Though born into slavery in the West African country of Mauritania, Boubacar Messaoud considers himself one of the lucky ones.
Unlike many of his family members, he wasn't under full control of his masters. Able to live away from them, Messaoud found a way to attend school and get an education that opened his eyes to the injustice of slavery.
During a discussion held Sunday at the Islamic Center of Naperville to raise awareness, Messaoud told the audience he has since dedicated his life to fighting against slavery, which is still very present in Mauritania today.
Messaoud is the founder of SOS Esclaves, an award-winning anti-slavery organization that has liberated hundreds of slaves. He held demonstrations and fought for laws to be put in place, he said, and he was repressed and even arrested for his efforts.
But Muslim communities in the U.S. and Mauritania aren't giving up the fight, leaders of the global anti-slavery movement said at the event.
"We need to maximize the pressure," said Mauritanian native Bakary Tandia, co-founder of the Chicago based Abolition Institute. "What we need is a comprehensive, holistic approach to the situation. It is a multidimensional situation. We should not miss any of the elements."
Though slavery was criminalized in Mauritania in 2007, the laws are rarely enforced, said Sean Tenner, also a co-founder of the Abolition Institute. And with "traditional slavery" being a centuries-old practice in Mauritania, leaders say it's also difficult for slaves to leave their masters.
"We are truly talking about birth-to-death, race- and descent-based slavery," Tenner said.
Because Mauritania has an entirely Muslim population, people have falsely used the Islam religion to keep slaves subjugated to their masters, Messaoud said. They are taught that being enslaved is their fate -- "the will of God," he said.
Messaoud said the Mauritanian government also sweeps the issue under the rug, claiming slavery and discrimination no longer exist.
"The Mauritanian government is very stubborn," said Sarah Mathewson, Africa programs director for Anti-Slavery International in London. "(Slavery) is an economic system that works in their favor. Disrupting that is not in their interest at all."
Still, anti-slavery advocates believe progress is being made. Education efforts have caused more and more advocates to jump on board, Tenner said. Organizations across the globe are raising money and awareness to fight the cause.
Just this past May, attorney Mohameden Elid, who also spoke Sunday, won the first conviction of slaveholders in a Mauritanian anti-slavery court.
"Muslims all over the world are tackling this issue," Tenner said. "By far the most important thing we can do is stand together in solidarity." For more information, visit www.stoppingslavery.org.