Time seems to stand still in the mid-day sun that bleaches the tan surroundings white with its oppressive light. The refugee camps take on an eerie quietness at this time of day, that hints at the 45 years of ‘quietness’ in response to the Saharawi people’s peaceful pursuit of justice. Yet while the waiting gives the impression that exile here is timeless, the regular distribution of international aid serves as a symbol of the ticking clock. The gas cans that are laboriously rolled down sandy paths every month remind the residents of how many months have added up to 45 years of monotony. 45 years of lack of progress toward the justice they deserve. 45 years of estrangement from their homeland and their families.
While the rest of the world has experienced just a taste of this – of options being taken away, of monotony, of being trapped, of the unknown – let’s remember that the Saharawi have been in this position we’re temporarily experiencing for 45 years. That’s several generations who have known nothing but this waiting period. If you have extra time on your hands these days, consider using some of it to tell others about the Saharawi cause. Share blog posts, share news articles, follow Not Forgotten International on Facebook, check out some of the other Facebook pages we share there. We’re committed to making sure that the passing time and endless routines don’t erase these people and the injustices committed against them.
Everything in the Hamada of the Sahara Desert seems to be against the chances of a seed sending out roots, finding nourishment and sustaining life – the beating sun, dry ground and temporary nature of its settlers being just a few of those things. Yet some Saharawis have been able to cultivate gardens and see life thrive in spite of that, teaching us all some very important lessons through their efforts.
Those who have undertaken the challenge to grow produce in the Saharawi camps have had their fair share of setbacks and have had to persist in the face of many hardships because of the value they see in their gardens. In addition to the adversaries mentioned above, they regularly deal with goats getting into their plants, water shortages, and sometimes their neighbors’ pessimism. They also have to wrestle with what this sort of project means for their outlook on living in the refugee camps – does causing plants to send down roots into this sand mean that they are accepting this temporary location as home? Agriculturalists I conversed with would say no – they don’t see a conflict between making the best of the current situation but being ready at the drop of a hat to go home.
Home-grown produce is valuable not only for improving the bland diet provided by humanitarian aid, but it opens people’s eyes to the fact that some things they have always considered impossible might just be within their reach. It adds color and life and new scents and flavors to an other wise bland landscape, and reminds the people of the color and life that they themselves contribute to their world.
The entire peaceful yet committed endurance the Saharawi people have shown as a whole over their 45 years of exile is the ultimate picture of thriving against all odds, and these gardens are a tangible symbol of that.
NFI’s desire over the decades of our involvement with the Saharawi people has been to help unheard, forgotten, ignored voices to be heard. We pursue those goals through advocacy – using our own voices on their behalf – and teaching English – so they can share their story in a language the world understands. Yet the ultimate goal is not just to add their voices to the soundscape of the world, but that the world would be reminded of some significant gaps in justice and be moved to address them.
The recently unfolding events of our own country have brought to the forefront another set of voices that have largely gone unnoticed for far too long. These are the voices that have principally experienced a long history tainted with racism, violence and an oppressive system, and they are coming together now, refusing to be ignored any longer. These voices are afraid, angry, grieving – and they have been for as long as they can remember. Our country is filled with people whose stories some of us can’t even begin to imagine, partly because we’ve refused to listen and consider what they have to say.
To anyone reading this who has not been personally affected by racial inequality (I, the writer, fall into this camp), please consider finding someone who has, even if you find just a story on the internet. There are plenty. Regardless of your convictions about protest or police, nothing can improve in our nation until we stop assuming our experience is the same as ultimate reality and start listening to others.
I have been attempting that just over the last few years and can promise you that it is worth it. While there have been difficult things to wrestle with about the society that has been so good to me and about myself, ultimately my experience is so much richer, my love for others so much more real, because of it. So please, don’t overlook or discredit the voices telling you things that are hard to hear. Listen. Wrestle. And let’s unite to push our country to be good for everyone involved. NFI stands for the dignity of all and we continue to push for listening to stories that are not like our own.
(This shouldn’t be considered an ‘official’ update, but a summary of the situation based off of personal contact with Saharawi friends living in the camps – an attempt to answer the questions of those of us elsewhere who love them!).
As the rest of the world has closed down opportunities for human contact and is facing the suffering and loss that this COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon us, the Saharawi refugee camps have so far successfully been able to avoid this scourge. This has likely been achieved by an early response of closing off their already limited connections to the outside world.
In perhaps the only situation where their extreme isolation and harsh environment could be counted a benefit, we are thankful to hear reports that our friends in the camps continue to be safe from this pandemic. They have taken smart precautions by closing off unnecessary travel between camps or outside of them, closing schools and some businesses, and not meeting in close quarters at the mosque for the additional ‘Tarawih’ prayers during Ramadan. They have created a Coronavirus Prevention Task Force made up of Saharawi doctors and nurses to continually monitor the camps’ response to this risk.
Day-to-day social life is not largely changed for many Saharawis living in the camps, as they can continue to gather as families, visit friends within their camp, or go to the market. Yet there are some ways that the restrictions have been heavily felt. Some families’ finances are largely from family members working as taxi drivers, teachers or other professions affected by closures, or they are dependent on relatives working abroad whose jobs have been affected by the virus. So not only are people suffering from job loss like in the rest of the world, but some crucial sources of money have been cut off with little opportunity to make it up. As far as we are aware here, basic food aid is still being provided and we haven’t heard reports of people being without their bare necessities.
As there are still so many unknowns about the future of this virus in the world, we are holding onto hope for the Saharawi people’s continued protection from it. Even more so, we hope for their justice and ability to be able to deal with future crises from their own country and with their rightful resources!
Look closely at the photo above. This scene stopped me in my tracks, just outside of Smara camp. Abandoned husks of broken-down cars are everywhere in the camps, as they are no match for this harsh environment. Yet this was the first time I’d seen camels housed in a circle of them!
Camels, the traditional transportation of this people and their society, are still here – still renewing and reproducing, still providing so many benefits to the Saharawi people. Meanwhile, the cars that hav been imported to the middle of the desert last for just a little while. Inevitably, the wind, sand and sun beat these powerful machines until they are of no use but to serve as a home for the camels – the ones that have been designed to survive here.
This scene said something to me, not just about camels and their place here, but about Saharawi culture. The Saharawi – the ‘People of the Desert.’ I’ve never seen a distinct culture persist so unbothered by encroaching external influences. I’ve never met a people who interact so extensively with various other cultures but remain so rooted in their own. The Saharawi people are the ones who know this desert, and their culture is the summary of a long history of knowing what works here. Their traditions are woven into this environment and they are the only traditions that are prepared to weather all that the Sahara throws at them.
Yet we see them stuck in this situation of watching their land be pillaged by people who are not its original inhabitants, and waiting in refugee camps where they have to depend on foreign aid. This is not right. The Saharawi people are the people of this portion of the Sahara desert – Western Sahara – and they are the ones who are built to thrive in its harsh environment. The Saharawi people should have sovereign control of Western Sahara. There is no other solution.
Along the last 5k of the Sahara Marathon, which winds from the far Eastern end of Smara camp to the center, families and neighbors come together to encourage the finishing runners. Women wave flags and cheer while children come run alongside the participants, using their elementary Spanish to connect with the runners.
One might assume that after 45 years in the refugee camps – the majority of the population growing up in exile – any passion for justice would have faded. But while we run past these crowds who are thanking us for even the simplest displays of solidarity, we see that this hope of theirs has not died. Far from it. Even in the face of unfulfilled promises, human rights violations, and exploited resources – hope persists.
We wonder how they can continue to dream that one day justice will win and what is theirs will be returned to them. Their faith that the rest of us will wake up and honor their peaceful efforts certainly isn’t based on anything the world has yet done for them. Yet we join them in this hope and that’s why we call ourselves Not Forgotten, because we are committed to not forgetting this decades-long struggle and standing with the Saharawi people until it is resolved.
We wish we had some specific action steps we could offer you at the present moment, but what we can encourage you to do is to learn more and be available to the Saharawi cause. There are resources online to read more about their history, or our Facebook page could be a helpful place to start where we share updates about the situation and any petitions or other initiatives going around. We also share resources there from other Facebook pages, such as Saharawi Voice, which are run by Saharawis living in the camps and present varied and interesting material.
At the very least, the fact that the Saharawi situation is rarely heard of in the United States does not take away from how real and serious it is. So, tell someone you know about them! Let’s commit together to persist in hope with the Saharawi, and let it lead us to action!