Farida Alvarez-Fetouhi, professional linguist and TWB Community member shares her experience.
What is the Western Saharan Conflict?
Often dubbed “Africa’s last colony”, it seems that few people are aware of the 200,000 plus Saharawi refugees living in camps in the Algerian desert.
A Spanish colony for almost a century until 1975, Western Sahara is a coastal territory (roughly the size of the UK) located south of Morocco.
Right, a Cuban-influenced “Sahara Libre” mural.
Despite the promise of independence, when Spain withdrew in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania were given administrative control of Western Sahara. Morocco took things a step further by mobilising 300,000 Moroccan civilians to occupy what they claimed were their “ancestral lands,” and orchestrated a full military invasion.
Thousands of Saharawis fled and crossed the border over to neighbouring Algeria where they sought refuge in camps near a military base called Tindouf. Mauritania withdrew their claim to the Western Sahara in 1979 and in 1991, the UN created the Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) and the promise of a referendum from the Moroccan government. Thirty years later, Sahrawi refugees in Algeria are still waiting.
How did you first get involved?
The Western Saharan conflict came to my attention in the beginning of 2020 through a London based charity called Sandblast Arts.
I learned of an educational project called Desert Voicebox, where local female teachers are trained to teach English and music to children aged 6 – 12. Sandblast Art’s goal is to “equip the next generation of Saharawi refugee children to become cultural ambassadors, and to empower local women to become educational leaders in their community, and acquire the skills and confidence to tell their story to the world.” – Danielle Smith, founder.
I immediately wanted to get involved, and planned to go in early spring of 2020. Half Spanish and half Algerian myself (my father being Moroccan-born), I felt somehow intrinsically linked to their story. However, when the pandemic broke out, those plans were shelved. I volunteered online instead, providing training to two local female teachers remotely for over a year.
Finally in 2022, I was able to visit the camps and deliver English language and teacher training in person.
To be able to finally go out to the camps and meet these extraordinary women was an honour.
I was received with a warm welcome into Nanaha’s home (one of the teachers who I’d worked with online) where I stayed for the following two weeks immersing myself into their family life. I felt truly privileged to be able to do that since it gave me a real insight into the struggles as well as the many wonderful aspects of their collective community.
Can you talk about your unique experience helping empower local women?
One of aspects I admire the most about Sandblast Arts, and what attracted me to it in the first place is that they prioritise “recruiting and training young Saharawi women who have not been able to complete their schooling but are passionate about working with children in the educational sector.” – Danielle Smith
While I was there, I felt the biggest challenge, even bigger than the lack of resources, was that of balancing a woman’s role in Saharawi society.
They are the primary caregivers in a community where families are numerous and basic supplies are thin on the ground. Cooking for your family takes on a broader meaning when you take into consideration the amount of extended family members that also need to be taken care of.
Women are expected to do the lion’s share of the work, and their husbands are often away for long stretches at a time working abroad to bring home much needed cash and modern conveniences. “And because the majority of the Saharawi children have to leave the camps to continue their studies after primary school, growing numbers of girls have been dropping out before even finishing their secondary education.” – Danielle Smith
For a woman to take all this on board and add a teaching job to her plate, while only part time, is a considerable strain. As a teacher observing lessons, it was painfully obvious that not enough planning had gone into the lesson- but the luxury of taking an hour out of your day to do that is something that I had clearly taken for granted.
I felt privileged and humbled to be able to share my knowledge with women who want to learn.
Despite the social pressure, projects like the ones offered by Sandblast Arts give local women the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the lives of the children in their communities, and to be leaders within their communities.
“Desert Voicebox is a place where I can practise my English, and develop my knowledge and skills to communicate with children. It’s a place where I can show the children how to express themselves and give them a voice in English. Having the means to earn a simple salary is of huge help to me and my family, and it’s the same for the other women I work with too.”Nanaha Bachri, local teacher.
Can you tell us from your experience, why language and communication is so important in humanitarian situations like this?
“There are lots of languages at the camps – from Spanish, English and Arabic to Hassaniya and many other dialects of Arabic too (from Tindouf and neighbouring Mauritania in the south). But then also Italian and German with all volunteers that come to the camps for various projects.
It’s a really funny thing ….
But I think language is the power; the weapon that we are using to speak about ourselves – to tell the world that we are here.“Nanaha Bachri, local teacher
It seemed to me that just as the Saharawi people have had to learn to become resilient both physically and mentally; they have also learned how to be linguistically resilient too.
They are hungry to learn English and Spanish and whatever else comes their way because as Nanaha rightly says, language is power. It is the tool that ultimately, especially now in a more digitally connected world, is going to help them raise awareness.
In a multilingual, complex and challenging environment such as this, clear communication is critical, especially with health concerns such as anaemia and breast cancer among women on the rise. Najla Mohamed-Lamin, a Saharawi women’s rights and climate activist in the Smara camp, hosts regular breast cancer awareness sessions with health experts.
“As Saharawi women we are always told to endure. We are told that this pain and this suffering when breastfeeding is normal. But it’s not normal.”Najla Mohamed-Lamin
On a logistical level, Danielle Smith observes that “many of the agencies operating in the camps are staffed by Algerians and Saharawis which enhances communication with the local communities in the camps”
Spanish, however, is still widely used as a lingua franca at the camps.
Did you or the people you were supporting face any language challenges?
I was at an advantage because I speak Spanish, but not everybody speaks it, and basic Arabic would have been advantageous. In particular to communicate with the children.
Generally speaking, the level of English in the camps is still low. Aid agencies from Spanish speaking countries (chiefly Spain and Cuba) are at an advantage, but as Maxine remarked when we were there, had she visited without a translator (someone who spoke Arabic or Spanish as an intermediary), she would have been completely lost. “It can be difficult to communicate as an international aid worker,” she added.
Final thoughts about teaching English in a Western Saharan refugee camp:
Other than helping to empower local women, I was honoured to be able to help teachers give the next generation the gift of an international language. The more tools they have at their disposal to be able to raise awareness, the more agency they will have over their lives.
As Danielle Smith of Sandblast Arts so passionately puts it, it’s all about “enhancing their chances to seize new opportunities and reach new audiences to break through the wall of silence”.
Written by Farida Alvarez-Fetouhi, TWB Community member.
To learn more about the TWB Community and how you can get involved, visit our website.
Discover some of the ways our community members make an impact around the world in our blog.
Or visit the CLEAR Global blog to discover how language offers hope away from home for refugees.