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!
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.
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.