A Vacation for Opportunity

Sabah and her sister Amma at the beach of Caños de Meca, Julio 2015

Every year since 1994, from the months of June to August, Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace) brings Saharawi children ages 7 to 12 to many different Spanish towns from the refugee camps in Tindouf (Algeria). They are placed in host families with whom they try new things, form special bonds and escape the heat of the extreme summer temperatures in the desert. Last summer, the program, which relies both on public and private funding, brought close to 4,570 boys and girls to Spain, 1,230 of whom came to Andalusia. This is the story of 16-year-old Sabah and her host mom, Diana, who met nine years ago thanks to the program.

“I knew little about what happened in the Western Sahara and about the refugee camps, so in 2007 when Easter arrived, and we wanted to take a vacation we said, ‘Well, let’s go to the Sahara.’ Then a friend of my husband Jose who had been to the refugee camps, told us, ‘oh no, no, no, you can’t go there just like that; first, you have to host a kid from the Sahara, and then you can go.’ And then I said, ‘What! What do you mean we have to host a child?’ That’s how I first learned about Vacaciones en Paz,” explains Diana Mina. “It was an adventure we embarked on about a subject practically unknown to us. March and April passed, and in June she was here- this little girl. My husband and I hadn’t even thought about it, about having a child. What we wanted was to go to the Sahara for vacation.”

Vacaciones en Paz gave mother Galia Hassan Gali, 39, and father Ahmed Gali, 45, much like other Sahrawi parents living in the camps, the opportunity to send their daughter Sabah Ahmed Gali, then 7, to Spain for the summer, not only to escape the extreme temperatures, which can reach as high as 138 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, but also to experience the beach, movie theaters, paved roads and other seemingly common things they lack in the camps. In June of 2007 Sabah arrived for the first time in Seville and immediately noticed the differences between life in the camps and life in Spain. “They eat with fork and knife here- in the camps we don’t, the clothes they wear here, the elevators, being able to shower every day, things like that. I love Seville. In the beginning, everything captured my attention.” Sabah continues, “It’s just everything is super different here. Flipping a switch, having light, and the water; when I would go to my grandma Mari’s house, I would run the tap water just to see the water flow. Back home I couldn’t, we had to go to a pit and bring the water back to the house. Also, there’s paved ground surrounding us unlike there, where houses are made of mud bricks from the soil that surrounds you.” What surprised her even more was one of the luxuries many take for granted. “Here I have my room, my bed, things that I don’t have to share with anyone.”

Coming to Spain was not only an adjustment for Sabah but also for Diana, who had her times of doubt and anxiety. “When she first arrived in Seville, Sabah was in another woman’s house because I was in Madrid for my job. They had sent me her photo because we had no idea what child had come. When I went to pick her up, I was really nervous. The first day, I saw this 7-year-old little girl who was so small, so cute. We were getting to know one another and I could tell she was thinking ‘Who is this woman?’ and I must have had the face of ‘Who is that child in my house?’ Diana recalls, “It was a weird feeling of fear. A feeling of ‘What does this person think of us? Am I doing it right?’ I wasn’t a mother so I hadn’t done this before. I wasn’t sure if she would adapt to our environment or our culture.”

Sabah and Diana at the refugee camp of El Aaiun, February 2009 / JOSÉ MANUEL MARTÍNEZ

Little did Sabah nor Diana know that they would not only have more time to get to know one another better but also that Sabah would be granted the chance to fill her future with opportunities. “We spent a terrific summer together. Thanks to that experience, I started to understand more about the conflict in the Western Sahara. I got more involved in Vacaciones en Paz and started advocating for the Sahrawi cause. My husband and I weren’t looking for this, but that’s how it happened. Sabah came back the next summer and by chance, I found out that there was a possibility for her to stay here if she wanted to study. We just needed her biological family’s approval and I needed to be able to take care of her. She was a very smart girl and we were able to give her that chance.”1

Since Sabah and Diana first met nine years ago, they have formed a relationship indistinguishable from any other familial bond. Sabah sees Diana’s son Samuel, 6, as her younger brother, just as he has only known her as his older sister. Though Sabah was not given in adoption to her host family- Galia still has parental authority over Sabah – Diana is providing residence for Sabah until she obtains legal documentation to stay in Spain. This summer, Sabah visited her parents and siblings, Amma, Farrah, and Sidahmed, in the camp of El Aaiun for the first time in seven years. In this very special reunion, she was able to tell them about all of her experiences in Spain, her studies at Albert Einstein High School and her plans for the future. “I want to finish school and go to college, then I want to be a part of Seville’s local police, preferably working in my neighborhood of Pino Montano, and to keep supporting the Saharawi cause.”

Vacaciones en Paz aims to fight for and inform people about the Sahrawi cause, as do the participating kids. Given Spain’s significant role in the history of the Western Sahara, it comes as a surprise that many Spaniards are uninformed about the current situation of the Sahrawi people. Sabah’s interactions with her school friends have been similar to those of other Sahrawi students. “I have friends who don’t know anything that happened. Old people, young people, educated people… It’s like everybody forgot about the Sahara. So, when you come here, people ask you questions about it and you tell them that this is an ongoing issue, little by little they start to understand.”

Sabah and Amma at the refugee camp of El Aaiun, February 2009 / JOSE MANUEL MARTÍNEZ
Sabah and Amma at the refugee camp of El Aaiun, February 2009 / JOSE MANUEL MARTÍNEZ

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Three past participants of the program Vacaciones en Paz, now students in the University of Seville, explain the history of the Saharawi exodus. Allach Salami Mahamud (23), Sidati Brahim Buhari (22), and Jalil Saila (23).

Allach – “The conflict of the Western Sahara is due to the Moroccan invasion of 1975, but the first traitor was the Spanish government. They justified it by saying that the Frente Polisario had made many attacks against Spain. However, these attacks were due to rumors spread the year before saying that the future King Juan Carlos I was going to distribute the Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania. What is more, they were not going to just distribute it; they were going to sell it. So, we started to fight for our independence. The Frente Polisario then began as a non-armed movement and organized demonstrations and protests, but the Spanish Army responded by imprisoning each leader. The most notorious case was Basiri2, who wrote ‘the Sahara for the Sahrawis’. Nobody knows what happened to him.”

Sidati – “Since peaceful protest didn’t achieve anything, we began to attack the main centers of the Spanish Civil Guard. Then came the Green March, which was a strategy of King Hassan II supported by the CIA. They carried out a military invasion that, in view of the rest of the world, had the appearance of a peaceful occupation. Hassan II sent the troops of the Moroccan army to massacre the Sahrawis, who had no weapons, because its army and police were those of the Spaniards, and they were no longer there. Those Sahrawis who were able to flee did so toward the desert. They did not even know that they were heading to the Algerian territory; they did not know where they were going altogether; they just fled from death. The Moroccans were not only bombing the Sahrawis but also the French.”

Allach – “Little by little, the refugee population became stronger, and they welcomed us in Algeria, whose government, as well as Libya’s, provided weapons to the Frente Polisario. The war lasted 16 years until a peace agreement was signed under the supervision of the UN in 1991. At that time, three quarters of the Western Sahara were occupied by Morocco and a quarter by the Frente Polisario. Today there are about 400,000 Sahrawis scattered throughout the world, but in the occupied territories of the Sahara, there are almost ten times more Moroccans than Sahrawis. In what used to be the Western Sahara in the cities of the former Spanish colony, there are only small neighborhoods (ghettos) of Sahrawis, which are surrounded by Moroccan neighborhoods and under police surveillance.”

Jalil – “When the peace agreement was reached, Morocco was losing the war because although the Sahrawis were worse-armed, they knew the desert better. In fact, during the war, the Frente Polisario had 2,000 casualties whereas the Moroccan army had 4,000. Mauritania withdrew soon, in 1979, because the Sahrawis even managed to attack its capital. When we signed the peace agreement, the only real thing that was achieved was that Morocco built the wall of 2,700 km, which separates us from our people.”

Allach“Language is what separates us from the Moroccans; they speak Darija and we speak Hassania. If we spoke the same language, we would be indistinguishable like brothers and sisters.”