TINDOUF, Algeria – It is the morning after a sliver of the new moon has appeared, signaling the start of Eid celebrations at the Sahrawi refugee camp. Dozens of people in their best clothes hasten towards the open-air mosques in the heart of the settlement.
They pray out loud and with fervor, beseeching the almighty to grant them a free home and a country to call their own. The fragile walls that cordon the camp from the rest of the country vibrate subtly to the reverberations of the word “Amen” that is repeated in unison.
The celebrations will continue into the weekend, for it is one of the few occasions the camp’s residents feel and express some joy in an otherwise somber environment.
Aging into ‘Refugeehood’
Argeibi Sidahmed, 84, who fled the Moroccan-occupied territories of Western Sahara, is among the more enthusiastic attendees. His home is in Smara, a small city southeast of Laayoune that Sahrawis consider the capital of Western Sahara.
The Sahrawi refugee camps that have been home to Sidahmed shelter an estimated 160,000 people. It is home to one of the most protracted refugee crises in the world, which started when Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975. The encampment has since transformed into a microcosm with different districts and a local leadership.
Divided by a Wall
With six children and 15 grandchildren who live on either sides of the Moroccan defense wall that splits the desert region in two halves, he has lived as a refugee for the past four decades.
The 10-foot (3m) high wall is 1,680 miles (2,700 km) long and guarded by about 120,000 Moroccan soldiers, and is also fortified by about 5 million land mines, rendering any crossings impossible.
The wall was erected during the 1980s when the Sahrawi people were fighting the Moroccan army under the umbrella of the Polisario Front (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Sagia El Hamra and Rio de Oro). The two rival groups signed a cease-fire in 1991, and since then Sahrawis have been pursuing their goal of independence through peaceful diplomacy.
For 40 years, the displaced men, women and children have been stateless with several generations born without a nationality. Their calls for an independent state have not yet materialized. While the U.N. promised them a referendum in 1991, Morocco has managed to block any vote, effectively exiling thousands of families who would like to return home.
Since losing two sons during the guerrilla war that lasted for 15 years, Sidahmed has fought a long and bitter battle to prevent the rest of his family from becoming embroiled in the conflict. Leaving his home and the haunting memories behind, he now lives with his two daughters and son who reside with him in a tent in Laayoune camp.
“When Sahrawis came to Algeria they wanted to keep their communities’ names, so they called their camps after them,” he said.
Sidahmed has maintained the practice of fasting for Ramadan and makes the most of it in the less-than-hospitable setting. The howling desert winds and the scorching heat with very sparse vegetation are a stark contrast to his homeland.
“It is very different. The food was considerably better back home in Smara, the cool weather, and the green landscape,” he reminisced.
Spartan Lives with Decent Services
Aside from the lack of vegetation, Sidahmed’s life in the camp is spartan, to put it mildly. Like the rest of the camp, his home has no connection to the country’s electric grid or to running water. The opportunities for creating livelihoods are extremely limited. But that has not prevented the Sahrawis from looking for ways to optimize their living conditions.
In fact, the settlements have been lauded for being one of the best organized refugee complexes in the world with a local government-in-exile that administers the civil services, including a decent educational system with primary and secondary education and medical facilities that are organized into regional hospitals and clinics.
During the summer, the residents are able to use air conditioners that work with water and 12v batteries. The camps function on solar energy. Conditions have indeed improved since the time when Sidahmed had to “wet a blanket and put it on to sleep to be able tolerate the heat and the pangs of hunger and thirst during Ramadan.”
Born into Statelessness
The newer generations, especially young men, deal with a different set of tribulations – the burden of supporting their family members with little to no means. Most, like 22-year-old Brahim Salem Hasena, have never known a proper home. Born and raised in a desert where the temperatures rise to 120F (50C), without any precipitation, they often spend several years at a time inside camp without leaving.
Hasena was born in one of the camps that is mainly a collection of endless rows of tents and adobe houses, made of organic mixtures of earth, straw and animal dung that turn crimson during sunsets. He is among the lucky few to have witnessed life outside the camp.
In 2001, Hasena went to Spain as part of Vacations in Peace, a program financed by a collective of Spanish civil organizations. He stayed with a host family – one that he considers a second family – until 2014. “They helped me greatly, paid for my education and took care of me as much as they could.” he said.
But being one of the older siblings, Hasena had to return to the camps to support his mother after his father became terminally ill due to lung cancer. The absence of his father, who finally succumbed to the disease, has left a gaping hole in his life, especially during Eid celebrations. “It was very hard at the beginning, but I came to realize that life goes on,” he said.
Hasena also accompanied his ailing mother to Algiers recently, where she was diagnosed with rheumatism. There is no medical infrastructure for such chronic diseases that his parents have suffered from, he said.
She has not been able to find treatment in Algeria due to dearth of medication and specialists. After a month of hospital visits, they might return with no options for treatment as she was also denied a visa to Spain despite her grave condition.
Labadda Albachir, 25, is another young man who grew up in Awserd camp. He graduated with a B.A. in business administration. Albachir managed to continue his education in Algeria after he finished school. But limited by his lack of political rights and citizenship, Albachir is now working in a bakery to make ends meet. He feels the time spent earning a degree was futile.
Despite the circumstances, Albachir carries on as best he can. Donning his best Daraa – a traiditional robe – for the festivities, he seems content sitting in a tent and drinking tea with his neighbors. “Eid has a unique effect inside Sahrawi refugee camps. Streets become full of people exchanging greetings. It is a ceremony where we show solidarity and visit each other,” he said.
Preparing for a Future Country
While a huge responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the young educated men and women who are limited by their statelessness, civil society organizations are providing a space for building skills and systems that can be used in the future. The politically active and civic-minded Sahrawi youth have founded four popular bodies known as the Sahrawi youth union, the student union, the labor union and the women’s union.
Najem Bashry, also in his 20s, realizes the importance of media in relaying their message to each other and the outside world. He is an executive member of the students union, where he is in charge of communications. When explaining his organizations’ function, he emphasized: “The essential part of our goal is to enhance the culture of volunteerism.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Sahrawi refugee community built schools and hospitals on their own, while organizing and assigning tasks and responsibilities among themselves – from laying bricks and erecting walls to preparing food for each other.
Bashry’s colleagues are extending these values through free language classes and media activism workshops, and they encourage youth participation in politics, including local elections, to take place on July 9. They have also reached out to the outside world through international platforms, especially the U.N., to propagate their political aspirations.
While marking the official end to the spiritually cleansing month of Ramadan, the inhabitants draw an analogy between Eid-Al-Fitr and their perpetual “fast” for self-determination. “It is true that Eid-Al-Fitar has a special religious and spiritual status for us, but the right to self-determination is a means to an even greater objective – independence,” said Bashry.
This story is part of our series “Refugee Cities,” where we profile refugee camps across the globe and examine the ecosystems of individuals, organizations, and initiatives that hold them together.