An airplane of the French air force shot down during the war between the Polisario Front and Morocco. PHOTO: DAH MOHAMED ABDERRAHMAN
DAH GREW UP IN ONE OF THE SAHRAWI REFUGEE CAMPS BUILT IN ALGERIA IN 1975 AFTER THE MOROCCAN INVASION OF WESTERN SAHARA. THANKS TO THE PROGRAM VACACIONES EN PAZ AND TO THE FAMILY THAT TOOK HIM IN, HE WAS ABLE TO COME TO SPAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 2003. ALTHOUGH HE NOW LIVES HERE PERMANENTLY, HE CONTINUES IDENTIFYING WITH HIS CULTURE OF ORIGIN.
THE BOY GETS UP EARLY and prays. He dresses in a jacket and pants, clothes necessary for the cold mornings. Today is Tuesday and he will have to wait until Friday to wash them, so he has to be careful not to get them dirty.
HE GOES TO THE KITCHEN to eat breakfast, butter and bread that his mom made. At 8:00 he leaves the haima with his older brother. The cold air stings their skin as they walk through the desert. Dah and Mohamed, as the children are called, see nothing but desert, haimas and adobe houses. There are no other people. Everything is quiet in the Sahrawi refugee camp of Dajla.
THE DESERT extends infinitely. AT 8:15, after picking up their friends Ali, Salek, Ibrahim and Omar at their respective houses, the boys reach the school, called Ali Ablaila, on time.
THE FIRST CLASS is Islamic Education. Their teacher Lejlifa talks about Muhammad, his life and his reception of the Koran. Dah listens intently, eager to learn more. At six years old, the story of Muhammad sounds like a fairytale.
IN LANGUAGE CLASS the same teacher helps the students practice reading. Dah concentrates on a label in Arabic fixed to his book: “Made in Algeria.”
AT NOON, after a snack at home and a quick game of soccer with his friends, Dah has Spanish class with his teacher Nayem. It is a language he barely speaks.
AT 1:20 the brothers eat at home with their mother Suadu: lentils, chickpeas or kidney beans, which his family has received from the humanitarian aid of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). There is no camel meat today.
FROM 3:30 until 5:20, Lejlifa teaches the last classes of the day. After school, the children return to their houses to set down their backpacks and play soccer again, until it starts getting dark at around 8:00. The intense heat of the day turns into cold as the desert sun begins to set.
AFTER NIGHTFALL, Dah does his homework at home and eats dinner with his family – his older brothers Mohamed and Ahmed, his mother Suadu and his father Mohamed. They eat rice and vegetables, the usual. Finally he goes to bed, hoping that tomorrow there will be meat.
SEVEN YEARS LATER, Dah gets up early and prays. He brushes his teeth and dresses in a light jacket and jeans that have been washed the previous day. He goes down the stairs to the kitchen to eat cereal and then leaves his Andalusian home for school at five minutes to eight.
DAH, now 13, breathes in the fresh air and smiles. It’s cold, but it is not the same cold of desert mornings. As he walks, he looks around. He sees palm trees, houses of brick and stucco with yellow tiles, paved streets with countless cars. There are many people out and about. Dah passes by banks, clothing stores, old churches and bakeries that sell macaroons. He now lives in Utrera, a city of more than 50,000 in the southeast of the province of Seville, a mere 30 kilometers from the capital.
HERE THERE IS NO DESERT. There is no sand.
AT JOSÉ MARÍA INFANTES SCHOOL his first class is Social Sciences, with his teacher Pepe Marín, who has helped him a lot this year. In Biology, his favorite class, his teacher Salvador Moreno greets him: “How is everything going, Dah?” All of his classes are in Spanish.
NEXT HE HAS MATH CLASS, and then comes recess. The students go outside, but not to play. Instead, they talk about what they did yesterday, about the soccer game last night, about the television series they’re watching. Dah eats his sandwich sitting in a corner of the playground with his friends José María, Fernando and Jesús.
AFTER THE LAST THREE CLASSES of the day Dah leaves school and buys bread for his mother. At home, he eats with his whole family – his sister Mercedes, his brother Salvador, his mother Mercedes and his father Diego. The menu is Iberian ham (although he doesn’t eat it, following his Islamic precepts) and Spanish omelet, foods typical in the Spanish Mediterranean diet. The products are fresh and good-quality. Here there are no chickpeas or beans from humanitarian aid.
RIGHT AFTER EATING, Dah goes upstairs to his room. From 3:00 until 9:00 he works painstakingly. His mother is at his side the whole time, teaching him as much as she can but, above all, words in Spanish that he doesn’t understand.
AT 9:00, Dah takes a shower and eats dinner with his family, a meal of salmorejo and potato stew. He watches a little television and then goes to bed, hoping that tomorrow he will understand more of this new culture.
DAH MOHAMED ABDERRAHMAN came to Spain in 2003, when he was 13 years old, thanks to the program Vacaciones en Paz, organized by the Association of Friendship and Solidarity with the Sahrawi People of Seville with the intention of bringing children from the refugee camps situated in the Algerian province of Tindouf to spend the summer in Spanish cities. The children are hosted by Spanish families for two months and thus are able to escape the extremely high temperatures of the desert and enjoy vacation in a completely different place.
THE NEED for this program stems from the existing conflict in Western Sahara, a disputed territory occupied by Morocco since 1975, when what was a Spanish colony and province was abandoned by the Spanish army. Morocco, led harshly by its king Hassan II, took advantage of Spain’s weakness in the face of the imminent death of General Franco to peacefully occupy the Sahara on November 6, 1975 in what was known as the Green March. 350,000 civilians marched on foot from Morocco to the colony. When the Spanish army finally left, 25,000 Moroccan soldiers occupied the Sahara. Hassan II claimed the Sahara as part of his own country, triggering the exodus and expulsion of tens of thousands of Sahrawis to the desert. Following this exodus, the systematic repression of those Sahrawis who remained in the occupied territories began, in addition to a war that lasted from 1975 to 1991 between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the guerrilla liberation movement that had already been fighting for Sahrawi independence and for Sahrawis’ rights during the last years of the colony’s existence.
IN 1980 Morocco began to construct a wall of separation between the occupied territory in the northeast and the free territory in the southeast. Over time this wall would come to be 2,720 kilometers long – almost 18 times bigger than the Berlin Wall and containing the longest continuous minefield in the world. Many Sahrawis continued living in the occupied territories under Moroccan control, but many others fled to cross the eastern border with neighboring Algeria, founding the refugee camps in the province of Tindouf. There they were able to avoid the human rights violations committed by Morocco in the occupied territories; they could identify as Sahrawi and raise their flag without fear of the death of a family member or of going to jail for defending their cause.
THE GREAT MAJORITY OF THE FAMILIES who fled to the camps still live there today. According to UNHCR, there are some 90,000 refugees living in Tindouf. Dah’s family is among them.
SUADU AND MOHAMED, Dah’s parents, have lived in the camp of Dajla for almost 40 years. They arrived there in 1975, after the Green March. During those first years, Dah’s mother worked with the Polisario Front as the leader of the camp’s Union of Sahrawi Women. His father was an official in the Polisario Front as well. Dah and his three siblings were born and grew up in Dajla, in a place that is not really their legitimate home. Meanwhile the Polisario Front continues its attempts to reclaim the land that Morocco took away.
DAH EXPLAINS that he will always have a debt of gratitude to his biological mother. “My [Sahrawi] mother has fought for my three siblings and me, and for me that is huge. She fought for us in the desert. She made sacrifices to guarantee our well-being,” he says.
WHEN DAH came to Spain for the first time with Vacaciones en Paz he thought he would only be in Seville for the summer, but he contracted a serious gastrointestinal illness and had to stay in Spain to receive treatment. He was not able to return to his home in Tindouf like the other children in the program, and he continued living with his host family in Utrera. It is the same family that he still lives with today – his parents Mercedes and Diego, his 30-year-old brother Salvador and his 32-year-old sister Mercedes. It is a family that, during the last 11 years, has “always treated him like another child.”
TODAY DAH is a tall and attractive young man who speaks fluent Spanish. His posture, his confidence and the certainty and kindness in his voice testify to a fast maturity. His trusting brown eyes complement his wide smile. When he talks, he leans forward and moves his hands with energy.
DAH KNOWS what he wants and what he believes in and is not afraid to say it. At 24 years old, he just completed his nursing degree at the University of Seville and, like so many other young people in the city in which he lives, is looking for a job.
IN THE FALL OF 2003, when he began high school, Dah couldn’t speak Spanish. His teachers and family members helped him adjust to the new culture. “They had a lot of patience because they knew that I didn’t have any knowledge,” he says. “A family who pays attention to you, who encourages you, who helps you settle your doubts is super important.”
DESPITE HIS SUCCESSFUL ADAPTATION to the culture that took him in, Dah has not forgotten his religion or his culture of origin – he still prays five times per day and speaks Arabic with his biological aunt who also lives in Utrera.
DAH VISITS HIS FAMILY in the Sahara each summer: his parents Suadu and Mohamed, his 41-yearold brother Ahmed, his 27-year-old brother Mohamed and his other siblings Alieen and Lamina who are 17 and 9 respectively. His other sister Lamina, who is 15, lives in Granada with a Spanish family as well.
DAH EXPLAINS that although he loves visiting his family during the summer, there is always a very intense contrast of emotions. “You arrive with an immense happiness and you leave with an incredible sadness,” he relates. “I have cried in the airport many times.”
WITH TWO FAMILIES and two cultures in two countries, Dah says he has a “double life.” “I have a life there and I have a life here. It is a different life because really the culture is different, the religion is different.”
“AS WITH MY SAHRAWI FAMILY, I will always be in debt to my [Spanish] family and I will thank them for the rest of my life,” he says.
DAH HAS TWO COUNTRIES, two families, two houses and two lives that he appreciates deeply, but he insists that above all he will never abandon his homeland. “I will always be there when they call me. I will always be prepared. We have hope and we are not going to abandon the fight,” he says in relation to the conflict. “We are going to continue there, fighting for what belongs to us.”