Comment | Education as Resistance: Western Sahara’s Rising Generation
Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2016 16:29 - 8 Comments
By Agaila Abba
“We won’t be intimidated by threats
from someone on a throne who’s been fooled
by the crown on his head
into thinking “this is a small nation, and I
therefore can invade.’”
Al-Kadra, Saharawi poet
When Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975, half of the Saharawi population was given no choice but to flee next door to southern Algeria for refuge, leaving the other half trapped under occupation. Then time passed; a ceasefire between Western Sahara and Morocco was signed in 1991 with the promise of a referendum that would give the entire Saharawi population the opportunity to vote for either a free Western Sahara or for integration with Morocco.
Today, after four decades of exile, the promise of a referendum has yet to be honoured. Those living in the refugee camps in Algeria continue to wait for the right to return to their homes, while relatives and neighbours who remained behind live under Moroccan occupation and ever-worsening human rights abuses.
Against the odds, Saharawis on a daily basis choose to pick themselves up and keep the struggle alive. Many are sacrificing everything to embark on the journey to learn so they can, one day, contribute to the liberation of their people and nation.
While every aspect of life for Saharawis in the occupied territories is controlled by Morocco, those living in the refugee camps in Algeria at least have a chance to study abroad and pursue their dreams of education and a better future. At the start of the conflict, Cuba offered full scholarships to hundreds of Saharawi youth. Most recipients chose medicine, as doctors of every field were needed in the camps. Saharawis who pursued this path of education often left for 12 years to train for their medical careers, thousands of miles away from their loved ones. Today, most of the doctors currently serving in the camps are those who had the chance to pursue their training in Cuba.
Others have had the opportunity to study in Algeria itself, due to the strong cultural and political bonds between Algeria and the Saharawi government. Algeria has offered the chance for Saharawi youth to pursue education in its different cities. Those who choose to study in Algeria leave the camp for the whole year, apart from visits to their families in the summer vacations.
Within the Algerian education system, Saharawis are not only introduced to classic Arabic and French, but also to different aspects of the Algerian culture, allowing Saharawis born in Algeria to better understand the history of their host country and its people. Such exposure has not only helped educate the Saharawi youth, but also strengthen relations between the two nations.
Other countries to have offered educational opportunities for Sahrawi refugees include Spain, where the Sahrawi cause enjoys significant support and solidarity from the Spanish public. Hundreds of Spanish NGOs offer summer programmes for Saharawi children every year, giving them a chance to spend the summer away from hardships of occupied life in desert refugee camps. Most of these children go back to the camps at the end of the summer, but those who remain are offered the chance to stay with Spanish host families to pursue their education and learn a new language. Many stay for more than a decade, growing up into adulthood and adopting both Saharawi and Spanish cultures. The Spanish educational system enjoys a significant influence within the camps themselves, with most of the Saharawi population in the camps bilingual speakers, making Spanish one of the principal languages spoken in the camps.
A number of Latin American countries, such as Mexico and Venezuela, have also opened their doors to Saharawi refugees to study at some of their top universities. In the USA and Norway, many Saharawis undertake courses such as journalism, international affairs and diplomacy, seen as extremely important for the Saharawi struggle. Indeed, many combine their studies with speaking engagements at the United Nations and other major international organisations, acting as a voice for their nation.
In addition to such advocacy efforts, young diaspora Saharawis are increasingly turning to social media as tools for informing the world about the Saharawi struggle. Indeed, many have been inspired to pursue degrees abroad to become citizen journalists and organisers. A generation of young Saharawis is today emerging of journalists, broadcasters and published authors.
The struggle is not confined to Saharawis in the refugee camps, however. Those living under Morocco’s occupation, too, despite the crackdown on their freedom of movement and expression, continue to rise up, using peaceful protests, Youtube videos, poetry, and music to oppose Morocco’s occupation and human rights violations. Althoguth this has been met with greater police repression, Saharawis are unwilling to give up protesting anytime soon.
As the Saharawi conflict enters its fifth decade, the hardships and uncertainties have not stopped the Saharawi population or its youth from dreaming of a better future, one of dignity and freedom. While the dream lives on, Saharawis continue to pursue education in all its forms.
The refugee camps themselves have become a melting pot of indigenous and international cultures. Education has offered young Sahrawi the opportunity to equip themselves with precious tools for advancing the national cause, as well as build cultural and political bridges of solidarity between the Saharaoui people and other peoples, cultures and nations around the globe.
For a generation of young Saharawis, education abroad has offered the chance to build a better future not only for the themselves, but also for their Saharawi community in the camps and elsewhere. Many have turning their thousands of days in exile into a path towards genuine hopes and dreams for themselves and their homeland.
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