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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

English: As Expression

“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

The Power Of Education

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The Saharawi people value education. Perhaps more so than even in Western culture today, those with little education have come to appreciate the power of knowledge.

The Saharawi believe the knowledge gained through education has the power to change things in their world.

The value of education in the United States has certainly increased over the years and for good reason. The human ability to learn and apply what we learn seems to be one of the significant distinctions that separate us from other living things. Through trial and error people have successfully developed and created useful tools that have continued to evolve over the years to be more and more useful. From bows and arrows and the wheel, to cars, the internet and microwave ovens, inventions have allowed us to be more productive in our world, and documenting, building upon such inventions and educating people on our learnings has exponentially advanced our world. Prioritizing education in this way, has great value.

Recently I was impressed by a World War I podcast. One may not normally consider the education of a nation when considering a war effort but it seemed to play an important role in this case. What struck me was that the way in which a war was fought changed in this time period. Wars used to be fought on horses or in hand-to-hand combat, and guns were used leading up to the war. It seemed, however, that a fundamental shift occurred far beyond tools of war. Wars started to move from an army of people fighting another army of people to technology fighting technology. Of course, people were still operating the machine of war but the advancement of the weaponry had a great impact. Heavy artillery, tanks, planes, submarines and more started to be developed and could be used very effectively. An army held a significant advantage if it was the first one to develop a technology and to use it. Again the ability to learn and expand upon our findings, held power and influence.

Additionally, education plays an important role in the economy. Take for instance just the sole area of the transfer of information. In the past developing a written language was a huge milestone. Today technologies such as phones and email have caused enormous productivity increase, where written language is shared and expressed often, rapidly, and in multiple contexts. A population that knows how to use and develop various technologies will significantly impact their economy.

For the Saharawi, if they continue to value education they will greatly benefit as a people. Certainly today they are at an economic disadvantage in terms of natural resources; but like any nation, if they choose to focus their energy on ways they can prioritize education, and contribute in the development or use of technology that competes in the world today, they will begin to have a larger voice and may someday be able to produce the capital that would be needed to take back their land. 

Post By: Matthew Swanson, March 12th, 2019