Panera Bread and School Kids
Youth and Hope founder Houleye Thiam and I have regularly met at Panera Bread on East Broad Street in Columbus since fall 2017. We had our first meeting in October 2017, after running into each other by chance at a community bizarre where she represented a local African diaspora organization.
I actually first heard Houleye speak several years before at panel discussion on modern day slavery in Mauritania at Denison University where I studied Geoscience. My interest in the region stemmed from the eight months I spent in rural Senegal before attending Denison and has since led me to connect with Senegalese-Americans and Mauritanian-Americans in Columbus.
Houleye told me about Mauritania’s complex history, her activism, and her project, Youth and Hope, to support students in four villages where Mauritanian refugees have been repatriated. I don’t remember all of the details, but I do remember this: I left Panera that day as Youth and Hope’s newest executive board inductee! The surest testimony to Houleye’s magnetic personality.
Houleye always orders a sandwich and chips and, in generous African spirit, she almost always splits them with me. I have seldom found success in denying her request to share. So, from the beginning, we established a rhythm: sharing a Panera sandwich and--in American fashion--getting down to business too quickly about fundraising and on-the-ground logistics in Nouakchott and Y&H’s four villages.
Youth and Hope’s primary focus has been getting school supplies into the hands of primary school students in rural Mauritania. Today, two and a half years since our first meeting, we have:
Refined Y&H’s message (https://www.youthandhope.org/ourwork);
Created a new website (www.youthandhope.org) with some help (thanks Summer Aldred for your teamwork!);
Activated online donations (link) and more than tripled funds raised;
Piloted a new program providing transportation stipends to high school students traveling to schools in neighboring towns; and
Established a vision for the future to support more Mauritanian students striving to stay in school.
The duality to this progress is that we know it is meaningful and we know it is not enough. Complete solutions can be difficult to imagine and are even more difficult to execute, no matter one’s vantage point. Education inequity in Mauritania has a complex origin and stems in part from poverty, armed conflict, and racial and gender-based discrimination. It’s more complex than I understand.
But here is something I do understand; every August for more than 12 years, my mom took me to Target at Graceland or I tagged along with my best friend to the Star Beacon supply store in Grandview. We picked out new supplies for school each year with such excitement and anticipation. In second grade, my box of 96 Crayola crayons had a built-in sharpener. In fourth grade, I decided all of my supplies would be purple. In seventh grade, we all had massive three ring binders filled with wide-ruled loose leaf paper. Over the course of each year, crayons dwarfed, I outgrew purple, and big binders filled up graphite-smudged notes.
When I reflect on what school meant to me as a kid, a teenager, and a college student, I get a lump in my throat. Being a part of Youth and Hope with Houleye represents gratitude for those important learning experiences as well as an opportunity to learn about Mauritania’s richness and its hurdles. I look forward to more Panera Bread dates with Houleye and giving a nudge to kids and teenagers in Mauritania who deserve the opportunity to go to school.
Want to learn more about Mauritania? Here's a guide:
Visit Y&H’s ‘About’ page: https://www.youthandhope.org/about_us
Read A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa by Alexis Okeowo. *Features chapters on a black Mauritanian activist fighting to abolish slavery for Mauritania’s Haratin people.
Read Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary African Slavery by Samuel Cotton. *A black American examines modern slavery in Mauritania.
Though there is relatively little information, research the 1989 border conflict between Senegal and Mauritania, and the reparation of Mauritanian refugees 2008-2010. Two articles to start: 2010 Article from the Guardian and 2010 United Nations press release