It has been 20 years since I left my family in the refugee camps in southern Algeria to study abroad. Even though leaving my family was not an easy decision, I knew if I didn’t, I would be stuck in the camps with no future prospects, like thousands of other Saharawis (indigenous people of Western Sahara). Looking back at my decision, it has not been easy, and I have missed my family every day, but it was the right choice. The decision to study abroad not only gave me the chance to pursue the career of my choice, but also gave me the opportunity to inform others about the current situation in Western Sahara and what Morocco has been doing since its occupation of the territory in 1975.
My family was forced to flee from Western Sahara along with half of the Saharawi people to Algeria, where they found a safe refuge, but they are still waiting for a solution to the longest and most forgotten dispute in the African continent.
I am not the only Saharawi woman to leave my family at a young age to pursue an education. Every year, thousands of Saharawi girls leave the refugee camps in search of a better future, while their families remain in exile for years. However, these girls grow into determined women who do everything within their power to be the voice of their people’s cause through activism.
Take, for example, Senia Bachir. She was given the chance to study at Mt Holyoke College, one of the top colleges in the US. Senia has used her education – specifically her language skills – to be a powerful activist, not only through writing, but also through speaking on international platforms such as the United Nations, as well as different international organizations around the world.
Asria Mohamed left her family for a career in translation and journalism in Norway. She has used her passion for writing to author a book that highlights her story and the many stories of Saharawi women who continue to live in exile in the camps under the harshest conditions. Those in exile face temperatures that can reach up to 130˚F (55˚C) and a population that is completely dependent on international aid.
Senia and Asria’s tireless activism represents the dream of all Saharawi women who continue to live in the camps to one day go back to a free Western Sahara. But while waiting for a solution, they continue to fight against the hardships in exile.
Saharawi women in the refugee camps are not only the ones fighting to improve the condition of their lives; those in the occupied territories of Western Sahara have their own battles. There they live under constant fear of abuse from the Moroccan authorities. On a daily basis, videos and pictures are shown via social media of peaceful protests crushed by Moroccan police, with Saharawi women dragged by the hair and abused in many cruel ways. Despite the constant threat of abuse, these women continue their activism by protesting under occupation.
Saharawi human rights activist Aminatu Haidar spent 12 years in prison. During her imprisonment, she was tortured and raped constantly by Morocco’s secret service, but after her release, she became a symbol of activism and freedom. Today, Aminatu is known as the Saharawi Gandhi for her nonviolent resistance and struggle. She continues to raise awareness about Morocco’s occupation and oppression in Western Sahara worldwide. Her past experience and current activism have not only shed light on the Saharawi situation under Morocco’s occupation, but also highlighted the abuse Saharawi women endure on a daily basis by Moroccan authorities.
On 24 March, Aminatu gave a lecture before the US Congress about the human rights violations that Morocco continues to commit against the Saharawi people. In her speech, she stated that during the past year alone ‘75 demonstrations were repressed in Western Sahara, with 912 activists injured by state forces including 458 women, 28 minors and 27 disabled people.’ And the numbers continue to increase.
Seeing my fellow Saharawi women living in the hardships of exile in the refugee camps, along with the constant abuse in the occupied territories of Western Sahara, I ask myself: ‘Will this nightmare ever end, and if so, when?’ Even though currently I don’t have the answers to such questions, I hope that someday I will. In the meantime, Saharawi women like Aminatu, Senia and Asria will continue to fight, using every tool they have gained through their personal experiences and education to advocate for our people’s freedom and dignity.
Agaila Abba is a freelance writer with a focus on North Africa, the Middle East and the Western Sahara/Morocco conflict.
This article is the third in our series on 'women challenging oppression'.