“You cannot understand,” a Saharawi student yelled at me, but not out of aggression—out of the deepest pain that, truly, no one but a Saharawi could fathom.
In 2015, I taught English to the Saharawi in the blazing Sahara Desert and designed a course to teach students how to write creatively in English. The Saharawi have an amazing resolve; not only can they learn to speak English at a rudimentary level quickly, they can also learn how to express themselves creatively not long after. I maintain they are some of the smartest human beings I have ever had the honor of knowing.
During this creative writing course I was placed with students of high status, all of whom were nearly 30 years older than me. It wasn’t intimidating to me to teach them basic skills because I knew they would grab onto those quickly, but what I really wanted them to learn was how to express their pain. I knew this would be a challenge because they would have to enter into their pain, and articulate the truth of what they experienced during the treacherous usurpation of their homeland in Western Sahara.
This was a class full of people who had seen it firsthand. They were there. They walked the thousands of miles from a beautiful home to a dead land in the desert. The world needed to hear their stories from them and in their own words.
During one lesson, I began to pry. They were struggling to go beyond the facts of what happened. I explained to them that they needed to tell me more than what I already knew; at this the students became very passionate. It was then that a student spoke up out of his deepest pain, telling me that I didn’t understand, that I couldn’t understand, that I would never know what it felt like to lose everything I ever knew—even family and friends.
It brought me to tears, and maybe more significantly, it brought him to tears in front of me as he expressed his story. We all fell silent for a moment and locked eyes. “That is exactly what I need to hear, because I do not understand,” I said slowly.
From that day forward, we were a warm and tight-knit group, and the students shared and wrote their stories with the determination to recreate that moment in the classroom for others around the world. If others could read and hear their stories, maybe they could be moved to tears like I was, and maybe those stories could compel a person to advocate on their behalf, and incite change.
The Saharawi value and deserve the education they desire. Learning English empowers them to tell their story to a wider audience, to give more people the opportunity to listen and truly hear them. Their stories are heart-wrenching and unimaginable and all they can hope is people of all languages and backgrounds will have the chance to listen, so they can choose to stand with them as they express their plight in ways people can start to understand.
Post By: Molly Farley, May 18th, 2019