Voices from the Saharawi Refugee Camps
In a corner of the desert in South-West Algeria, tall stalks of yellow sunflowers grow next to a brightly painted blue and pink building – an unexpected sight in the oppressive heat and parched desert earth.
The building is home to Desert Voicebox (established 2016), an early learning education centre in the Saharawi refugee camp of Boujdour and the smallest of five camps located near the town of Tindouf. The camps, known locally as wilayas, are home to over 170,000 Saharawis living in exile from their homeland of Western Sahara – a former Spanish colony that has been under Moroccan occupation since 1975. Largely dependent on humanitarian aid for their basic needs and with few opportunities to study or find employment, a third generation of Saharawi children are growing up in the camps with few prospects for a better future.
Desert Voicebox aims to change that. An initiative set up by the UK charity Sandblast Arts, the programme provides opportunities for a small but growing number of Saharawi refugees to learn English and music; to develop their creativity; promote their culture; and tell their stories. Currently, over 60 students aged six to twelve are taught by four Saharawi women in a daily after school programme.
“Desert Voicebox is something different. Not all children in the camps have this chance of learning English, of learning music, and also having fun at the same time,” says Nanaha Bachri, one of the teachers. The charity prioritises recruiting Saharawi women who have not been able to finish secondary school to provide them with professional development and the opportunity to become educational leaders in their community. Virtual and in-person volunteers from around the world provide vital support that enables Sandblast to train these women in the knowledge and pedagogical skills to teach a four-year curriculum in English and music.
“I love having so many opportunities to learn as part of the programme,” says Desert Voicebox music teacher Fatmatu Malainin. “We get to escape from the normal – something that is so important for us and for the children.”
For decades, Saharawi refugees have been living in exile from their homeland. Often referred to as ‘Africa’s last colony’, Western Sahara has been the site of a failed decolonisation process that was disrupted when Spain withdrew from the territory in 1975. This triggered the start of the 16-year Western Sahara War between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front. During this time, an estimated 40,000 Saharawi civilians fell victim to systematic bombings with chemical weapons, which forced a large portion of their population to flee to neighbouring Algeria to seek refuge. In 1991, the UN negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the promise of a referendum for self-determination for the Saharawi people – a promise that has not yet been fulfilled. In November 2020, the Polisario Front accused Morocco of breaking the ceasefire and declared a “return to the armed struggle”. Today, Western Sahara remains an active conflict zone rife with human rights abuses that go largely unreported due to a lack of human rights monitoring and Morocco’s heavily enforced media blockade. Sandblast is one of a handful of UK charities that aims to raise awareness of the issues in Western Sahara through its work in the Saharawi refugee camps.
Literacy and education for independence
Danielle Smith, Sandblast’s founder, has been visiting the Saharawi refugee camps since 1991. She recalls being struck by the strength and resilience of the Saharawi women in particular, who had been running daily life in the camps while many of the men were on the frontlines of the conflict. After years of awareness-raising through talks, film screenings and photography exhibitions, Smith founded Sandblast in 2005 to build support for the Saharawi cause and empower Saharawi refugees through creative educational projects.
“The Polisario realised early on that literacy and education were essential to achieve real independence,” she said. “They of course battle against all sorts of odds and limitations, but their spirit and vision has always drawn me to their cause.”
Launched in 2016, Desert Voicebox has evolved to span four years of primary school and consists of two 45-minute lessons, five days a week during the academic year. The programme is a welcome respite from the empty hours that follow the short, four-hour school days in the camps.
“Juaita doesn’t really like school but she loves the Desert Voicebox classes,” said the 10-year-old’s mother in a recent interview in the camps. “She always tells us what she has done in class and she is happy when she comes back. I think she benefits from doing something she enjoys for two hours in the afternoon. The lessons are much more engaging for her.”
Education in the Saharawi refugee camps is primarily led by the Sahrawi Department of Education, with funds from the United Nations Refugee Agency. Over 22,000 students are enrolled in 27 primary schools in the camps, according to the latest available data. But although there is an approximate 98% attendance rate of children at primary school, pass rates drop significantly as children move into secondary school, with more than a third of children dropping out, according to the Department of Education. There are a number of reasons for this, including a chronic lack of resources, poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms, and low pay for teachers.
Nanaha Bachri was a middle school teacher before joining Desert Voicebox in 2019. She says she was forced to teach children who didn’t know any English with a book that was way beyond their understanding.
“They didn’t have any idea what was going on with the grammar that I was asked to teach them,” she said. “I wanted to do things differently, to help them really understand, but I wasn’t allowed. In the end I had to give up. I could see that they needed to have done the basics first. That’s why I am so happy to teach at Desert Voicebox now. It’s beneficial because it is tailored more to the children’s needs and addresses what works for them.”
Many students have excelled in the programme and are confident in speaking, reading, writing and singing in English.
“I don’t want to live the rest of my life in the refugee camps,” said 11-year-old Mariam as she read a statement she wrote in English. “We want to come back to our free land. I want to be like any other free child: happy and independent.”
Students are also taught by highly respected local musicians to play traditional instruments and learn traditional song and dance. Embarca Zeyu, one of the eight members of the Saharawi band Tiris, teaches dance, singing and the t’bal drum at Desert Voicebox. Mahfud Othman is a multi-instrumentalist and one of the few Saharawis who have mastered the traditional tidinit in the camps, which he teaches alongside piano at Desert Voicebox.
Sandblast has also established four penpal links between Desert Voicebox students and UK primary school children. Since 2020, children from four primary schools in the UK and one in Romania have all shared pictures, videos, music and art via their teachers. Through these cultural exchange activities, Smith says she hopes the programme will raise awareness of the Saharawis’ struggle and give them the opportunity to develop international friendships.
“I’ve always felt that it’s very important to give an identity to the Saharawis,” she said. “You can talk about their cause, you can talk about the politics, but if you don’t know who the Saharawis are, it’s difficult to care as much. I’ve always felt that culture and art are a way to develop that human bond and understanding, and to open up channels of exchange between people.”
Despite its steady growth over the last six years, Desert Voicebox is struggling to stay afloat. Donor fatigue, dwindling resources and a general lack of awareness and media coverage of Western Sahara and the Saharawi refugee camps has made it increasingly difficult for Sandblast to respond to local demands to expand Desert Voicebox into all five camps. Volunteers are essential to the programme’s survival. Locally, they are regarded as critical to bringing joy, stimulus and variety into the lives of the Saharawi children.
“I think the workshop I created inspired the children to see art as a collaborative act and as a world of new possibilities,” said Anastasia Oleinik, a Barcelona-based music and art teacher who volunteered in the camps in May. “I saw the children find peace and focus through making art.”
Sandblast is currently fundraising for the autumn term of Desert Voicebox and recruiting volunteers to conduct virtual training workshops for the teachers over the summer months. The charity is also looking for sponsorship to bring a group of Desert Voicebox students to the UK in the summer of 2023 to practise their English language skills and share their culture and story with the British people.
To learn more or to get involved, visit sandblast-arts.org or contact email@example.com