Steamboat resident reaches out to his West African roots |

Steamboat resident reaches out to his West African roots

Mamadou Niass, left, gets a helping hand from friend Luther Berntson while packing items to send back to Mauritania in West Africa. Niass sought political asylum in the United States eight years ago and has been collecting items and money to send to his home.
John F. Russell

Get involved

For more information on how to get involved in Mamadou Niass’ project to send items to his village in West Africa, call Luther Berntson at 970-870-9675. Donations can be made at the Yampa Valley Bank in the Luther Berntson West African account.

Get involved

For more information on how to get involved in Mamadou Niass’ project to send items to his village in West Africa, call Luther Berntson at 970-870-9675. Donations can be made at the Yampa Valley Bank in the Luther Berntson West African account.

Mamadou Niass is consumed by thoughts of a home he has not set foot in for nearly 10 years.

In the village of Sorimiale in Mauritania, Africa, about 700 people, including Niass’ family and friends, live in squalor in a country torn by civil war and oppressive governments.

Niass, who sought political asylum in the United States and moved to Steamboat Springs nine years ago, has been sending family and friends most of his paychecks from his job at a lumberyard. However, after he was laid off, he decided to find another outlet for his hardworking nature.

“All I’m thinking about is home, family,” he said. “Sometimes, I can’t eat; I’m thinking about my family. It’s my first thought. That’s why I’m thinking about this.”

On Wednesday, Niass will pack an enormous, Africa-bound shipping container full of donated items for his village.

With the help of Luther Berntson, a friend, Niass collected the items and the money needed from people in the community, a process Berntson said has been rewarding.

“I think when he came to me and told me about this project, I said, ‘Mamadou, do you know what you’re getting into?’” Berntson said. “But I’ve seen him work, and I’m so amazed and so impressed with what he’s doing for his people. He’s a hard worker, and he’s very strong.”

Niass was a member of the military in Mauritania before a change in the country’s leadership caused him to be thrown in prison in 1989.

He said he was accused of trying to overthrow the government, and it wouldn’t be safe for him to remain in the country after he was let out of prison.

He escaped to neighboring Senegal, then to the Ivory Coast, where he lived for nine years. But turmoil in Ivory Coast forced him to sneak back across the border into Mauritania in the dead of night, looking for a visa to travel to the United States.

The government was on his heels, he said, when he left his home for the last time.

“It’s not safe for me there,” he said. “If they would have trouble, they look at old military guys.”

A network of Mauritanians living in the United States led him to Steamboat Springs, where Berntson and a support group of residents helped outfit a group of about 30 Mauritanians who arrived in 2001.

Niass and Berntson’s friendship lasted and has only solidified through their common goal of helping the people of Sorimiale.

But loading the shipping container is too big a job for the two of them. Berntson and Niass are looking for help in packing the container and still are accepting cash donations to help pay for the cost of shipping, which amounts to about $6,000.

As far as donated items, Niass was proud to say he has enough for this shipment, but after the response from the community, he plans to send another when he has the money.

In Berntson’s garage Friday, where he was putting the final strips of tape on several boxes, Niass proudly pointed out about 30 mattresses he’d be sending over.

He said his village people had never slept on anything like them before.

“They will be very, very happy,” he said. “They are very poor. But if they find clothes for free … see, they cannot buy clothes.”

The boxes were packed with everything from toys and electronics to books in French — one of Mauritania’s official languages — donated by the Steamboat Springs School District. Niass also received hundreds of pairs of shoes and several soccer balls.

“I can’t help my people anymore because I don’t have money,” he said. “I used to bring money, but I can’t anymore. Now, I’m asking people for things. All that is because of (Luther). All that is because he gives me his truck. He will call me and say, ‘Mamadou, I’ve got something for you.’”

Aside from cleaning houses a few days a week, Niass has made his donation project his full-time job, even while fasting during daylight hours through the Muslim month of Ramadan, which lasts through Sept. 9.

He occasionally visits his immediate family, including his wife and seven children, in Senegal, where they moved for their own safety.

But his presence will be felt in Sorimiale when the shipping container arrives, bestowing his brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends with basic comforts and well wishes from across the globe.

“They feel good about that,” he said about his living situation, even though it’s so far from his loved ones. “I like it so much here. I like Steamboat, very nice people. I have a lot of friends here. Almost, it is my home.”

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