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In Saharawi refugee camps, education remains the strongest weapon, as Maxine Betteridge-Moes discovers
words – maxine betteridge-moes
location – london, united kingdom
photography – danielle smith
location – london, united kingdom

The late afternoon sun is scorching hot and the air is dry and dusty in the Saharawi refugee camp of Boujdour in southwest Algeria. Nanaha Bachri, a local English teacher, wraps her colourful melhfa tightly around her head and face to shield herself from the intense rays before walking the short distance from her home to the learning centre where she teaches primary school children. 

Bachri is one of four Saharawi refugee women teaching in a daily after-school programme called Desert Voicebox. Founded in 2016 by UK based charity Sandblast, the programme teaches four levels of English and music to children living in the camps, whilst simultaneously nurturing their creativity, promoting their culture and telling their stories. Known locally as “wilayas,” the camps are spread out across the expansive and inhospitable Algerian hamada, where temperatures reach up to 50 degrees in the summer and drop below freezing in the winter. Boujdour is the smallest of the five camps, each named after a city in Western Sahara: a former Spanish colony that has been under Moroccan occupation for nearly half a century.  

When Spain hastily withdrew from the territory and handed power to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, it triggered war between the two invading armies and the Polisario Front, which represents the Saharawi people. Thousands of Saharawis were forced to flee chemical bombing in their native land, retreating to the neighbouring Algerian border town of Tindouf to seek refuge and establish provisional camps. 

Bachri’s grandparents were among them.

“They had to leave everything behind,” she recalls. “My grandma only carried a basket with a bit of bread and a bottle of water, with a baby which is seven days old, and five [daughters] that are grabbing her melhfa and running from the bombs. There was no time for anything, there was time only to escape with your life.”

Mauritania withdrew from the war in 1979, but Morocco and the Polisario Front continued their bloody battle until a UN-brokered ceasefire was established in 1991, with the promise of a referendum for self-determination for the Saharawi people. But the referendum never took place and the ceasefire was broken in November 2020, prompting Morocco and the Polisario Front to resume their armed conflict. Today, an estimated 173,000 Saharawis live in the refugee camps, 75% of whom are youth according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR]. A third generation of Saharawis is now growing up in exile, with most dependent upon aid for their survival, and with few prospects for a better future. 

Amidst such strife, education has been a key priority among the displaced Saharawis living in the camps. While the men were fighting on the frontlines of the war with Morocco, Saharawi women were responsible for virtually all aspects of camp life.

“Women had to start from zero and build schools with their own hands,”

says Sidi Breika, the Polisario’s UK representative. “The Polisario Front decided that education would be our strongest weapon to face occupation, to face aggression and to achieve our freedom and liberty.”

With a policy of free, mandatory education for all children, the Polisario achieved literacy rates of over 90% in the camp population. But over time and with the return to war, growing needs alongside a systematic lack of resources and access to quality education have hindered opportunities for Saharawi refugees to study and find stable work.

“The needs are getting wider and bigger year after year,” says Breika. “That makes it very difficult for us to provide schools, teachers, materials in the camps for everyone for free. However, we still have success and fortunately no child is being left without school.”

Currently, English and music are not part of the Saharawi government-in-exile’s official primary school curriculum, leaving Desert Voicebox as the only programme offering these. A handful of English language centres exist for adults, but the vast majority of Saharawis interested in pursuing higher education must leave the camps to study in Algerian cities or abroad, as camp education is capped at primary school level. As a result, secondary education dropout rates are rising significantly, especially among girls.

Bachri, who herself was unable to attend university due to her grandmother’s belief that women belong in the home, studied English and Spanish in the camps. She eventually found work as a teacher before she was recruited by Desert Voicebox in 2019. 

“It’s important for me because I feel like I’m doing something for my people,” she says. “I wanted to teach what I have learned to the children who don’t have a chance to go somewhere else.”

Nearly every family in the Saharawi refugee camps has lost friends and relatives over the course of the decades-long conflict. Fatimetu Malainin, one of the music teachers, has lost several friends, and her husband has fought on the frontlines. 

She says Desert Voicebox is one of the few opportunities for her and for the children to escape the mundanity of daily life in the camps, as well as the traumatic impact of the ongoing war in Western Sahara. “I can see that this programme is doing good for the children,” she says. “They enjoy it and they are happy when they are here.” 

Bachri adds that the programme allows them to express themselves and escape their lived realities.

“Here, the children can feel relief. They are learning music so they can have fun, and also they are learning a different language.

... It's very important to know English, especially in our case as refugees and as people who are fighting for their freedom; we need somebody to listen to us.”

In June, after years of controversy over the fate of the French language in the Algerian education system, the country’s president Abdelmadjid Tebboune ordered that English be taught from the primary school level for the first time in Algeria’s history. In observance of this shift, Desert Voicebox aims to better prepare Saharawi children for further study. 

Located on the premises of Lal Andala Primary School, the Desert Voicebox centre is a brightly painted blue and pink building with a row of tall sunflowers growing next to the entrance. Inside, there are two large classrooms and two smaller practice rooms.There are no chairs or desks, and the open, spacious interior resembles the open, flexible space of a traditional Saharawi tent more than a traditional classroom – allowing for more active and dynamic learning. While many families in the camps have moved into mud brick or cement houses, the tent remains a central unit of Saharawi society and serves as a symbol of their traditions and customs. According to one Saharawi proverb: ‘A tent is raised on two poles; a man and a woman.’

“We’ve really seen the benefits for the children who go on to secondary school or study in Algeria,” says Salka Busufa, the director of Lal Andala. “It has really improved their academic success.”

Traditionally a nomadic people, the Saharawi have passed down rich oral traditions through the generations. But international aid priorities that have mainly focused on providing much-needed food, water and medicine have largely failed to encourage creativity and promote the expression of Saharawi cultural identity. As a result, oral traditions are weakening.

Addressing this, Desert Voicebox also aims to promote the children’s knowledge of their cultural heritage through traditional music and dance workshops led by local musicians and experts in the camps. Mahfud Othman is a multi-instrumentalist who teaches the traditional tidinit, a four stringed lute that is traditionally reserved for men.

“If I teach a child about Saharawi music and then they grow up and go out to play, then they will become an important representative of our culture and cause,” he said, adding that many of the children, including girls, have real potential in becoming professional musicians.

"Music is a powerful way for people around the world to learn about our struggle."

The programme provides an example of the power of creative education to offer meaningful opportunities and platforms for refugees in a protracted and forgotten crisis to share their stories with the world, promoting understanding and empathy of a situation rarely covered by traditional Western media.

For now, Bachri’s six year old daughter Lamia is among the youngest of the camp’s students. “I will encourage her to study for as long as she wants to,” Bachri says. “It is so important for her future.”

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