MHC Student Overcomes Odds to Get Here

Posted: October 10, 2006

Senia Bachir-Abderahman '10Senia Bachir-Abderahman '10 is from Western Sahara but has never set foot in her homeland. While she is at Mount Holyoke, she will have no contact with her family--not by email, phone, or letter. Senia was born and grew up in a refugee camp in Algeria, which her parents fled to in the mid-1970s after Morocco began occupation of the former Spanish colony.

Nearly 200,000 Sahrawi refugees, mostly women, live in small tents in desert land considered by most to be uninhabitable. They rely entirely on outside aid for food and goods. "We are so dependent on others, and anything could change at any minute," Senia said. "We go to sleep every night with the fear of not being sure of our future."

But Senia says the difficult living situations have made her stronger and have inspired her to learn about other cultures. "I want to broaden my view and perspective on growing up in a different environment and get to know other people and cultures," she said.

Experiencing new environments--on her own--is nothing new for Senia. Early childhood education takes place in the refugee camp, but starting at age 8, Senia attended boarding schools in northern Algeria. Even though she was not very far from her family geographically, she still had no way of communicating with them while at school.

"I kind of got used to it, so I don't get that homesick anymore," she said. "But it's hard, because I don't have any idea what's going on at home."

She also was given the opportunity to attend camps in several European countries during her childhood through organizations that worked to give refugee children an experience outside the camp. "It was very shocking," Senia said of her experience living with a French family. "It was totally different from anything I knew." Senia is fluent in Spanish, French, Arabic, English, and her native Hassaniya.

When she was young, Senia dreamed of becoming the first Sahrawi--or Western Sahara native--to graduate from medical school in Algeria. She never thought her education would take her so far away from Algeria.

At 15, Senia was accepted into the International Baccalaureate program at United World College in Norway. She was one of 30 Sahrawi students selected to apply and was ultimately chosen, along with two boys, to attend United World Colleges. It was there she first heard about Mount Holyoke. "I was really inspired by [the college representative] and decided to apply. She talked about science a lot, which I'm interested in, and showed us pictures. It wasn't in a big city, which I liked."

Senia is still thinking about going to medical school, and majoring in biology while at Mount Holyoke. But she's keeping her options open. "I was very sure that coming to school in the U.S. would be better than school in Algeria. And it's very international here, which I like."

While she was at school in Norway, Senia spent her summers at the refugee camp, teaching English to refugee women and, through an advocacy group called Asylum Seekers, to Afghani and Palestinian women. This past summer, a center for English was built in the camp. "The hard part is that different organizations come with ideas but only stay for two to three months," Senia said. "When they leave, things stop. There are a lot of people who really want to learn, especially women." On several occasions, Senia served as a translator for media interviewing refugees who spoke only Hassaniya. "People are always so surprised to learn about us," she said of the media coverage of the refugees.

Before coming to Mount Holyoke, Senia played volleyball in the World Scholar-Athlete Games in Kingston, Rhode Island. She was the first Sahrawi ever to attend the games. Growing up, Senia and her friends made volleyballs out of socks and plastic bags. "Everyone else had practiced a lot," Senia said. "I had no idea about all the rules, like rotating. But by the end I was almost as good as them."

Senia is still hopeful that her family will soon be able to return to Western Sahara. "I'm so optimistic," she said. "I bet someone we would have our independence by 2005. Every year I still think it will happen. Many people say they don't want their children to grow up there, but they end up there."