was tired of everything. I could not understand it at all. I felt like things had started to change inside me and I should not do it anymore. They treated me as a slave. They would hit me even before they would yell at me. They would hit you first to do whatever they wanted you to do. I would wake up at five in the morning and would work until I went to bed at maybe two in the morning. And then I would get up and do it again.
I used to think about escaping. I thought that they might catch me but I also thought that I might have success. I used to believe that everything would stop with me, everything will end with me, and I wouldn’t do that anymore. I used to believe that. Even the owner used to tell them, all our problems will come from her. He used to tell everyone to be careful of her because she will be the one who will bring him trouble or give him problems. When I start remembering, I remember that the big master used to say that, from my first memory. He used to tell that to my parents and my parents would tell me. The master used to say to my mom that he would take me from that house and give me to someone else because I could be trouble.
When he beat me, I resisted. Maybe he beat me because he knew I was angry. I never accepted it. He could see it in my eyes. When my master would talk bad to my mom, I used to answer in her place. I would answer back, from when I was twelve or thirteen. Sometimes I was afraid, but I couldn’t take it. I don’t know what was in me. Maybe it’s something God put in me. Even where I work now I am always speaking my mind.
Whenever I was working or doing something, I was always thinking about escaping. I was always thinking about how to get out of there, always. I would tell my mom that I would leave. She would tell me, if you leave I will be in trouble, so don’t leave. I never talked to my father about leaving, only my mom. My father was the one who believed that we should be there. He said that we don’t have any land, nowhere to go, no place to stay, so we cannot leave there. But he did believe that he was born to do that, born to be made to do that. My mother believed the same thing, but not at the same point.
I used to know where West was because that was the way I was praying when I prayed. But I did not know what was the next country next to us or what was on the other side because I never went out. I used to think that I knew there was another country next to us, very close, but did not know how to get there. I used to believe that maybe when I got there, maybe they would take me, but I wasn’t sure about that. I used to believe that I could not escape with someone else because maybe they couldn’t go. I couldn’t go with someone else.
On the day I escaped the first time, I was tired. In my mind, I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought I’m doing it, I’m doing it. They day before, they were beating my mom. They beat her because they said the food was salty that day. It was at night, late, late, late at night after I finished what I was doing. I didn’t say anything to my mom.
I worked all day and went back to where I would sleep. I stayed up late at night. I wore my clothes but no shoes, nothing. I waited until I didn’t see anyone and from where I was I started running forward. Everyone was asleep and no one knew I was leaving. I ran away to the main entrance of the concession. I ran until I got out of the concession and ran until morning. I ran all night until the morning with no shoes. The ground was very sandy. When I put my feet into the sand it was up to my ankles. I was running and I thought that I had gone far, but I was still within where we lived. I was running until I saw the first house and entered that house, the first house I saw. I ran until I saw the first house and stopped there.
I went into that house. There were people inside that house when I got there. They were surprised to see me. I told them my name and said help me. They said, where are you coming from? I said, from my master’s house. They asked me to sit down. They knew my owner. They knew from my last name. They sent someone over there to go get the people from my master’s house. And then they came and took me.
I thought I was safe in that house. I thought that I had escaped and that everything was all right, everything was finished, everything was over and everything would end. I stayed there a long, long time before they came. He took an animal with him, what he drove to get there. Then he came and took me. The son of the master came. I first saw him when I was in the middle of that concession, sitting outside. He came and put his animal, got out of the stuff he was driving. He asked me, what are you doing here? I didn’t answer. I didn’t talk. Then he was on the animal and I was walking and we went back to my master’s concession.
When we returned, he tied my wrists and ankles and there was someone in charge of beating me. After that, I didn’t talk for a while. They didn’t give me anything to eat. My master told them, don’t give her anything to eat after that. I don’t remember how long it was, maybe four days. I remember that my mom, at night, used to steal things to give me. I was in the place where they tie the slaves, the place where they would put you before they started beating you. It was a steel they would put in the sand, a strong steel that they put inside of the sand, like a steel post. They tied my wrists and ankles around that post and beat me and left me there. My mom used to steal and come there. Not all the time. She would come there and give me couscous into my mouth with her hands.
They beat me with a thing they made to beat the slaves. It was wood attached to leather. They cut the leather into strips and attached it to the wood, many strips of leather attached to the wood, maybe 12 inches long. They would hold the wood and whip us with the leather.
When I was tied up there I was thinking that if I didn’t die from this I would go back, I would escape again. I knew I would. All the time I was thinking about that, after they beat me, that I would go back. I was thinking that if I didn’t die from that, I would escape again. That was what was in my mind.
When they untied me, I showed them that I would never escape again. I was quiet and everything and wouldn’t do it again. I talked to my mom also and told her that I would never do it again. I did everything that they asked me to do and I did it very well. Even if they asked my mom to do something, I
would go and do it. Everything I was asked to do, I would add more on it, I would do more. I played with the kids and was nice to the kids.
The next time I tried to escape was after my mom died. Before that, I thought that I would never leave my mom because they persecuted her after the last time I left. When my mom died, I decided then that I would escape soon.
When I first escaped I only had two children. By the last escape, I had seven and my son was very young. He was just born. It was so hard to think about leaving my children. I thought, I am leaving but I will come back and take my children back. But I think that my children were a force for me. It gave me more power to leave, to escape. I really thought when I left that I would come back and get my children.
I didn’t feel the same way about my husband. It was not the same thing. My husband came from somewhere and they gave me to him. My parents brought him from another concession to marry me. I didn’t want to be married. I told my mom that but it was done. They arranged it. I was married in 1978. I was twenty-two.
I wanted a normal life. I knew that there was liberty somewhere. I saw the master and his family living in this way and this convinced me that I could have freedom.
There was someone else inside the house, another slave. That person wanted to help me leave and I would talk about escaping with that person. This was another slave, not in my family. A man. He was short and very strong. His name was Bilal.
We first started speaking about it some time after the first time I escaped. Bilal would come to my house and talk to me. He came to me. He told me you should do things slowly, not rush. Things will happen at the right moment, Bilal used to tell me. He said, you need someone to show you the way out of here, you cannot leave like that.
We would talk in secret. We would talk at night. I started to form a plan with him. It was a long time that we were planning. We would talk about it when we got the chance to talk about it. But we both knew that this was the plan and when we could talk we would talk. Bilal told me that if you want to leave these people, you have to go across the river. I don’t know how he knew that. He used to tell me to wait until we found someone else to help us. The way he was talking, he meant someone outside the concession, someone who was working on the river, to help me cross the river. When we found him, I left. Bilal found him. I think that someone else knew that person, not Bilal directly. Someone Bilal knew knew him.
One night, Bilal came and told me to be ready. He said to be ready, he knew someone who might be able to get me out that night. He said we would pay him. I asked Bilal how to pay him because I didn’t have any kind of money. But Bilal said he would pay him. He was close to the son of the master. Maybe the son gave him money, I don’t know. Bilal had the key to where they stored the food and drink. He was in charge of the food and drink for all the houses. He used to take care of the master’s son and the money. He controlled the food for everyone. I didn’t know if it would be that night exactly, I thought maybe it would be in two or three days. I didn’t leave that night. I left two days after that night.
I was scared because of my children. I didn’t know what they would do with my children. All I was thinking was, I will leave, I will leave. The night I left, I called my two oldest children and talked to them, they were fifteen and eighteen, my daughter and my son. They were born in 1979 and the other in 1982. This was 1997. I told them that I am leaving but I am coming back. My son asked if I would come back. My daughter didn’t say anything. I told them that if I didn’t come back that someone else will come back.
Then Bilal came late at night when everyone was asleep. He told me earlier that it would be that day. So I wasn’t sleeping, I was waiting. He was making noise with the keys outside and when I heard that I knew it was Bilal.
I took all my clothes and my shoes. Then we started walking, walking, walking, like we would walk very far. We didn’t run, we were walking. The first time I ran and this time I walked with Bilal. Bilal talked to someone outside and he knew the way. When we stopped, I started smelling the river. We walked for maybe 45 minutes, maybe an hour. It was that close. The first time I went the wrong way. This time I knew that I was going to get away. I knew. And I had Bilal with me. The river smelled like water, water. It was not the same as where I lived. It was a new smell that I never smelled before. I knew it was the river.
Bilal told me to stop there and Bilal walked and came back with someone else. Bilal told me, you will go with this person and I will go back. He told me that if you cross the river you are going into another country. You won’t speak the same language but you might see one or two people who speak the same language as you. Bilal knew I was leaving. He helped me.
Bilal didn’t want to go. He said that he is a man and he doesn’t have somewhere else to go. He didn’t want to go on that adventure because he didn’t have somewhere else to go. He said that people will help a woman but they won’t help a man like that. He used to tell me that I was smart and that they way I was smart I could make it.
The man who took me across the river seemed like he was from Senegal. I never knew his name. He was from another country. He had a boat, a small boat. It seemed like he was a fisherman, he worked to find fish, that kind of person. He was speaking the same language as me, speaking French.
Before he left, I told Bilal to take care of my children. I said, do everything you can to help my children to escape. Bilal gave me money. A lot of money. He might have gotten money from the owner, or was selling the food, I don’t know. I don’t know where he got the money. He gave it to me before we separated.
Then I went inside the boat and crossed the river. It was a small boat with paddles. The man didn’t speak to me. I was scared but all I was thinking was that I was leaving.
After we crossed the river, on the other side there were a lot of people who escaped from Mauritania. That man took me there to those people. It was a forest with tents, where people lived, people who escaped from Mauritania and made their life there. There were a lot of people there and families, families, families who live together. It was like a village. I don’t know if they were all slaves, but all of them were dark.
That man took me to those people, that village. He told one of the people there, this person is coming from across the river and she wants to escape and you have to help her. He spoke to a man in the village. I don’t know if he was the head of the village or just another man. He asked me, do you want to stay here or do you want to escape inside Senegal? I said that I didn’t want to stay there. I wanted to go far. I was thinking that I wasn’t far enough away from where I lived. I didn’t feel safe there. I didn’t have any problem with the people but I didn’t feel safe. It wasn’t far enough. When I was there, I was asking people how I could get into the country. The man in the boat had left. I stayed in the village for fifteen to twenty days.
After a while I found someone to help me go into the city. That person was from Dakar, from the city, and was making money by getting people out of there. I gave money to that man and he found a car for me to get me to Dakar. Someone else drove the car. That person told the guy who was driving where to take me in that car. They sent me to a street in Dakar where there were a lot of Mauritanian people, a community.
When I was in Dakar, I felt that it was over because it was a long, long, long trip. I felt better when I got there. I was there until 1999, for two years, until December 1999. I left the concession in mid-1997.
In Dakar, I worked as a maid in someone else’s house. Where I worked, the owner was rich and very powerful and very nice. He was from Senegal. And when I told him my story, he said he would help. I told him, I’m going to Europe. He said no, don’t go to Europe, you can try to go to the United States. He told me that when I get to the United States no one can try to take you back. Maybe if you go to Europe someone can catch you and bring you back, but not from the United States. He went to the port and talked to some ship owner. He talked to them and found me a way to come here. It took him a year, about a year to arrange all of that.
The first time I saw the ship I was scared to death. It seemed like it was Greek, from the words on the boat. They weren’t speaking French, it was Greek people. There were men and some women on the ship. I came there at night and they put me somewhere all by myself. I saw them but they were not interacting with me. It was a very small room in the boat. I had foot with me and was drinking and eating, but it was a long, long, long trip. I was throwing up and vomiting a lot. The boat was moving very strong. We were there a lot, a lot of days. I was thinking, would I see my children again?
We arrived in Baltimore. They told me it was Baltimore. They put me in a car and told me to go with them. They drove me outside the port and into the city. We didn’t speak the same language but we were trying to speak and it was enough to tell me what to do. The man I used to work for in Senegal told them a place where they should take me. A person then picked me up and took me to NY. I didn’t know the person who took me from Baltimore.
I felt like I left somewhere very dark to somewhere very, very light. I was in the dark. Now I started to feel like my life has changed. I met some Gambian people and I lived with them together and I went and started doing hair. And one of them told me that I could apply for asylum when I told him my story. Someone did the application for me. The first time I applied, they denied me.
I got hold of the man I used to work for in Dakar. I was sending money to that person and I think that he did everything to get hold of those people at the border, where I first came, that community in the forest. Those people reached Bilal.
I was talking to that person and once I sent the money I knew that Bilal would know that it was for my children because I had told Bilal what to do. I trusted him. Bilal did everything, the same way he did for me. I knew he would know what to do. And then I waited.
I worked two jobs, three jobs. My first was braiding hair, but also from 2000-2003 I did factory work, and at a store where they sold clothes. I didn’t believe that I could get paid for my work. I saved it and then sent it for my children.
If someone doesn’t have freedom, they don’t have nothing. There is no education, nothing. They wouldn’t be a human being without freedom. People should be free, have communication, have something in their mind instead of being worked to death. Freedom is everything.
I used to talk about my life at a University in Washington, but it’s not easy. It’s hard emotionally. But I liked it because I’m living and I like to talk about it. If I could, I would tell everybody. Wherever they call me in the world, I would go any time to tell my story.
Narrative as told to Kevin Bales, August 29, 2009.