A Sahrawi child studies in her refugee camp’s school, located in one of the driest, hottest places in the world, Tindouf, Algeria. Apart from algebra, history and cell division, she encounters desert winds, oppressive heat, and raging sandstorms that threaten to blow off the school’s roof.
Thanks to her education, however, she and many like her may grow up to form the next generation of activists and civic leaders looking to bring freedom to the Sahrawi people.
For nearly 15 years, Anthropology professor Randa Farah has tracked the Sahrawi, often living among them for months at a time to better understand their lives and struggle for independence. An upcoming paper describes her time with the Sahrawi and their recent efforts to fight for freedom and sovereignty.
“Education, for them, is one of the means to gain national consciousness and attain self-sufficiency in the camps.” Farah explained. “In the Sahrawi view, education and the ability to manage the refugee camps autonomously are important, and where the camps have become a place to prepare for future independence.”
Morocco has occupied two-thirds of Western Sahara – which the UN classifies as a Non-Self-Governing Territory – since the mid-1970s, a period of time that fell almost immediately after the end of century-long Spanish colonial rule.
After a war that lasted 20 years and saw significant causalities on both sides, a 1991 ceasefire was established and upheld until today. During that time, the people of Western Sahara hoped they will finally be able to vote in a referendum on self-determination. No vote was held.
During the 1970s, Canada was among the first countries to join the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara – known by its Spanish acronym (MINURSO). That group was established specifically to oversee a referendum on the future of Western Sahara, first planned for 1992. The stalemate continues.
In November 2017, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Colin Stewart of Canada as his Special Representative for Western Sahara and Head of the MINURSO.
Currently, almost 165,000 Sahrawi, displaced during the war, live in refugee camps.
Over the years, they not only formed a government in exile – the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) – but also prioritized education as a strategic policy to eradicate illiteracy. SADR is an official member of the African Union and there are more than 80 countries worldwide which have or still recognize SADR.
“Educated refugees could better serve the causes of liberation and nation-building,” Farah said.
The camps have two secondary schools with limited resources. Many students go abroad to finish school and, if they choose, attend university. For years, countries like Algeria and Cuba, and European non-profit organizations have provided humanitarian aid, including in education and the health sector.
Many Sahrawis, thus, had free education and basic health care. Most of the schools in the camps go up to Grade 6, after which most students attend Algerian schools to complete their secondary education. A number of them have scholarships to enroll in universities in countries that support the Sahrawi cause, including Cuba.
However, Farah expalined, Sahrawis have taken the lead in how to deploy aid for the development and in the interest of the Sahrawi population. Indeed, the Sahrawi leadership refused to allow the humanitarian regime to usurp their political voices, or their autonomous decision-making.
“Sahrawi refugees are not ‘recipients of aid,’ but actors who take the reins to carve their future direction,” Farah said.
Today, there are thousands of Sahrawi doctors, teachers and social scientists across the globe.
“What they achieved in this harsh environment in the camps, such as the eradication of illiteracy (the illiteracy rate was over 90 per cent) in a relatively short period of time, was an effective way to show the world that they are more than capable of building and managing an independent Western Sahara,” Farah said.
The argument, as one Sahrawi told her is, “If we could administer a nation-state in the harsh desert environment with very little resources, we can manage even more effectively with resources and in our own territory.”
But lately, due to the failure of the international community to fulfill the promise of a referendum on independence, many feel that years of education may be going to waste.
During the war, students who would come back to camps would volunteer as doctors, nurses, teachers and so on, and many joined fighters at the front. In the first few years, Sahrawi youth believed the war would end and they would be returning soon to Western Sahara.
Now, there is only ceasefire and a seemingly permanent exile.
“What does an exiled nation do with a growing educated population in the middle of a harsh desert where even shrubs find it hard to grow?” Farah asked. “How does it take care of their social and economic needs with no resources, and yet maintain a collective national will to fight for freedom?”
In more recent years, a number of young people moved to Europe, especially to countries like Spain, seeking to find work and send remittances to their families in the camps. Many are urging the leadership to return to armed struggle, since negotiations only seems to entrench Morocco as an occupier of Western Sahara.
“Since a Canadian is today the head of MINURSO, which was initially established to oversee the UN-promised referendum, I hope we will play a role in turning the promise to a reality,” Farah says.
The Sahrawi fight for a right to call Western Sahara home goes on.
“The desert is never really empty. We see it as ‘empty’ because we are used to the urban clutter, but for Sahrawis it is alive and full of things that they see much more clearly than we do.”