Bakary Tandia left Mauritania 15 years ago but has never lost sight of the needs of his homeland.
Big Town, Big Dreams
Bakary Tandia started telling people to fight for their
rights in Mauritania in the late '80s,
when he volunteered for groups that spoke against the repressive government there. He now speaks at meetings of the State
That's how far Tandia has come in his never-ending fight
for human rights. Fifteen years after leaving his native Mauritania, he continues his quest toward humanitarian assistance
there by giving speeches in colleges, attending forums and making media appearances around the U.S.
"Individual achievement is easy," Tandia, 50, says.
"When you can make a difference is when you positively impact the life of an entire community." Tandia was born in the southern town of Kaedi in a family of six sisters and three brothers. After studying philosophy in Senegal and criminology in the Ivory Coast,
he went back to his homeland in 1986.
Things were not easy then. Ethnic tensions between
blacks and Moors - Muslims of mixed Berber and Arab background who have dominated the government - escalated.
After he was not allowed to enter the country's police
force because of discrimination against native blacks, Tandia joined a movement to fight against fear. He signed up for new
democratic groups like Rassemblement Pour L'egalite et la Justice.
"We started organizing ourselves. We started educating
people about their rights," he says.
political crisis worsened, and in 1992 he knew it was time to go. "I decided to leave but to continue the struggle somewhere else," he says. Park Slope, Brooklyn, became his home and headquarters. He started by founding the Committee
for the Defense of Human Rights in Mauritania.
The first thing group members did was buy a fax machine to communicate with their countrymen.
Tandia - a tall, serious man who speaks slowly but with
passion - started building a network of contacts and reaching out to Africans living in New
Working as a security guard at night, he focused on his
activism during the day, bringing African leaders who stood up against slavery and racial discrimination to speak in the U.S.
One day in 1993, he was handed a brochure from the African
Services Committee and started volunteering for the Harlem group that works to improve the health and life conditions for
the city's African and Caribbean communities. His knowledge of French, Soninke and Fulani helped him relate to a wide range
Soon, what he did as a volunteer became his job, and now
he works as an HIV case manager and policy advocate for the committee.
His work includes assisting people suffering from
AIDS, helping clients obtain asylum, making lobbying trips to City Hall and Albany
and attending public hearings about immigrants' rights.
"He has the leadership skills we look up to," says co-worker
Sombo Mweemba, a peer counselor. "I think he has been an inspiration to all of us."
Tandia attended the World Conference
Against Racism in Durban,
South Africa, and heads the Forum of African Immigrant Associations,
an umbrella organization of African groups. The "struggle" - as he calls it - never ends.
Just last month, he coordinated the visit to the State
Department of Malouma Mint Bilal, a former slave who is now a member of Mauritania's
H e also represents New York
in the African Union as an "observer," informing about the needs of the community. "I strongly
believe in this [the African Union]. We are more responsible than anybody else. We have to
be involved," he adds.
Jerry Herman, executive director of the Philadelphia-based
Africa Peace Tour, says Tandia is not only involved, but is one of the key people who helped change Mauritania.
"He has great determination for people to understand, even
when he barely spoke English," says Herman, remembering their trips together
around the U.S.
to speak about Africa. "He is in a constant state of learning," adds Herman, who has known him for more than a decade. "His mind is always
taking in new information. But the most important thing is his willingness to look at things differently."
Tandia, who was granted political asylum in the U.S. in
1994, was able to return to his native land last year after democratic parliamentary elections were held. Leaders from different political parties - including Mauritanian presidential
contenders - visited him at his sister's house.
"It was very touching, but I had so many questions in my
mind," he says. "We still have a lot to do, but the fact of the government recognizing several issues is a good step."
Do you know an immigrant New Yorker who achieved his or
her dream in our great city? E-mail Maite Junco at BigTown@nydailynews.com.