“In my childhood I was a really peaceful person,” Tecber Ahmed Saleh remembers. “I was thinking that the refugee camp was the world to me.”
To Tecber’s eyes as a child, the mud-brick houses and canvas tents of the Tindouf refugee camps in southwestern Algeria were normal homes. She could not imagine anything else but this “desert of deserts” – the Sahara – “until I went to Spain when I was eight years old, and I saw different kinds of homes, I saw a different kind of environment; there are trees! There is water! There is everything!” she remembers thinking.
When Tecber, like many Saharawi children, went to stay with a Spanish host family to escape the unbearable fifty degree heat of the Sahara, she remembers seeing how other children had toys and dolls and balls to play with, while in the camp “we used to play with sand. We played with bones, we would take charcoal and draw little faces, we would take sheep bones and make dolls.” In that first trip to Spain, Tecber says, “I realised that there is another world than this desert.”
Above: Tindouf province in south-western Algeria is home to over 170,000 Saharawi refugees.
Though life in the refugee camp – one of the largest in the world with its 170,000 inhabitants – was restricted in its material wealth, there was a rich culture of valuing education which has meant that Western Sahara, against all odds, has achieved one of the lowest illiteracy rates in all of Africa. “It was integrated into our mind that education was the key to everything.”
“I left home when I was eleven. Imagine leaving your family and suddenly you are supposed to be an adult responsible for yourself and your education” – in the refugee camps, there is no secondary education, so children are sent away – to Algeria as did Tecber, to Libya, to Cuba, to Spain – to finish their education. “You can’t imagine how hard it is to leave your house – suddenly you are in another place with another people,” still a child, but expected to be an adult.
“At high school,” Tecber recounts, “I was one of the luckiest” when she was selected for a scholarship in Norway. This, she says, “has opened my eyes, because I’ve experienced different cultures, different backgrounds, and different conflicts” – referring to her classmates from Palestine and Tibet.
After having pursued studies in biology in the US, and then having obtained a Master’s in Clinical Laboratory Science in Barcelona, Tecber has returned to the camps to contribute to the welfare of her homeland. She has since began working with the Western Sahara Ministry of Health, conducting research into the malnourishment that many refugees are suffering. “We discovered that the diet that refugees have been provided is not sufficient for human standards.”
For four decades, the international community has failed to grant the right to self-determination to the last colony of Africa. Against the arms of the Moroccan military the Saharawi cause may appear weak, against the might of the superpowers it may seem small, but the Saharawi people, with their most valuable natural resource – the intellect – are building the foundations of a future Free Western Sahara. In the Sahara, Tecber says, “we try to make something out of this life. For us, believing in education is the key for our struggle.”
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