Meeting two Saharawi children at their home in the refugee camps and then in Wales.
When I fly out of the desert it is in the company of more than a hundred excited Saharawi eight- and nine-year-olds. They are on their way to Spain to be hosted for the summer holiday by families supportive of the Polisario cause. A few are tearful at first, but remarkably few considering they have never even travelled beyond the refugee camps before, let alone been swept away from their parents on a jet in the middle of the night.
There is no more impressive demonstration of the benefits of international solidarity than this. The Saharawi refugees are creative, resourceful and brave but there is no getting round the fact that they are dependent on the international community for more than just food. They also need practical help in showing their children what the world is like beyond the grim confines of a desert refugee camp.
To this end thousands of Saharawi children are hosted by sympathetic families and organizations abroad each summer: this year 4,500 went to Spain (the former colonial power), 700 to Italy, 120 to France, 50 to Belgium, 40 to Germany and 10 each to Sweden, Austria and Britain.
I make a point of seeking out two of the ten children who are to travel to Britain. Mamia is eight and Selamo is nine. They are extremely shy but by playing the clown I eventually get them to relax a bit. They say they are excited rather than worried by the idea of the trip. Their list of the things they expect to see runs like this: the sea; aeroplanes; swimming pools; cars; buses; high buildings; white people; green land. I give them some photos I've brought of ordinary British life so as to help prepare them: supermarkets, terraced streets and, yes, double-decker buses. We give them a lift home and I promise to meet them again in Britain.
Six weeks later I keep my promise. The Saharawi children are being hosted in Scotland and Wales by the Woodcraft Folk, a youth movement set up as an alternative to the Scouts and Guides - it is mixed-sex and based on environmental, co-operative and internationalist principles, which are being put into impressive practice by this exercise in solidarity. I catch up with them in the verdant surroundings of a Woodcraft camp in Anglesey, North Wales where the African and Welsh children are joining together to create their own activities fair.
Mamia and Selamo have spent most of their time in Scotland living in family homes and you sense that this, even more than the green countryside, is the core of the experience for any child being hosted abroad in this way. Mamia in particular is full of enthusiasm- and seems much more confident here than she did on her home ground. When I ask her what is the best thing she has done in Britain she says, charmingly, that it has been getting to know the family with whom she stayed. Her favourite activity has been swimming and I suddenly realize that these children of the desert have never before had the opportunity to immerse their bodies in water.
Internationalist campaigning and solidarity work is about letter-writing and meetings, fundraising and phoning - there is no way round that. But it can also have this creative, human dimension. And, perhaps because the Saharawis have been so bypassed by the world's mainstream, campaigners have found unusually creative ways to help. English-speaking countries have been more backward in this, though one of the most creative solidarity projects of all is based in London. Called 'Spanish Voices', it uses e-mail, video and audio tapes to link up children in the Saharawi camps with schools in London, Spain and Guatemala (see below).
The most important year yet for the Saharawis lies ahead. Now is the time to put effort into a campaign ensuring that a free and fair referendum takes place and that children like Mamia and Selamo do not have to travel halfway across the world to glimpse the sea - but can see it in their own land.
Western Sahara has never been high on the news agenda and as a result solidarity groups around the world have found it harder to get people involved than on more high-profile causes such as Burma or even East Timor. This is an issue on which you can really make a difference.
Sadly there is no specific campaign or contact point on Western Sahara. The best starting points for interested readers would be:
The Africa Centre PO Box 12-331, Wellington. Tel: (04) 473 4055. Fax: (04) 472 6374.
Council for International Development PO Box 12-470, Wellington. Tel: (04) 472 6375.
Any reader keen to start a campaign should contact the Western Sahara Campaign in Britain.
There is no formal campaign on Western Sahara in Australia but Jill Vidler, a lawyer based in Sydney, is acting as a national contact point for the international campaign.
Western Sahara Campaign Oxford Chambers, Oxford Place, Leeds LS1 3AX. Tel/Fax: (0113) 245 4786. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The focal point for solidarity work with the Saharawi refugees and campaigning for a free and fair referendum. The current co-ordinator is Richard Stanforth.
Young people from Western Sahara's 9 June School, four London schools, three Spanish schools and a youth photography project in Guatemala communicate via e-mail, fax, photography, video and newsletters in English and Spanish. Co-ordinator: Margaret Burr.
Saharawan Aid Consortium c/o The Earl of Winchelsea, House of Lords, SW1A 0PW (0171) 219 5353. Fax: (0171) 219 5979.
Organizes the Rainbow Rovers convoys to the camps, the last of which left in November.
One World Action Bradley's Close, White Lion Street, London N1 9PF. Tel: (0171) 833 4075. Fax: (0171) 833 4102. e-mail: email@example.com
Acts as the convenor of the Saharawi Agricultural Consortium, a group of European aid agencies which supports the Saharawis' efforts to green the desert and grow their own food.
War On Want 37-39 Great Guildford Street London SE1 0ES. Tel: (0171) 620 1111. (0171) 261 9291 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Works primarily on food security and has arranged for the Lancashire Fire Brigade to build a food store in the refugee camps from November.
Woodcraft Folk 13 Ritherdon Road, London SW17 8QE. Tel: (0181) 672 6031. Fax: (0181) 767 2457. See the story above for more about this youth organization's activities.
Western Sahara Initiative c/o Salim Fakirani, Canadian Lawyers Association for International Human Rights, 204-251 Laurier Avenue West, Ottawa, Ontario. Tel: (613) 233 0398. e-mail: email@example.com Website: www.web.net/~claihr/
Aims through legal research, fact-finding and advocacy to ensure a free and fair referendum.
Irish Refugee Council 35/36 Arran Quay, Dublin 7. Tel:: 872 4413. Fax: 872 4411. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Works with refugees from many countries and has organized visits for Saharawis.
Sahara Fund, Inc 4438 Tindall Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Tel: (202) 364 9473. Fax: (202) 364 9472. Contact: Teresa Smith de Cherif.
US public foundation operating for educational and cultural research on Saharan Africa. Also works in Mali and Mauritania.
Defence Forum Foundation 3014 Castle Road, Falls Church, Virginia 22044. Tel: (703) 534 4313. e-mail: email@example.com Contact: Suzanne Scholte.
Is closely connected to the Republican Party but has been very active in promoting the cause of a free and fair referendum in Western Sahara, producing a regular newsletter.
Saharan People's Support Committee 217 East Lehr Ave, Ada, Ohio 45810. Tel: (419) 634 3666. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Contact: Anne Lippert.
Has provided information on Western Sahara since 1976, though less actively since 1991.
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