Call of Her Desert: Saharan Refugee Pursues Familial Mission as Mount Holyoke Student

Friday, December 12, 2008 - 13:32

This article ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Wednesday, December 12.

By Kristin Palpini

SOUTH HADLEY - Mount Holyoke College junior Senia Bachir-Abderahman was born in one of the world's oldest and largest refugee camps, Tindouf, a tent-city in Western Algeria.

After 20 years, home is still a sand-covered, green canopy tent she shares with her four brothers, three sisters, mother and stepfather.

Life is slow at the camp, Senia said. Most days are spent sleeping in scant shade in an effort to beat the blistering 120-degree heat, making tea with sugar supplied by the camp's only source of sustenance - humanitarian aid packages - and waiting.

At night, Senia, whose parents insist she stay by the tent, looks into the skies and dreams of a homeland she's never laid eyes on, Western Sahara. She pines for a place where people aren't waiting decades for peace, they are living it.

"The refugee camp is not my home, it's temporary," said Senia, a 20-year-old woman with an easy smile and red-framed glasses. "I will some day go back to my real country where I'm supposed to belong. I am very hopeful because my people have been so patient. We have been waiting a long, long time."

Senia is a victim of what is often called "the forgotten conflict." On Tuesday, Senia and two other refugees attending Mount Holyoke College shared their experiences and culture with an audience of more than 100 people at an evening forum.

Senia is often surprised by how many people do not realize there are more than 150,000 Western Saharan refugees who have been living in Algeria's Tindouf province since 1975, the year Morocco invaded its neighbor, Western Sahara. Instead of fighting the invasion, many Western Sahara natives, or "Saraharwi," fled the country.

While Morocco's claim to Western Sahara has not been recognized by any country, a referendum to settle the dispute has been repeatedly delayed by the United Nations. Senia suspects this is due to Morocco's importance to the United States and France. The nation acts as a Western-friendly port to Africa, she said.

In the United States, Senia is trying to bring an end to Western Sahara's waiting and to improve herself and the plight of her fellow Saraharwi refugees through education. She is among the approximately 50,000 refugees from all over the world who arrive in America in pursuit of a better life. Many seek advancement through education, but few succeed.

Senia says she will be different. She will become a doctor and spread awareness wherever she goes about Western Sahara. Both will help her countrymen, she said.

Since coming to Mount Holyoke College on a full scholarship in 2006, Senia has made three appearances at the United Nations in New York City advocating for a referendum to settle Western Sahara's sovereignty. Advocating on behalf of Western Sahara should help refugees win back their land, she said.

"When I go home, everyone tells me I have to make sure people know about us. It is the only way for the conflict to find a solution," Senia said. "I hope people will tell their friends and family members and be more involved."

Getting here

Senia's odyssey to Mount Holyoke College began before she was born with a cross-desert race to freedom.

Her family was directly affected by the Moroccan invasion. The family home was one of the many thousands of dwellings overtaken by the approximately 300,000 Moroccan settlers who staked claims to Western Saharan land in 1975. Before the invasion, Western Sahara had been a Spanish province.

Fearing for her life and the lives of her children, Senia's grandmother decided to take her four young sons and three daughters (including Senia's mother, who was 12 at the time) across the desert into Algeria. Only the women would survive, said Senia. Unlike the rest of her interview with the Gazette, when Senia tells the story of her grandmother's escape, Senia looks away and speaks in a monotone.

The family wandered on foot through the desert, Senia explained. They slept during the day and ran at night so as not to be detected by Moroccan airplanes. Eventually, the traveling family became weary from lack of food and water. The first to succumb to dehydration was the youngest, a 2-month-old son. Soon after, the next youngest fell to the same fate, Senia said.

The third son died when he stepped on a land mine. The shrapnel and dust that killed the boy also permanently blinded Senia's grandmother.

"Even after all these atrocities and all that happened, they could not stop because their lives were in danger," Senia said softly. "I dream of a country (though) I never set foot there," she continued. "I feel like it's a part of me because my mother and grandmother went through all this because they really wanted - they loved Western Sahara so much."

Now lost in the desert, the family was discovered by the Polisaro (Western Sahara's military in exile), which took them to Tindouf. It is there the family has lived, and grown, over 34 years.

"In a refugee camp, there is not much to do," Senia said. "We sit and wait. People have been doing it for 34 years now. People sit and make tea for hours."

Camp life

Life in Tindouf is full of routine, tea and waiting. Because the refugee camp has been established for more than three decades, it is well organized. Tindouf has a government in exile, a school and a medical unit. These institutions are run by refugee volunteers like Senia's mother, a middle school teacher. She administers lessons in a white stucco room packed with students and featuring a single blackboard. More than 90 percent of the people in her camp can read and write, Senia said.

Food staples such as flour, rice and sugar are supplied by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), but the organization only delivers enough food per person to fill half the dietary needs of a sedentary person, Senia noted. Often the family dines on bread, water, rice and beans, with the occasional treat of canned tuna or sardines. Her favorite meal is rice with camel's milk, although her brothers don't like the dish so she rarely makes it.

Water is rationed and must be collected from a well 50 miles outside the camp. Showers are taken every two weeks.

Children attend school and play with homemade toys - cars made out of old tuna cans and dolls constructed of dried camel bones with chalk faces.

When she is home, Senia wakes with the sun around 5 a.m. and spends most of her time preparing meals for her brothers. As her family's only daughter old enough to do household chores, Senia is saddled with many domestic duties. Typically, her mother runs the household, but when Senia is home from school, she likes to give her mother a break from chores.

Between every meal, the family and most people at the refugee camp drink Saraharwi tea. It is the one purely Saraharwi tradition preserved in the camp, Senia said.

Ritual tea drinking takes hours and involves three cups of tea: the first is bitter (to symbolize life), the second is a touch sweeter (to represent death) and the last cup is full of sugar (to represent love), Senia said.

Conversation over tea is a major pastime at Tindouf. If women are present the conversation is mostly gossip, Senia said with a chuckle. Men tend to talk about politics and what life was like in Western Sahara. These are the conversations Senia likes best. Although she doesn't contribute, because few people in Tindouf take the word of a young woman seriously, she enjoys listening.

"They know at the end that they will be rewarded," Senia said. "They know that they will return to their homeland to where they belong, where the luxuries are. I do hope to see that day soon."

Mount Holyoke days

Senia arrived at Mount Holyoke through her own determination and a bit of good luck. In 2003, a group of people Senia describes as "foreigners" visited her tent. They were looking for talented refugees to apply for a scholarship to an international high school in Norway.

"It's funny because I was sitting in my tent trying to figure out the best way for me to get good grades so I would be the first Saraharwi woman to graduate from medical school in Nigeria," Senia said. "And all of a sudden these two ladies that didn't look like Saraharwi came into my tent."

Although she doubted herself, Senia was selected for the scholarship. She spent two years in Norway, where she was introduced to lush vegetation ("I thought it was a fantasy," she said, recalling Norway's landscape in comparison to her desert life), English and a diverse student population.

It was in Norway that Senia learned about Mount Holyoke College. She fell in love with the college's science department and scenic campus. A nature lover, Senia makes sure to take a walk around the campus pond every day.

Mount Holyoke was an easy community for Senia to join, she said. The friendly environment and many engaging lectures made Senia feel comfortable in her new home. Senia is studying biology. She plans to go on to medical school, become a doctor and return home, whether that is camp Tindouf or Western Sahara.

Senia sometimes struggles in class when she gets confused by English, her third language in addition to Arabic and Spanish. She still doesn't fully understand sarcastic American humor or slang. It took her friends a half an hour to describe to Senia what a "jerk" is.

Ultimately, she would like to bring attention to the conditions in Western Sahara and to help refugees around the globe by becoming a regular participant in Doctors Without Borders.

"I want to spend the rest of my life travelling and meeting people," Senia said. "Having our voices heard is our people's only hope."

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