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A Place Only Tradition Can Weather

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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.

Post By: Heather Jost, April 8th, 2020

Hope Persists

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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!

Post By: Heather Jost, March 12th, 2020

The Ones Who Built Us

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One thing that really stands out about the Saharawi people is the unity of their families across generations. Often building their homes as near to their relatives as possible, families have close connections with their extended members. Children learn from and are cared for by several of the generations before. A building block for these sturdy relationships is the respect that Saharawis faithfully show to their elders and the desire they feel to serve them through the rest of their lives.

Respect is so foundational to these relationships that one woman told me, “Without respect, you have nothing. There is not anything better than respect.” Not only is respect for elders something that is required in Islam, but Saharawis see it as what they owe their elders for everything they have been given. They credit the elder generations for not only raising them, teaching them right from wrong, and nurturing them – but for building their society.

Practically, this respect has two aspects. On one hand, respecting elders includes taking care of them as they age, especially family members. Parents and grandparents are a special part of the family’s life and young adults do all they can to make sure they are well-provided for and comfortably included in daily family life. The other side of this respect includes gestures such as standing when they enter, touching their head when greeting, and serving them the best tea and food, as well as avoiding things that might be trivial or inappropriate in their presence.

Elder Saharawis occupy a revered place in their society as younger people are keen to remember those who built them up to be who they are today, and those who have faithfully passed their culture to them, from generation to generation.

Post By: Heather Jost, February 11, 2020

Connecting Over Tea

Any visitor to the Saharawi camps will have been invited to share in at least several rounds of traditional Saharawi tea before they leave. In fact, this tradition expresses much of what the Saharawi people value and what visitors experience when they enter their home.

Some of these values that have stood out to me recently while discussing tea with my Saharawi friends are family bonding, staying connected with their local community, and sacrificially loving those around them.

Making tea together, several times a day, is something that really brings the Saharawi family together. Many people’s fondest memories with their families are centered around a tea table where they start and end their days together, as well as reunite throughout the day. One friend told me a heartwarming story about when she first learned to make tea. She was in middle school when her dad requested that she try to make it. He showed her each step, encouraging her along the way. He continually praised how good her tea was, even though she knew that it wasn’t! Another friend reminisced about chilly winter evenings and how her whole family would gather in the tent to share about their days while their late father made ‘kandra,’ a spiced, milky version of the tea that is common in the colder months. 

Tea is not just reserved for family members to gather, though, and is a way to bring their extended communities together as well. Most news is shared over tea, and it’s how people know about neighbors lives, extended family weddings and births, and anything else they need to catch up on. Whether family-related events or even big government meetings – tea is an essential component of sharing the news.

Lastly, tea is a way for Saharawis to express sacrificial love to one another and putting relationships over individual desires and plans. As many friends have shared with me over the years, they often make tea for their families even when they don’t want any. Even on busy days, a Saharawi family will make sure that someone is there to make tea for any guest who might come by, because investing in that relationship is always considered more important than tasks that need to be done.

Post By: Heather Jost, January 13, 2020 

The Depth of Story

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If you’re reading this, you might be familiar with the general Saharawi story. (If not: History). Colonization. War. Occupation. It’s a moving story that continues unfolding, one injustice after the other while the rest of the world turns a blind eye.

In contrast to the pressing affliction in this story, when a visitor comes to the refugee camps and experiences daily life – the warm smiles and genuine hospitality of the Saharawi who have been living in such harsh conditions for generations – they forget just how unfair it all is. The story of their plight starts to seem abstract and we can be fooled into thinking things have worked themselves out and the Saharawi people are settled, they are alright. In so many ways the Saharawi have learned how to manage their circumstances and be content with their lives as it is in the camps. The unspoken question then is does this story need to be recognized? Does this story need to have a different ending then the one currently being written?

That’s when we need to go deeper into this story, beyond the surface. The smiles and hospitality are genuine. The Saharawi truly live generously in spite of having so much taken away. The entirety of their story however, includes generations of hurt and pain that needs to be considered. In order to really understand the gravity of what has happened and what continues to be allowed, we have to be willing to ask and to listen to more of the story.

Several of the foreign teachers at our English School have been able to speak in Hassaniya – the language of the Saharawi – through our language curriculum called ‘deep life sharing’ and have been shocked to find how profound the stories are. Generations of a people group having their worth as humans stomped on and their rights denied has affected their culture deeply. We are that much more amazed in working with them, how delightful they are despite their pain. Knowing what pain the generosity and kindness of the Saharawi rests upon makes it that much more incredible and it speaks to who they are more than being informed of their political situation.

Of course there are many people who care about the Saharawi cause who might not get the opportunity to get to know the Saharawi’s story to this depth, but the importance of sharing life-stories is significant among all people. The rewards of asking, listening and asking more – getting to know someone at an uncommon depth – are beyond expectation. I challenge you to consider taking the bold step of asking someone to tell you about their life and diving for the details. Knowing people at such depth is such a precious privilege.

Post By: Micah Neely, December 10th, 2019

Practicing Ramadan

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Nearing the end of June, Saharawi people are wrapping up their month-long fast called Ramadan. Ramadan is a holy month for all Muslims, and as such, the Saharawi look forward to this time of increased religious devotion and celebration with family. As we began Ramadan this year I interviewed a few Saharawi in order to hear directly from them what they find important and meaningful about this time.

 Everyone I asked agreed on the basics of Ramadan – it’s either 29 or 30 days (based on the moon) of fasting (even from water!) from sunrise to sunset. The times are determined by scientists in Saudi and spread through the news and the mosques, so that each day (more than usual) is dictated by the calls to prayer which are broadcasted throughout the camp.

 Daily life varies slightly from family to family, but is all similarly shaped by the fasting schedule. The day begins with waking around 4am to have ‘as-hur,’ the last food and drink before fasting begins. Some will eat a simple breakfast-like meal but others, feelings it’s too early for food, will drink some water or milk. Then come the first prayers of the day, and with that, fasting begins.

 During the day there is a lot of sleeping, broken up by cleaning, going to work, playing traditional games, and preparing some parts of the evening meal in advance. The kitchen gets quite busy around 5pm as daughters start putting together special foods for ‘luftur,’ or the breaking of the fast. The essentials are dates, milk, and a kind of soup called ‘herira,’ and many families will add cakes, fried snacks, and different juices. After cleaning up a bit, many people head to their neighborhood mosque for night prayers, which are extra special this month because of an added set of Ramadan prayers and women’s inclusion at the mosque.

 The month of Ramadan has increased religious significance to the Saharawi and Muslims in general. Many in the camps emphasize the increase of rewards believed to be given by God during this month, as well as the increase of punishments for bad deeds. This belief inspires a greater focus on their faith during this season. In general, in addition to the added sixth daily prayer (there are normally five), most people try to read the Quran through once or twice. Giving is also an important part of Ramadan as it is a requirement to be generous on the morning of the Eid.

 The day after Ramadan they have a small Eid – which means ‘holiday’ – to celebrate breaking the fast until next year, and a large Eid a couple of months later to commemorate how Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son and God provided a substitute. On both Eids, it is important to visit relatives and feast and wear new clothes!

 Ramadan is a special time for our Sarahawi friends and even though it is HARD, especially during the summer, they cherish it immensely. I encourage you to meet a Muslim in your city as they finish up their fast and celebrate, and ask them what Ramadan is like in their context and yours.

Post By: Heather Jost, June 27th, 2019