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Sahrawi Refugee Children in a Spanish Host Program

Lessons Learned Report

The Transnationalisation of Care: Sahrawi Refugee Children in a Spanish Host Program

Gina Crivello, Elena Fiddian, Dawn Chatty

Refugee Studies Centre

Queen Elizabeth

House University of Oxford

December 2005

Research Summary

This study contributes to the growing body of research that seeks to document and understand the views and experiences of refugee youth. It initially began as a supplementary project aimed at enriching interview data that had already been generated with Sahrawi children in the refugee camps in Algeria. This research effort forms part of a larger study set up by Dr. Dawn Chatty on Sahrawi refugee youth in Algeria and Afghan refugee youth in Iran funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The supplementary study was centred in Spain, where thousands of Sahrawi children spend their summer vacations with Spanish families as part of the Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace) hosting programme. Forty-six children who agreed to take part in the study were interviewed on similar topics as were addressed in the camp study, including gender, education, politicisation, hosting experiences, and aspirations for the future.

Overall, the children’s consciousness as refugees was overshadowed by their strong sense of Sahrawi identity. Their immediate knowledge centres on life in their neighbourhoods and in the camps, while knowledge of Western Sahara and their family’s histories of exile were generally difficult for them to articulate. All of the children referred to the camps where they live, not as camps, but as “Sahara.” Around half of them expressed awareness that there is ‘another’ Sahara – Western Sahara, or the ‘true’ Sahara, as it was sometimes called.

Children described their play groups as gender-specific – boys play with boys and girls play with girls. Household chores were also described as gendered, with female members taking on the bulk of domestic work. Nonetheless, the children did not attribute these differences to discrimination or gender asymmetry. They did not give particular importance to the different roles and treatment of boys and girls in the camps.

Another strong pattern that emerged was in relation to children’s plans for the future. Nearly all of them expressed a strong desire to return to the camps after the hosting programme ended, and although most of them planned to work as adults, they intended to do so in the camps. The weak desire to emigrate corroborated the data collected with youth in the camps and may have reflected the strong sense of family loyalty characteristic of their community in exile. It may also have reflected the seeds of a more generalised political ideology that linked remaining in the camps with the continued commitment to the independence struggle and hope for an independent Western Sahara. It appeared that with this young age group, the family pull was the greatest factor that influenced how they envisioned their adult lives. They were used to having family members live for extended periods of time outside of the camps for the purposes of work or study, as the camps lack the infrastructure to support a full educational system. While mobility and fluid household membership was considered normal, they expected to eventually return to live near their parents.

As the fieldwork progressed, it became increasingly clear that the Vacaciones en Paz hosting programme was more than just a way to contact Sahrawi children in Spain. The hosting programme was worthy of study in its own right, as it was an important, multi-faceted source of support for these children and their families. In addition to the interviews carried out with children, a questionnaire was also administered to 26 Spanish host parents and aimed to collect data on patterns of hosting, the degree to which contact is maintained throughout the year with their host children, and the quality and quantity of economic and other forms of support offered to their families in the camps. Through the programme, children’s medical and nutritional needs were attended to; they gained knowledge from new cultural experiences; they developed what may become deep emotional bonds with their host families and expanded their web of social relations; and they accrued valuable economic benefits in the form of money and goods which they took back with them to the camps. In summary, this study described how the hosting programme, in its economic, social, emotional, and political dimensions, facilitated a transnational network of care, of which Sahrawi children were shown to be central nodes and actors.

Aims and Organisation of the Research Programme

This research project aimed to document the experiences of Sahrawi refugee children taking part in the summer hosting programme known as Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace) in Madrid, Spain, during the summer of 2005. It is part of a larger research programme funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which focused on the experiences of youth living in situations of prolonged conflict and forced migration in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The research programme comprises three core case studies: 1) Young Palestinian refugees in households located in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip [1999-2001]; 2) Afghan youth living in Iran [2002-2005]; and, 3) Sahrawi young people living in the refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria [2002-2005]. The Sahrawi and Afghan components of the research programme are collectively referred to as SARC, shorthand for Sahrawi and Afghan Research on Children. SARC emerged from the previous Palestinian study and drew on many of the latter’s core research questions and methods.

Case studies on Palestinian, Sahrawi, and Afghan youth examined:

  • a) the coping strategies of children and youth in refugee households.

  • b) the effects of forced migration on the members of these households.

  • c) the social context of the direct and indirect effects of conflict.

  • d) the attitudes to and incidence of violence within and outside households.


Dawn Chatty, Deputy Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, was Principal Investigator for the Palestinian, Sahrawi and Afghan projects. Gina Crivello, an anthropologist, worked as the research assistant on the Sahrawi and Afghan project. She and Elena Fiddian, a graduate student at the University of Oxford, carried out the fieldwork in Spain among Sahrawi refugee youth.

The research project among Sahrawi children visiting Spain aimed at supplementing the pool of data which had already been collected in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria on the broader issues of coping, politicisation, education, and gender and family dynamics.

Randa Farah, a Palestinian anthropologist based in Canada was the team leader of the Sahrawi research team in the refugee camps.

In the camps, some fifty households, distributed among the five camps, agreed to take part in the study. Children (between the ages of eight and eighteen) and their significant caregivers within these households were interviewed in their homes. These were semi-structured, open-ended, interviews in family-group settings.


The research in Spain differed from the research in the camps in a number a ways. First, it was a three-week project linked specifically to the Vacaciones en Paz programme. Interviews in the camps took place over a two-year period and developed through the existing neighbourhood and family networks of local researchers. Second, unlike the more family-oriented interviewing approach that took place in the camps, the interviews in Spain were largely one-to-one with the children, although host parents often remained nearby or sat in during the interviews. In Spain, around fifty children were interviewed. In the camps, fifty households participated in the study and family-style interviews sought to capture the views of children and their significant caregivers within this sample. In contrast, the Spanish study used an open-ended questionnaire with individual children, similar to one devised by Homa Hoodfar, the team leader of the Afghan study, and her research team. The questionnaire covered relevant topics, including migration history, gender, and family dynamics.

It was thought that the administration of a questionnaire would enhance the potential for comparability across the Sahrawi and Afghan cases. The questionnaire was modified to reflect the circumstances of the Sahrawi case, the children’s experiences in Spain, and their involvement in the Vacaciones en Paz programme. Finally, the interviews in Spain are unique from the other research efforts because they were collected in a “third” country – neither the ‘homeland’ (Western Sahara) nor the host country (Algeria). We embarked on the study in Spain with the hope that such circumstances would elicit responses perhaps difficult to draw out while interviewing in the context of the refugee camps in Algeria.

Background to the Western Sahara Conflict

According to the United Nations, Western Sahara is the last African non self-governing territory. It is therefore often referred to as the last remaining colony in all of Africa.

For a recent overview of the Western Sahara conflict see Toby Shelley’s Endgame in the Western Sahara, published by Zed Books, 2004.

The contested territory is similar in size to France and is rich in phosphates, fish, and possibly oil.

According to United Nations' figures for 1998, there were 275,000 inhabitants in Western Sahara, excluding Moroccan settlers in the territory, as well as refugees in neighbouring countries.

By 1936, Spain and France had formed an alliance to establish Spanish hegemony in the Western Sahara, with the territory becoming a Spanish province in 1958. In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on Spain to organise a referendum in which the Sahrawi people would vote on self-determination. Following the emergence of several fleeting anti-colonial movements in the late 60s and early 70s, the armed forces of the liberation struggle, known as the POLISARIO Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia El-Hamra y Rio de Oro) was officially established in 1973 at a congress held in Ain Bentili in order to organize against Spanish colonialism. On 27 February 1976, the day after the Spanish officially withdrew from the territory the POLISARIO proclaimed an independent Western Sahara and established a government-in-exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

FIGURE 1: Map of North Africa

1975 was a pivotal year: with Spanish General Franco on his deathbed, Moroccan and Mauritanian forces entered what was at that point still the Spanish Sahara. Dated 16 October, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) published its advisory opinion on what should happen with the territory – it rejected Morocco’s and Mauritania’s claims to the land and maintained the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. On 31 October, the Moroccan army crossed the border into Western Sahara, aiming to occupy three towns which had previously been evacuated by the Spanish. The army clashed with the Polisario Front, which was trying to protect the towns of Farsia, Haousa and Jdiriya from the Moroccan forces. Source:

Six days later, on November 6th, then Moroccan King, Hassan II, called on volunteers to take part in the “Green March”, so named after the sacred colour of Islam. An estimated 350,000 Moroccan civilians crossed into the former Spanish Sahara bearing flags, pictures of the King, and copies of the Quran. In defiance of the ICJ decision on Sahrawi self-determination, Morocco forcibly annexed the northern two-thirds of the territory for itself.

Tens of thousands of Sahrawis were forced to flee the violence and to abandon their homes. The makeshift camps they set up in Western Sahara were bombed by the Moroccan military, forcing them to seek refuge further a field in Polisario-controlled areas, and in Algeria, where many remain to this day.

Algeria granted the Sahrawis asylum and began to build what were intended to be “temporary” refugee camps in the desert. Many young men had stayed behind to fight, but tens of thousands of women, children, and elderly made the long trek towards Algeria.

The Refugee Camps

The Sahrawi refugee camps, often referred to by English speakers as “the Camps”, consist of a collection of administrative and residential encampments in a territorial zone set up in the harsh Algerian desert 30 km from the westernmost town of Tindouf [See FIGURE 2]. Some of those who settled in the camps had come from a tradition of nomadic pastoralism; others had fled from the larger urban centres such as Laayoune, Dakhla, La Guera, and Smara.

The refugee camps comprise four provinces, wilayas, or ‘camps’, the names of which parallel existing towns in Western Sahara.

The Smara, Auserd, and Laayoune camps are located in close proximity to one another and each claims around 40,000 – 45,000 residents. Dakhla, is located at some distance from the other camps and claims a higher population of between 45,000 and 50,000 residents. The 27th of February camp began as a women’s school but has since been settled; it is therefore considered by some to be a fifth camp. Each camp is intended to function as a self-contained “wilaya” or province of SADR. Each “wilaya” is divided into six “daira” or districts, with Dakhla claiming seven due its slightly higher population. Each “daira” is subdivided into four “hay” or sub-districts.

These ‘camps’ are subdivided into six or seven municipalities called dairas. The dairas are further divided into neighbourhoods. Rabouni is the governmental and administrative centre of the camps that also houses the visitor’s hotel and museum. While there are four camps, the area surrounding the 27th February Women’s School could also now be considered a fifth camp.

Basic Needs in the Camps

Families in the camps live in tents provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and many of them have built sand-brick buildings alongside their tents. The construction of these family-based sand-brick buildings is relatively recent. The first brick structures to be built were official buildings such as schools, hospitals, and administrative buildings. Trucks bring in water to the camps, as well as food, medicine, and other basic supplies. Limited access to water makes subsistence agriculture next to impossible. Therefore, international aid groups provide most of the food consumed by camp residents. Since the cease-fire was signed in 1991, a small cash-economy has emerged in the camps. A few small markets and shops have opened, and are largely run by demobilised soldiers and students returning from their studies abroad.

FIGURE 2: Map of Sahrawi Camps near Tindouf (South-West Algeria)

Women in the Camps

Sahrawi women’s central role in pre-colonial and colonial life continued when the camps were established. Women’s importance in the camps was magnified by the absence of the majority of men, who were engaged in military activities in the Western Sahara. Throughout all periods of the conflict, women have played a central role managing the camps and participating in important administrative posts. They have developed and volunteer on a number of committees that aim to provide healthcare, education, childcare, resource management, and other social services. They are also active in the political arena, with women playing key roles not only in the National Union of Sahrawi Women but also in local, provincial and national politics. Women who have studied abroad offer their services as doctors, nurses, lawyers and teachers in the camps.

Education in the Camps

From the beginning, the Polisario Front prioritised education, established mixed schools for children, and created adult literacy campaigns to educate thelargely illiterate community. At the end of the Spanish colonial era, only 5 per cent of all Sahrawis could read and write. Today, children’s education is obligatory and literacy rates in the camps are believed to have reached 90 per cent. Children attend crèches and nursery schools, and then complete their primary education locally. Two boarding schools provide children over the age of 12 with secondary education in the camps. One of these also admits some students from nomadic families who live in the liberated territories rather than in the camps themselves.

The 6th June boarding school, established in 1979, teaches children from the camps and from the Liberated Territories, in addition to approximately 75 children who have differing degrees of physical disabilities. Velloso de Santiseban, A. (1993) La educacion en el Sahara Occidental. Madrid: UNED

Upon completion of primary school, however, many students transfer to schools in Algeria to continue their studies, given the limited number of places available and the increase in population. University education is undertaken by agreements with such countries as Algeria, Cuba, and Syria. These students usually live on limited provisions and are away from their families and the camps for most of the year. Some of these secondary and university students teach members of their communities when they return to the camps in the summer periods. Although great efforts are made to educate youth, they return to the camps with few prospects for employment. Full-time, salaried jobs cannot be supported by the camp economy, as it is not cash-based. Most people are encouraged to volunteer for minimal remuneration on one of the various committees or administrative units responsible for service provision across the camps.

Researching Sahrawi Youth in Spain: theVacaciones en Paz

Background to the Programme

Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace) is an annual holiday programme which began in 1988 and is organised by the Union of Sahrawi Youth (UJSARIO) and some 300 associations throughout Spain collectively referred to as “Friends of the Sahrawi People” ( Amigos del Pueblo Saharaui). The annual programme allows between 7,000 and 10,000 Sahrawi children between the ages of eight and twelve

It is worth noting that many of the children interviewed were unable to tell the interviewers their dates of birth, and those who did had often “chosen” to have a birthday in the summer period since this would enable them to have a birthday party while in Spain. The recording of birth-dates does not occur in a systematic fashion in the camps. It is therefore not infrequent for children to report a certain age and for the oberver to estimate a considerably older or younger “real age”. This was the case in several of the interviews which took place throughout the course of the current research.

to be hosted by Spanish families in their homes for a two-month period during the summer. Some families volunteer to take in two children at a time, either a pair of siblings or two children of the same gender. Many children return year after year to the same household, particularly when the experience has been mutually positive.

FIGURE 3: Spanish Host Family at the Airport, Madrid

During the Summer of 2005, some 8,600 Sahrawi youth took part in the Vacaciones en Paz programme.

Nearly one-third of the children were hosted by families in Andalucia, located in what is recognised as the poorer southern region of the country.

424 children were taken in by families in the Autonomous Region of Madrid where the current study was based. Over 100,000 children have participated in the programme since its inception. Children are selected to participate on several bases, including school performance, medical needs, and the loss of a parent in battle. During their stay, the children receive medical examinations and treatment, as well as gifts of clothes, toys, and money which they take back with them to the camps. This may also be the first opportunity Sahrawi children have to encounter people of different nationalities, including Moroccans.


FIGURE 4: Distribution of Sahrawi Children in Spanish Households, Vacaciones en Paz 2005
Castilla-La Mancha
Castilla y Leon
Pais Vasco
Canary Islands
La Rioja


The relationships established during the programme often endure beyond the summer months, as strong proto-familial relationships form between the children and their Spanish host families, and return trips reinforce such cross-border bonds. Many kinds of families offer themselves as hosts – our research sample included: 1) young married couples without children; 2) young married couples with young children; 3) married couples with adolescent children living at home; 4) grandparents whose adult children and grandchildren live outside the home; 5) a pair of (female) cousins; and, 6) single and divorced women. Grandparents were also a steady presence in many of the households.



The present study among Sahrawi children in Spain modified the youth questionnaire that had been used for the wider study in order to be relevant for the Sahrawi and Spanish context [See Appendix A]. The questionnaire was designed to elicit the children’s perspectives on such topics as: education, political consciousness, knowledge of the Western Sahara/Occupied Territories, family and gender organisation in the camps, aspirations for the future, and the Vacaciones en Paz hosting programme. Questions were open-ended and used to guide, but not determine, the direction of the interview/conversations with the youth.

In addition, a questionnaire was created for the Spanish host parents in order to obtain information on their patterns of hosting, the degree to which they maintain contact with their host children throughout the year, and the quality and quantity of economic and other forms of support they provide. Those host families who decided to collaborate returned their completed, anonymous, questionnaires through the post, using pre-addressed and stamped envelopes.

Consent had to be obtained at numerous levels in order to gain access to the forty-six children interviewed. Initial contact was established from the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford with the Asociación de Amigos del Pueblo Saharaui de Madrid, and later with the local Polisario Delegation.

Representatives of the Asociación de Amigos del Pueblo Saharaui de Madrid presented the research plan to local members of the Polisario Delegation who in turn provided their willingness to cooperate. When the two field researchers arrived in Madrid, they met with a representative of the Madrid group as well as with two members of the Polisario Delegation. They agreed to provide the researchers with the names of the local Spanish coordinators who manage the children being hosted in their catchment area throughout the larger region of Madrid. Local coordinators were contacted and asked to provide contact information for the host families in their catchment area. The researchers then telephoned the host families in order to gain consent and to arrange appointments for one-to-one interviews in the host families’ respective homes. In a few cases, the local coordinators organised a day of interviewing with children in their area. Some even provided transportation between appointments. Others chose not to cooperate, claiming time constraints or simply failed to return the researchers’ phone calls.


The field research was carried out over a three-week period in August, 2005, in Madrid. A further three interviews were carried out in the Canary Islands. The two field researchers were based in the city centre and used public transportation to reach the outlying towns where most of the interviews were eventually arranged.

The targeted age group for the study was individuals between the ages of eight and eighteen. However, because the research sample in Spain was drawn from the Vacaciones en Paz programme, the age range of the sample was more limited – children generally begin to participate in the programme at age eight or nine and continue on until around age twelve. This is true for both boys and girls. The data collected in Spain is therefore heavily weighted towards the views of eight to twelve year olds. A few older children who were in Spain for medical reasons were also asked to participate.

When possible, the interviews were one-to-one and took place in the family home. Some of the interviews were held at a number of the offices of Sahrawi associations in and around Madrid. On average, the interviews took between thirty and forty-five minutes. Some of the meetings were organised as group-interviews and these tended to take more than an hour, depending on the number of children involved. Others ended up as group-interviews, either in the family home or in one of the meeting rooms of the relevant Sahrawi associations.

Most of the interviews were recorded using an MP3 player and later transcribed and translated from Spanish into English. Conversations with host parents were sometimes recorded or simply written up as a note attached to the respective child’s transcript. Supplementary notes were made on two ‘going-away’ parties for the children to which the researchers had been invited. Additional observations were made at Barajas Airport over a two-night period when the host families bade farewell to the children as they departed on flights back to the camps.

Emerging Themes

Several insights were gained through the formal youth interviews, as well as through informal interactions with the host families and NGO representatives. Summaries of these findings are described below under the categories: 1) Political Awareness; 2) Gender; 3) Differences between Spain and the Sahara; 4) Religion; and 5) Children and Emigration Intentions.

Political Awareness of Children

Sense of Space – Western Sahara/Occupied Territories, Morocco and the Camps

Around half of the children interviewed expressed an awareness of Western Sahara/Occupied Territories and/or about their family’s experience of exile. It was a challenge for the researchers to elicit information from the children regarding their knowledge of Western Sahara, the Occupied Territories, and Morocco without posing “leading” questions, such as “Have you heard of the Occupied Territories?” The researchers therefore generally opted to ask, for example, about where the children’s parents and grandparents had been born. This only rarely resulted in references to the Occupied Territories. Other strategies to enquire about children’s awareness and knowledge of the Occupied Territories/Western Sahara were to ask about other “places” or “countries” that the child had either heard of or had visited, or to pose questions about where their family had lived before residing in the camps.

When asked about their family’s place of origin, most of the children referred to the place where they currently live, and some even believed that their grandparents had always lived in the camps.

Since the refugee camps are named after towns in the Western Sahara, place names can often lead to confusion in general conversations held between Sahrawis themselves, and also, in the context of the present study, in the answers given by children throughout the interviews. Follow up questions were therefore often required in order to determine whether the location being referred to by the child was a refugee camp in Algeria or a town in the Western Sahara.

When asked where their grandparents were born they often named where the grandparents currently live, many of whom live in the camps. It was not always clear whether parents and grandparents had in reality been born in the places reported by the children, as the children’s responses suggested that only a few of them had in fact discussed these issues with family members.


A 12 year old girl was frank when she said about her family, “They talk about it, but I don’t listen…I don’t know. I don’t listen.” Another 12 year old girl said she didn’t know where her mother was born because “I never ask her about these things.” Nonetheless, she did know that her family came from “where Morocco is.” A 9 year old girl who did not know where she, her parents, or her grandparents were born shrugged her shoulders and explained, “I was just in her tripa” [in my mum’s belly].

Nonetheless, a small group clearly understood that their family came from someplace else before residing in the camps. However, their specific answers varied, and included Mauritania and El Bediya, the latter a likely reference to the “liberated territories” or the “homeland,” broadly conceptualised. Others referred to place names, like Laayoune, which had to be specified through questioning as either the Laayoune of Sahara or the camps, or ‘the other’ Laayoune. Others recognised that their families came from someplace else but simply could not put a name to the place, as the following interview excerpt illustrates:

Interviewer: Can you tell me about El Bediya?

Sultana: Well, you see, it’s the Sahara, but a little bit far away. Outside, like the Sahara, outside a bit.

Interviewer: (To Affia) And do you know what it’s like? Are there houses?

Sultana and Affia together: No, there are no houses.

Sultana: Just land and that’s it.

(Sahrawi girls (Affia) aged 16 and (Sultana) aged 12. I-18)


The most common response to the question, “Where were you born?” was “in Sahara”, the term they use to describe the area described in the literature as the Sahrawi refugee camps located near the Algerian military base, Tindouf. The next most common way of answering the question was in reference to the camp name (eg. Auserd). Similarly, children identified their place of birth as their daira (municipality – smaller than camp, bigger than their neighbourhood). Other first responses were Algeria (1) and ‘the camps’ (1). All of the children appeared to know the names of their camps, municipal districts and neighbourhoods.

Some of the children suggested there was “another Sahara,” and indicated that there was a place where there were cities with the same names as in the Sahara (the camps). Terms used to describe this place outside the camps included Morocco, Maghreb, Free Sahara ( Sahara Libre), our land ( nuestra tierra), my land ( mi tierra), Laayoune ‘before Morocco took it’, and ‘where we lived before’.

A 16 year old girl said her parents were born “in Sahara, in Morocco, but I don’t know where.” When asked again what the place is called she said “Sahara, true Sahara….over there.” She later clarified, “The camps are ours. Sahara is Morocco’s….well, it’s ours, it’s not Morocco’s.” [I-27]

During one group interview, the eldest boy in the meeting reprimanded the other children for using the name Morocco to refer to the Western Sahara, and expressed his frustration when they continued to speak of Laayoune as being in Morocco. One of the children attempted to correct himself and intermittently referred to the Western Sahara as “Sahara Municipal” (note that the Spanish term for the territory is “Sahara Occidental”) and “Morocco.”

Explaining Exile

Some of the children explained why they were living in the camps: An 11 year old said, “Look, it’s a very long story. [She sighs] Morocco took our land away. And the Algerians let us live on their land. And that’s how it is.” [I-20]

Another 11 year old girl described Western Sahara in these terms, “They lived better before. Better than we live now. But there aren’t many Sahrawis there now, they’re almost all Moroccans. You know how it is.” When asked why her family went to the camps she explained:

Because we couldn’t live there anymore, with all the war and they took away our country. We couldn’t live there anymore. But there were some people who did stay. We couldn’t take it anymore. Women were left without husbands. The men had died. So we had to leave. When things got better, when the war ended, they put up this thing, a wall, so people couldn’t return. So now no one can pass it.

(Sahrawi girl, aged 11. I-25)


One 10 year old boy said he wanted to live in Sahara when he got older, but “in the land of Sahara, where Morocco lives.” He said that Morocco took it “because it has a lot of fish, because it has a big beach, it has a lot of pretty things.” [I-30]

A 9 year old boy described his country as follows:

My country? My country is Morocco, the Moroccan’s took it from us, and they moved there, and before, we didn’t have land, and the president of Algeria, he gave us that land, and now we live here. And we live here, and one year, we’re going to go to our country.


A similar explanation was offered by a 12 year old girl who explained that the reason they live in the camps is because “Morocco took away Western Sahara from us, they took our land away from us. So now we’re living on the land of the Algerians. It’s been some years now. I don’t know how long it’s been…it’s been a long time.” [I-33]

Family Reunions

Two siblings interviewed indicated that some of their camp-based family members had recently been to “the other Laayoune,” and that their older brother had also visited them for the first time in the camps. This is an example of a family’s participation in the UNHCR-sponsored programme which enables families separated by the war to visit each other in the occupied territories or in the refugee camps.

The Family Exchange programme is one of the Confidence Building Measures currently being implemented by UNHCR in the camps and the Western Sahara Territory. UNHCR reports that over 19,000 persons registered for the programme, and that by March 2005, a total of 1,476 Sahrawis had participated in the scheme. A second CBM run by UNHCR is a limited telephone service connecting the Camps with the Territory: UNHCR reports that 17,171 refugees had been able to contact their relatives in the Territory as of the end of February 2005. UNHCR (2005) Western Sahara Operation UNHCR/MINURSO Confidence Building Measures. 2005. Supplementary Appeal. March 2005. UNHCR.

Interviewer: What does your big brother do?

Omar: He lives in his house and works with Morocco [...] [I saw him] last year in the Sahara. Him, his girlfriend and their daughter. Five mornings and then they went back to Morocco.

Interviewer: Where in Morocco? Do you remember the name of the place?

Omar: No.

Interviewer: What can you tell me about Morocco?

Omar: That’s where he works. And at night, she leaves. His girlfriend goes to her family’s house. They have the little daughter.

Interviewer: And is that place very far away from Ausserd?

Omar: Yes, very far.

Interviewer: Have you been to visit him?

Omar: No. But my brother has.

Interviewer: And what about mummy and daddy? Have they been to visit him?

Omar: Yes.

(Sahrawi boy, aged 10. I-14)


No children interviewed had directly participated in the exchange project with the Western Sahara. The level of knowledge expressed by these siblings regarding the Western Sahara did not appear to be much greater than that of the other children whose families had not participated in the exchange.

When asked if she thought her family would ever return to Western Sahara, an 11 year old girl said, “Yes, for two days. You have to sign up and if you get lucky, it’ll be your turn. If they choose you, good” [I-25]. She recalled travelling to Mauritania to meet her aunts who live in Western Sahara and whom she had never met before. When asked if the women from Western Sahara differ from the women in the camps, she said, “They’re beautiful and whiter.”

Aid in the Camps

The answers given by many of the children suggest that they did not conceive of their home as a refugee camp. Conversations with them also suggest that at such a young age they do not have a strong consciousness of their refugee status. This appears to be the case despite some children’s reflections on Morocco having taken “their” land. This general awareness was only rarely reflected in responses regarding their current place of residence (the refugee camps), regarding their parents’ and grandparents’ places of birth (see above), and regarding their own plans for the future (see below). No child interviewed used the term “refugee” to describe themselves, and the majority were confused by references to their home-places as “camps.” One child made reference to “refugee camps,” but this did not appear to be a word he associated with his own place of residence.

Four children referred to the arrival of food to their home-place, indicating that “they give it to us,” and explaining how their mothers and other family members go to collect the food there. One girl described how trucks bring the food to their home-place:

There are trucks, a truck, that people from there, to help people in the Sahara… they put it all in a truck, this for them, and this for them, like rice, like beans, and it comes, in a truck, to the Sahara, of food, and clothes, and each woman, depending on the number of children that she has, the number of men, older people, little ones, then they give it to her.

(Sahrawi girl, aged 11. I-5)


While the origin of the food was unclear to some of the children, referring to “them” as the origin of the food, one of the older boys interviewed explicitly referred to this food as “humanitarian aid,” and explained why the Sahrawi receive these trucks.

Interviewer: And do you get all of the things that you eat from the shops, or can you get food from somewhere else? […]

Karim: […] From the humanitarian aid we get rice and all. But fruit and vegetables you get in the shops.

Interviewer: And what is “humanitarian aid”? […]

Karim: Well, some countries help the neediest people in the world, in the third world. All of Africa, Nigeria, Sahara, people in refugee camps. Well, those countries help, also the UN, they take food and clothes…

Interviewer: And how do you know so much about this topic?

Karim: Because I always read what it says on the food-bags. Food aid from the UN. And I ask questions here in Spain and they explain it to me.

(Sahrawi boy, aged 12. I-10)


Others insisted that their family’s food was purchased from one of the neighbourhood markets that have emerged over the past few years in response to the growing presence of cash in the camps. Sometimes, the host parents would intervene during the interview to correct what the child had said, knowing their family depends on humanitarian aid for survival. The few children who persisted may have either been genuinely unaware of the origins of their family’s food supply or embarrassed to admit as much in the interview. Some children suggested that their food was obtained from both sources, claiming that when the humanitarian aid ran out, food was purchased from local markets. Children also mentioned buying candies, sodas, and other sweet products from these neighbourhood stalls.

Meeting Moroccans

Questions regarding the children’s encounters with Moroccans were not included in the majority of the interviews, but in 5 cases, the children or host parents commented upon the child’s first meetings with Moroccans. One host parent indicated that he had told a Moroccan colleague about his intention to foster a Sahrawi child, and that his colleague had visited the boy and had spoken with him in Arabic [I-16]. One host mother indicated that her foster daughter had spat and shouted at a Moroccan woman, while she reported that the girl’s younger brother pleaded with her to call him by a Spanish name so that “they wouldn’t know” that he was Sahrawi [I-14]. Another girl described her first contact with a Moroccan as follows:

Habiba: Oh, the Moroccan, the first time I met him, he hit me like this (mimes a slap). Our land is that one. There, our land is the Sahara. We live in this one because our houses are there, where the Moroccans are now. That’s the reason why he slapped me. And I slapped him… [it was] the first time that we were at holiday camp, on the second day. This year. That’s when I met the Moroccan. Then he said “I’m sorry” and I said “I’m sorry”.

Interviewer: And now you’re friends?

Habiba: Yes.

Interviewer: Why did he hit you?

Habiba: He hit me because he doesn’t like Sahrawis…

Interviewer: Why doesn’t he like the Sahrawis?

Habiba: They want to fight with us.

Interviewer: And what do you think about the Moroccans, now that you have met one?

Habiba: They’re the same, the same as Sahrawis. I have taken his brother on my bike.

(Sahrawi girl, aged 11. I-5)


An 11 year old girl claimed that her first year in Vacaciones en Paz she was assigned to a Moroccan family who treated her poorly, so she was reassigned to a different [Spanish] family mid-summer.

The children’s interactions with Moroccans were therefore diverse, and were interpreted by the children in different ways, ranging from aggression to the development of a friendship between children.

Other Countries

The youth interviewed were asked about the countries that they had visited or wished to visit in the future, and also about places their family members had lived in or visited. The network that has been established to fulfil the educational requirements of the camp residents stretches across a number of countries. It wasn’t unusual to discover that within a single family, members had lived extended periods of time in Algeria, Libya, or Cuba. Mauritania, Spain, and both the Liberated and the Occupied Territories were also places where children claimed to have family.

A small number of children had also been on summer hosting programmes or had siblings who had been to Italy or France. One girl mentioned her desire to one day make a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. America was also discussed, once during a group discussion when one of the older boys expressed his opinions about the international system in this way:

Interviewer: Would you change anything about the Sahara?

Salaka: I would! For it to be a free country... Another thing that we’d change about the Sahara? Well… fix it. […] Cultivate, […] get the fortune that the Sahara has… the gases, everything. Everything that Morocco has messed up [...]. And something that I’d change about Morocco? The King. I’d get rid of him […]

Interviewer: And would you change any other countries?

Salaka: America. […]

Fati: Bush! […]

Salaka: He’s a politician… […] And he always hits the Arabic countries. [...] And another thing that I’d change in the world? I’d get rid of nuclear weapons. […] Well, an atomic weapon would be… […] It’s like gas, isn’t it, that removes the oxygen? […] Five nuclear bombs could end the whole world.

(Sahrawi boy, (Salaka) aged 12, and Sahrawi girl, (Fati) aged 9. I-10)


Signs of Home

While no questions were explicitly posed regarding national symbols and imagery, several host homes visited by the researchers had Sahrawi national flags in central places of the home. In some cases, the flags had been placed there by the host parents themselves, as an indication of their solidarity with the Sahrawis. In a few other cases, however, the interviewers were presented with the national flag by the youth themselves. One host father explained that the Sahrawi child he was hosting had drawn a picture of his national flag and had requested that it be placed in the living room “to remind” his host family of “where he was from.” When the researcher asked him where the flag was from, he answered “From the Sahara” [I-16]. A drawing activity with some of the children interviewed also saw the flag featured in their representations of home. The jaima, or tent, was also a recurring image [See FIGURE 5]. These examples suggest that the flag (a key national symbol) was of special significance to many of the children, at least when interacting with their Spanish families and with external interviewers.

Of particular reference to the representation of national identity during interactions with external observers, see Pablo San Martin’s article Nationalism, Identity And Citizenship In The Western Sahara. Journal of North African Studies, forthcoming: Autumn/Winter issue 2005.


In two of the host homes, the researchers noted that large photo collages were displayed in the children’s rooms which contained pictures of the child’s family members in the camps. Many of the pictures had been taken by the host parents during their visits to the camps; these had then been used to create the collage for the children.

FIGURE 5: Children Draw Home

[Drawings by Sahrawi girl, age 11 (top) and Sahrawi girl, age 9 (bottom), in Spain]


One of the aims of the investigation was to examine the ways in which Sahrawi youth’s experience of exile is influenced by gender. For this purpose, the interviews included questions about the roles and activities undertaken by boys and girls both in the camps and in Spain, and about their expectations for the future. The majority of children interviewed did not appear to give particular importance to questions about the roles and treatment of boys and girls in the camps.

Gender and Playing

Almost all of the children interviewed reported that boys and girls play different sorts of games during their free time and/or play-time at school. While one child indicated that teachers punish children who play only in same-sex groupings, and while many children reported that they liked to play with siblings of both genders at home, a majority of children interviewed indicated that they prefer to play with children of their own gender. Several of the girls interviewed indicated that they didn’t play with boys due to their mothers’ requests, as illustrated by the following interview excerpt:

Interviewer: Do you have male friends or female friends?

Salma: Female friends.

Interviewer: And what do you play?

Salma: We play games… with the ball. No, not with the ball… we only play… um… jumping, dolls, and nothing else.

Interviewer: And do you have male friends also? Salma: No. In the Sahara the boys don’t go with the girls.

Interviewer: Why not?

Salma: Because the mothers don’t like it.

Interviewer: What does your mother say?

Salma: She says you’re not going to play with the boys, you’re going to play with your female friends…

Interviewer: And what about your brothers?

Salma: My brothers with the boys, not with the girls. I don’t like to see my brothers playing with girls.

Interviewer: And do boys in the Sahara do the same things as the girls, in the Sahara?

Salma: No… Because… they can’t play dolls, or jumping. Only playing with the ball, and baseball…

(Sahrawi girl, aged 9. I-8)


Most girls prefer to play with their friends in the street, close to home, rather than indoors. With a few exceptions, the girls expressed a general sense of safety in their neighbourhoods and a willingness on the part of their parents to allow them to play outdoors.

When asked what kinds of things they like to do when they play in Sahara, girls reported the following activities:

  • Sitting and chatting with female friends.

  • Tag.

  • Hide-and-Seek.

  • Jump Rope.

  • Chinese Jump Rope (“goma” or “lastique”).

  • "The scarf” (similar to American “Red-Rover”).

  • Singing with friends.

  • Listening to music.

  • Marbles.

  • Dolls.

  • Playing cards.

  • Playing “house.”

  • Playing with the melhfa (women’s clothing).

  • Playing with stones and making houses in the sand.


When asked what kinds of things they like to do to play in Sahara, boys reported the following activities:

  • Football.

  • Marbles.

  • Ball.

  • Figures,‘dolls’.

  • Playing with friends and cousins.

FIGURE 6: Boy Improvises a Figurine from Sticks and Natural Materials, Near the Camps

Photo taken by Randa Farah during research trip to the camps.


Several boys joked about the types of games that girls play, reporting that girls play games associated with the house [“casita” (“little-house”)], and stressed that it was “no fun” to play with Sahrawi girls. When girls were asked if they played football, most of them shook their heads in distaste and said that it is a boy’s game.

Playing seems to be generally associated with the outdoors. This may explain why, although all of the children interviewed liked to watch television, they did not mention it as a kind of ‘play’ activity.

Many claimed to have a television in their family tent which they watched regularly or to have access to a relative’s or neighbour’s television.


Gender in the Household

All of the children interviewed indicated that Sahrawi boys and girls undertake different sorts of tasks in the camps, and both genders described the way that girls perform the majority of household-based duties, such as cleaning, cooking and childcare. Boys’ responsibilities in the camps were reported to include helping with certain domestic tasks (such as moving furniture), collecting water, looking after livestock, and shopping. The way in which these differences were described by the children interviewed suggested that the majority of children see this division of labour as being complementary in nature.

Interviewer: What’s it like to live in the Sahara?

Minechu: You have to go to the goats, look after your sister, make the meal… all in one day, and pick up things. And you can’t leave anything for your mother to do. The girls have to do it.

Interviewer: Do only girls do those things? Not the boys?

Minechu: Only girls.

Interviewer: Why?

Minechu: Because that’s the way it is.

Interviewer: What do the boys do to help at home?

Minechu: They have to work.

Interviewer: So, that happens when they’re little. Is it the same when they’re older?

Minechu: Yes.

Interviewer: And what differences are there between boys and girls in the Sahara?

Minechu: Girls have to make the meals, and the boys have to work. Each one has to do their own thing. Only sometimes, the boy will have to go to the goat, but only sometimes.

(Sahrawi girl, aged 9. I-13)


A small number of girls insinuated that boys work “less hard” than girls, and described this as being “unfair,” and a couple of other girls remarked upon the differences between the way that boys and girls are treated.

Interviewer: When mummy punishes your brothers, does she punish them in the same way as she would punish you? If they do something naughty.

Najat: My brothers never do anything. Me, a little bit… [W]hen I don’t clean the house, she punishes me, and doesn’t let me play with dolls, only in the house… I can’t go to my friends’ house, just to school. I have to run home…

Interviewer: And they don’t punish your brothers?

Najat: No!

Interviewer: Because they’re always well-behaved?

Najat: No, because it’s always like that. When a boy does something, or I do that, they say that I shouldn’t do that, my mother tells me that…

(Sahrawi girl, aged 9. I-8)


Overall, the children interviewed did not appear to attach much significance to the differences between the ways that boys and girls are treated in the camps, or the daily tasks that each completes for the household. Even when it became clear that the female household members carry out the bulk of housework, the children interviewed resisted framing this imbalance in terms of discrimination. The following excerpt with a 16 year old girl illustrates this point:

Interviewer: Who prepares the food?

Faydha: Well, we do it this way, one day I do it, the next day my sister does it, the next day my other sister. […]

Interviewer: And who washes the dishes?

Faydha: One day, if I do the cooking, I wash the plates. When it’s my day for the kitchen, I do the cooking and the washing up. […]

Interviewer: Who washes the clothes?

Faydha: Each one does their own, but we also wash my mum’s clothes and my dad’s and my little brother’s.

Interviewer: Who makes the bread?

Faydha: Me and my sisters.

Interviewer: Does Mohammed make bread? [her 14 year old brother]

Faydha: No.

Interviewer: Does Mohamed do anything inside the home?

Faydha: Well, no…with us…the boys don’t do anything. They just go to school.

Interviewer: Is it also important for the girls to study?

Faydha: Yes, that they do everything too.

Interviewer: So the girls study and do the housework?

Faydha: Yes.

Interviewer: Does Mohamed do anything outside of the house to help out?

Faydha: The thing is he is still young. He’s still too young to work...It’s important that you study when you are young…Because there are a lot of kids when they get older they don’t want to study. We want my brother to study now and when he’s older to keep on studying because if not he’ll just be out on the street with other boys. We want my brother to keep studying.

(Sahrawi girl, aged 16. I-27)


Gender, Generation, and Work

Regarding adults’ roles in the household, many children reported that the women of the family (mothers, sisters, aunts, female cousins, grandmothers) undertake domestic tasks such as cleaning and cooking, while men work in different ways outside of the house. When asked if their mothers or sisters work (“si trabajan”), many of the children answered “yes,” referring to the domestic work they carry out inside the home. This may suggest that children value domestic work as “work.” A group interview with three boys and one girl led to a discussion regarding the nature of “housework”, with one boy suggesting that housework was an “obligation” while another boy and the girl strongly indicated that they consider housework to be “work”, and indeed classified it as “hard work.” [Group interview, I-10]

19 children reported that their mothers worked or had worked outside the home. Among the jobs reported were police officer (1), midwife (1), doctor (2), nurse (3), teacher (6), and administrator (3). Three children said that their mothers worked but were unsure of their jobs. 22 children reported that their mothers do not work outside the home.

Tasks reported to be completed by fathers included tending livestock (including goats and camels), collecting water, and shopping. Fathers were reported to work in administrative positions, which the children sometimes referred to as “in Rabouni,” and here includes gas and water workers (8). They also work with livestock (1), as taxi drivers (1), in construction (1), in the military (3), as mechanics (4), and in the police force (6). Five of the children were unsure as to their father’s jobs. 10 children reported that their fathers do not work. In two cases, children indicated that their fathers did not work due to their ill-health or disability.

One of the interview questions that intended to reveal gender based contributions to household activities had to do with whether or not the child “helped mummy in the house.” Almost all of the children claimed to contribute to household activities in some way. What the responses unintentionally revealed was the way responsibilities are also relegated by generation, often depending on the particular lifecycle of the household. This became evident when asking such questions as, “Who does the dishes?” “Who washes the clothes?” “Who cooks the meals?” We found that mothers often relinquish the bulk of their domestic chores to their older daughters. 7 children indicated that their mothers no longer carry out housework, either because they work outside the home or because older sisters are present in the household to carry out such work. This is an issue that was raised by some of the Spanish host mothers and will be discussed further on in the report [in the section Camp Visits]. Several children reflected upon their mother’s leisure activities, with these including playing dominos, talking with friends and playing cards. No mention was made to father’s leisure time.

Gender and Growing Up

Most of the children were asked what they want to be when they grow up, where they want to live, and if they intended to marry and have children. The latter question in particular was apt to cause embarrassment among such a young group of children, so the topic was often discussed in the third person (i.e., “what do other girls or boys do”) or quickly glossed over to spare further embarrassment. However, many of the children had a very clear idea of what they want to be when they grow up (40 of 46). Only a few were unable to articulate an answer, even when given the time to ponder the possibilities. Below is a breakdown, by gender, of the responses given to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?,” starting with the most popular professions at the top.

FIGURE 7: Girls’ Top Job Aspirations

Top Job Aspirations










Police Officer




Teacher or Doctor


Doesn't want to work




FIGURE 8: Boys’ Top Job Aspirations



Police Officer


Computer/IT Work






Taxi Driver






“to study, to work, to make money”




In many cases, the children chose professions held by one of their parents in the camps or by one of their host parents in Spain.

Marriage, Children, and the Melhfa

Most of the children experienced some degree of embarrassment or displeasure when the topic of marriage was mentioned, with 10 of them choosing to not answer the question or shrugging to avoid the topic. The following table presents the responses given to the question,

“When you are older do you plan on getting married?”

In some cases the interviewer deemed the child too young or sensitive to raise the issue. In others, the child became so embarrassed that s/he refused to address the topic, so the interviewer changed the line of questioning.



FIGURE 9: Do you Want to Get Married When You Grow Up? [N=46; female= 28; male= 18]




No Answer/Shrugs














Younger girls in particular believed they could live forever with their “mummies.” One even stated “I want to marry my parents.” The lack of interest in marriage may be more reflective of the particular age group of our sample and is a sentiment that is likely to be shared by girls of a similar age in societies across the world. It is also worth noting that some girls said they wanted to have children but if it required having a husband they would prefer to do without.

Although most of the children indicated they do not plan to marry in the future, 27 of them were able to say when is an appropriate age for ‘someone else’ to get married. The ideal age range for girls is from 17 to 40, for boys is 19 to 41, and in general is 18 to 27. When the responses were averaged, the following results emerged:

FIGURE 10: Ideal Marriage Age


Ideal Age to Marry (avg.)

For girls


For boys


In general


Some children were more descriptive in their responses, saying an individual is ready to marry when “dad says,” “when they’re really big,” “whenever the girl wants,” “when he grows a beard”, or [stands on the sofa and stretches arm high above head to indicate ‘bigger’].

Another issue that relates to the future, especially for the girls, is the melhfa. This is a long, typically colourful, piece of thin material which is loosely wrapped around the woman’s body and head and is worn over the woman’s clothes. The melhfa is usually associated with a girl becoming a woman, with motivating factors for girls wearing the melhfa ranging from the beginning of menstruation to reaching a marriageable age.

10 of the girls interviewed indicated when they thought a woman should begin to the wear the melhfa. Their responses range from 14 to 30 and average at 20 years old.

The melhfa was mentioned as one of the things that is different about Spain and Sahara. One 10 year old girl expressed a negative attitude toward it, saying, “It’s strange. It covers your face” [I-12]. When asked if she would like to wear the melhfa, she responded, “No, until I’m 29 or 30, I’m not going to wear it.” Another girl, age 11, had a different opinion of the melhfa, saying “It’s good. I like it… because there [in the Sahara], the women wear the melhfa” [I-5]. When asked when she would start to wear it she said “When I’m older, like my sister, 19.” When she was asked if she liked the melhfa, a 16 year old girl answered, “Yes, because it’s what the women wear there. No one wears it here [in Spain], you wear your clothes, but we have the melhfa, and it has its style” [I-27].

With few exceptions, the girls who commented on the melhfa viewed wearing it as a positive practice, even though none of them thought they were near the appropriate age to wear one themselves. Some of the girls did mention, however, that they had used a melhfa to play house and for dress-up.

The links between the melhfa and marriageability were also made during some interviews, as illustrated by the excerpt below:

Interviewer: And when is a good age to get married?

Teshlem: Well, when you’re big and you wear the melhfa, that’s it.

Jamila: You can get married.

Interviewer: And when do girls start to wear the melhfa?

Jamila: When they’re grown up.

Teshlem: When they’re bigger.

Jamila: When they’re like you. When they can wear the melhfa, they can get married.

(Sahrawi girls, (Teshlem) aged 12 and (Jamila) aged 16. I-18)


A further marriage-related issue which emerged during some interviews is in relation to the children’s personal experiences and knowledge of divorce and remarriage. Divorce and remarriage are quite frequent occurrences in the camps, and must be viewed within their local context. Divorced women have a higher status than women who are marrying for the first time, since it is believed that these women are more “knowledgeable” and “experienced.” While a woman’s first marriage usually depends on parental consent, once she is divorced, she is able to choose her own partner freely and marry accordingly. While no questions were explicitly posed regarding these events, a third of the girls commented upon their experience of having divorced or re-married parents. None of the boys explicitly referred to divorce or remarriage, either in terms of their own families or in relation to their community.

Bheila, a 10 year old girl, described her neighbour’s situation, saying,

There was a woman next to us, who has been married lots of times, she has 2 children, and now she has married another man. And do you know, those children, actually, she has 3, do you know what, they have different fathers. It’s not the same father. The little one, and the biggest one, they have the same father, but the other one… (Sahrawi girl, aged 10. I-2)


With uncertainty, she suggested marrying different men is bad,

… because you shouldn’t love lots of people. You have to have children with the same father…[L]ike my mummy. But my father, he was married before marrying my mother. But he didn’t have children with her. He was lucky. Then he went with my mother. And that woman, she has children with another man. And then he went with my mother and has stayed with her. (Sahrawi girl, aged 10. I-2)


When asked who she currently lives with in her jaima (tent), Najma, age 11, explained, “With my mum and my dad and my…no…with my mum. My dad is in Mauritania. He’s not with my mum anymore” [I-25]. Najma knows that her father has remarried to another woman but is unaware if they have children together.

Interviewer: Do you talk to him [to your father]?

Najma: No.

Interviewer: Would you like to talk to him?

Najma: Yes. I would really love it. I would love for him to come be with us.

Interviewer: Does he ever return to the camps?

Najma: No. Now he’s in Mauritania. He doesn’t return anymore.

(Sahrawi girl, aged 11. I-25)


Later on in the interview, when asked if there was anything about her life that she would change, she added, “That my sisters return to live with us like before…that things return to how they were before. That life is good…”

Gender in Spain

When asked about the differences which exist between Sahrawi boys and girls, most of the children initially responded that Spanish and Sahrawi children are “the same.” However, subsequent questions prompted answers about the different ways in which Sahrawi and Spanish children and adolescents dress, interact with members of the opposite sex, and get married. Some responses centred on appearance, like “Sahrawi children are brown and Spanish children are white” [I-15], and “In Sahara, they dress really ugly” [I-38]. Others focused on behaviour, such as “Spanish girls/boys are more fun to play with [I-12]” and “[In Spain], some girls are silly. They say ‘you’re dumb’…but there are others who are very nice. They play with me” [I-25]. Many of the children also described how in Sahara they play in same-gender groups, but in Spain their play groups are generally mixed-gender. In the camps they may play with cousins of the other gender, but in Spain their interaction with unrelated boys and girls appears to be much greater.

Differences - Spain and the Sahara

One of the assumptions that initially guided the research in Spain was that the children’s temporary (dis)location – away from family and the camps – would provide an ideal context for them to reflect on the differences between life in the Sahara and life in Spain. We were therefore struck by how few children articulated differences between the two places. Some children insisted that “they’re the same.” One explanation may be that the contrasts between Spain and the Sahara are so numerous that the children did not know where to even begin.

We sensed that the question “What are some of the differences you can see between Spain and home (the camps)?” was too general, so we also asked questions like “What does Sahara have that Spain does not have?” and “What does Spain have that Sahara does not have?” If that proved unproductive, another strategy was to ask leading questions, such as, “What about the houses, are they the same?” and to continue with other features, like “the streets” and “the food.” This approach was successful in prompting the children to acknowledge differences, but because their responses were prompted, their meaningfulness is questionable.

Nonetheless, we did receive some spontaneous responses, especially from the ‘older’ children who had been to Spain several times. They noted differences in resources, the landscape, the built environment, as well as in relationships. Below are some examples:

There are lots of differences. Because… the things that there are, all the prettiest things, the countryside, we don’t have there. [A]nd the parents, the things that they do to show their love, it’s not the same… [H]ere, they’re foster parents, and there they’re real parents who love you more. Here, even if they tell you that they love you, you’re like the heart of your real parents. For the two months that you’re away, they’re already crying for you to return. Imagine a year… (Sahrawi boy, aged 12, I-10)


When asked what she liked about Spain, a 12 year old girl who had been to Madrid five times responded:

Look…[she pauses, thinks for a few second]…look…[she stops again, sighs]…everything. Everything that is here in Spain, there isn’t there [in Sahara]. Cows, they have them here in Spain, there aren’t any there. Water, here in Spain, there…there’s just a little bit. Here it rains a lot. There it rains a little. There, it’s really sunny and it’s really hot. (Sahrawi girl, aged 12. I-33)


An 11 year old girl identified the differences between Spain and Sahara in this way:

There isn’t a pool, there isn’t a beach, the food is different…There [in Sahara] we have couscous and I don’t think they have couscous here. I don’t know. Here there are trees, there…there aren’t trees, there’s just sand and stones. (Sahrawi girl, aged 11. I-25)


Another girl, 10 years old, chose to answer in terms of what she liked better about Spain:

I like the houses. I like the streets…And I like the beach and the pool. And playing here…over there [in Sahara] there aren’t places to play, like the park…I like the places that are really big…these really big buildings. (Sahrawi girl, aged 10. I-23)


When the same girl was asked what Sahara has that Spain doesn’t have, she answered:

There’s nothing there. There’s nothing there that you don’t have here. (Sahrawi girl, aged 10. I-23)


Many others, however, realised that the one thing missing from Spain was their family. Others mentioned friends they remembered fondly, but few highlighted anything other than the people in their lives. Despite some of the recognised differences between Spain and Sahara that underscored the former’s wealth, only a few of the children framed these differences in terms of “better” and “worse”. One of these was a 9 year old girl who had been to Spain twice and during the interview insisted that “Sahara is the first” – meaning, Sahara is number one [I-36]. When asked what she liked about Spain, she said matter-of-factly, “I don’t like anything.” She said she liked everything about Sahara, explaining, “because there I have my mum.”


When asked if there was anything about Spain and/or the Sahara that they would change, most of the children insisted they would not change anything about either place. Each place was fine as it is. In the same line of questioning, we sometimes asked if there was something they did not like or something that scared them about either place. For Spain, the one feature that was repeated a few times had to do with prohibited food and drink, namely pork ( jamón), wine ( vino) and beer ( cerveza) or alcohol. Other things mentioned were the scary rides at the amusement park, the haunted house, horror films, and salt water. In the same line of questioning, some children mentioned that in Sahara they would like to have a house like the kind they have in Spain, they want their own room, a pool, and more water. When we asked if they had the ability to change something about their lives what it would be, most of the children insisted they would not make any changes. One of the older girls said she wishes this were her first year in Spain so that she would have many years ahead of her to return.

In a joint interview, one of the girls said the one thing she would change about her life was “To be in my land,” Western Sahara. The other girl agreed, saying, “What we want is that Zapatero [the Spanish president] helps us so we can return to our land.” However, the latter also said she wishes “Sahara was like Spain” and that the one thing she would change about Sahara is “to have a pool!”


While the interviews were not designed to ask Sahrawi youth about the importance of religion in their lives, several children alluded to religion in their responses. For instance, one girl indicated that the place she would most like to visit is Mecca. Of more general concern were the children’s encounters with ‘pork’ and ‘wine’ ( jamón and vino), two of the few things the children indicated they would change about Spain.

Host parents commented on the way they tried to respect the children’s religion and prohibition of pork. Given that the consumption of pork is characteristic of Spanish food practices and cuisine, host parents have to make a special effort to prepare alternative foods and to advise children (when at parties or at summer schools) when pork may be on offer. Most families insisted that they made this effort, while others found it too bothersome and operated on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

It is likely that the consumption of alcohol in the host homes was not altered by the presence of host children. One going-away party for the Sahrawi children had alcoholic beverages on offer for the adults. Pork differs from alcohol in that it is consumed by young and old, whereas alcohol is intended for adult consumption. Nonetheless, many Sahrawi children wished that both pork and alcohol would disappear.

Seven of the children made reference to prayer, and some of them, mostly boys, claimed to regularly pray while in Spain. Two boys (age 7 and 8) insisted on showing the researchers how they prayed and grabbed their prayer mats to do so – mid-interview. The host parents of these children were proud to show how they accommodated the children, by respecting their schedules and providing small rugs for prayer. Another young boy, aged 7, recited a two-minute prayer when asked what kinds of subjects he likes to study in Sahara. Overall, most of the children mentioned studying Quran back home, but it appeared that most of them did not regularly pray in Spain.

The hijab, or religious headcovering, was only mentioned by two girls in our sample, a pair of sisters (aged nine and ten) [I-32].

Their references are particularly interesting given that all NGO and academic reports on the camps reviewed in the course of this research have consistently stressed that all Sahrawi women in the camps were “unveiled” and did not wear the hijab. This was equally the case during the colonial era, according to all anthropological and governmental documents reviewed. One academic consulted suggested that the girls’ origin may be the reason for their intention to wear the hijab, since Sahrawis from Mauritania do often wear the hijab, unlike their counterparts in the camps, Occupied and Liberated Territories (Pablo San Martin, personal communication, 26 October, 2005) .

This was the eldest’s third year in Madrid, and the youngest’s second, always in the same home, with the same family. The girls told the researcher that they probably would not be able to return to Madrid in the future. They explained that when they returned to the camps their father was going to make them wear the hijab. “How are we going to go to the pool?” “How are we going to go to the beach?” they asked their host father who assured them that they could still return to Spain, with or without the hijab. They did not appear convinced.


Children and Emigration Intentions

Leaving Spain –Plans for the Short-term and Long-term Future.

During the interviews, the children were asked about their expectations and plans for the future. All of the children were looking forward to returning home at the end of the summer, mainly because they wanted to return to their mothers. Without being asked, some of the children told the researchers exactly how many days remained until their scheduled day of departure. Host parents were usually sympathetic and did not take offence to their child’s eagerness to leave, explaining “two months is a long time to be away from your family.” Most of the children were happy to spend the summer in Spain, but did not expect or desire to stay longer. With some exceptions, host parents also expected to only have the children for two months of the year and no longer. They pointed out that after August, life as usual resumes, their summer holidays end, and they must return to work.

Only two of the children explicitly stated that they did not want to return to Spain with the Vacaciones en Paz programme in 2006. In the longer term, 7 of the children indicated they would like to return to Spain, either to continue their studies, or to live and work there as adults.

Most of the children had ambitions for further education and employment and realized that they would likely have to leave the camps at some point for schooling. Many of them were accustomed to their older brothers and sisters studying outside the camps for most of the year.

Nearly half of the children in our sample indicated that they would like (or may have) to study outside of the camps. They identified the following countries as possible places of study:

  • Algeria (8 girls and 2 boy)

  • Cuba (3 girls and 3 boys)

  • Libya (4 girls and 3 boys)

  • Spain (2 girls and 1 boy).


Of the children who intended to study abroad, the overwhelming majority expressed the strong desire to return to the camps after completing their education. We were often met with confused expressions when we asked “Where do you want to work and live when you are older?” 39 children answered this question, and of these, 70 per cent indicated they want to live in the camps, in Sahara. The only other country mentioned, besides Sahara and one mention of Western Sahara, was Spain, with six children (4 girls and 2 boys) indicating that they would like to live there as adults.

The widespread desire to live in the camps as adults prevails despite the fact that many of them recognise the lack of employment opportunities in the camps and that they have experienced firsthand another way of life in Spain. The weak desire to emigrate may reflect the age-group of our sample and their desire to live near or with mum and dad. One girl’s answer, which resonated with many of the children, was that she simply wants to live ‘with her mum.’ It may also reflect the seeds of a more generalised political ideology that links remaining in the camps with the continued commitment to the independence struggle and hope for an independent Western Sahara. Only two children specified that as adults they would like to live in Western Sahara.

Conversations with the children in Madrid suggest that their motivation to return to the camps – in both the short and long terms – is, at this point, more a question of family and community than politically driven. Nonetheless, there is a growing cash-economy in the camps which in the long-term may create socio-economic differences between families. This may ultimately impact the decision of older youth to return to the camps or to seek out alternative ways to secure work abroad in the interests of their families back home.

Faydha, aged 16, is one of the older girls in the sample and had come to Spain during the summer of 2005 for medical reasons and not as part of the holiday programme. She had been to Spain once before in order to have surgery and later again through Vacaciones en Paz. At the time of the interview she was scheduled to see the doctor the following week in order to find out if she required further medical treatment and how long the doctor would recommend she stay in Spain. Regardless of the doctor’s recommendation, Faydha intended to stay in Spain in order to pursue a degree in nursing, and her host mother, despite doubts about Faydha’s qualifications and language skills, insisted she would support her decision.

Faydha explained:

I want to stay here to study. If I can, I will. I don’t want to keep studying there [in Sahara]…If I stay here I would like to study, and work, if I can find a job to help my family, since my dad can’t work. If I stay here to study, then I’ll turn eighteen. Then I can stay and work and that way I’ll help my family. And for my sisters, when they go to Algeria, they need a lot of things. (Sahrawi girl, aged 16. I -27)


Faydha’s aspirations to financially help her family contrast with the aspirations of the younger children who took part in the study who either want to live with or else very near their mothers for the rest of their lives. Though it is impossible to generalise from Faydha’s example, a further line of future investigation may examine whether or not emigration intentions change over time and whether older youth are more likely to seek out opportunities to remain abroad. It may be that instead of wanting to “be with mum”, older youth may feel the need to “help mum” and seek education and employment opportunities to that end. An important dimension of such an analysis would also be to determine whether there is a difference in the ways in which male and female youth view possible paths to “help mum,” and/or the family/community more widely. At this point, these assumptions remain hypothetical.

Importance of theVacaciones en Paz

Vacaciones en Paz: A Transnational Support System

Humanitarian aid has always been the primary and often sole source of food and sustenance for the Sahrawi refugee camp residents. Despite efforts to be productive, small gardens only provide a minimal supply of fresh fruit and vegetables for individuals designated by the Polisario as being the most vulnerable, since the harsh desert setting does not allow for significant cultivation. Sahrawi refugees remain dependent on food provided by humanitarian aid agencies, the supply of which is generally neither stable nor sufficient in quantity.

In Aug. 2002, the WFP published an emergency report indicating that the inhabitants of the Sahrawi camps were threatened with receiving only 11% of their daily food aid requirements. WFP (2002), Emergency Reports: Algeria. Report no. 35 (Aug. 30 2002). Also see 2005 EUCOCO written submission to EXCOM regarding proposed UNHCR/WFP cuts to Sahrawi refugees (available from


Within this context of economic dependence, the Vacaciones en Paz progamme helps create and sustain a transnational network of care between Spanish and Sahrawi families. The links created through the hosting scheme are multidimensional and range from the strictly economic to the deeply emotional. Based on the data collected in Madrid, we highlight five kinds of support that can be generated through the hosting programme: economic/material, medical, emotional, political and in relation to social capital.

a) Economic/Material Support

Almost all of the children who participated in the Vacaciones en Paz programme returned to the camps with cash. This sum of money is in addition to the material goods that were sent in the children’s suitcase.

Parental Survey – Money

Twenty-six host families completed the 16-question parental survey. Twenty-three of these families reported sending their host children back to the camps with money, ranging in quantity from 40 to 350 Euros. The average amount sent home was 150 Euros. The three families who did not send cash sent material goods and gifts instead. One of these families stated that they were worried about money being stolen from the child before s/he could reach home.

Conversations held with host parents and the information provided in the surveys indicated that some families customarily sent additional money to the camps for their host child/ren. Money was either given in-person while visiting the camps or was sent with another host family who passed on the gift on their behalf. The most any family reported sending money to the camps was three times within a given year (coinciding with the trips organised to the camps in Summer, Christmas, and Easter). However, there are many families who chose or could only afford to send money once during the year, at the end of Summer.

Parental Survey – Goods

Many host parents described the children as arriving with “just the clothes on their backs.” In contrast, they often return with bags stuffed full of items for themselves and to be shared with other members of their families. Host families also remarked on how difficult it was to adhere to the 25 kilogram weight limit for the children’s luggage. The Parental Survey indicated that all of the children [in the survey] were sent home with clothing and food. Clothing was the most frequently mentioned item, and food the second most mentioned.

FIGURE 11: Food Items Sent with Children to the Camps
  • Canned goods
  • Honey
  • ColaCao (chocolate drink)
  • Cheese
  • Tuna
  • Tomato sauce
  • Powdered milk
  • Baby food/formula
  • Rice
  • Lentils
  • Pasta
  • Chocolate
  • Gluten-free products
  • Oil
  • Sweets
  • Olives
  • Yogurts
  • Sausage
  • Sweetener
Reported by host parents in the parental survey. Listed above in order of frequency.

Clothing was often included for various members of the children’s family, as well. Other items, in order of frequency, were toys, school supplies, toiletries, medicine, and gifts (in general) for the family.

Many host parents reported that their children had specific requests for items that their family needed. Children therefore returned with pressure cookers, solar panels, sewing machines, and sewing materials. One host dad explained his approach to sending goods:

I send things that they need. I don’t send mobile phones. I send solar panels or pressure cookers…things they need. But not everyone thinks like me. They started asking for mobile phones around three years ago. Eight years ago, it was bicycles. (Host Father, 10 years, I-27)


In addition to the goods purchased by host parents, some of the NGOs which coordinated the hosting programmes at the local level also contributed directly. During 2005, one organisation had successfully acquired grant money from the local municipality with which they were able to purchase a solar panel for each child in their area. The same group organised a going-away party with a large bouncy-castle and buffet table at the local park. At the party, each child was presented with a backpack full of school supplies and other small gifts to take home with them.

FIGURE 12: Photo of Children's Going-away Party Organised by Local Association

Some host families considered their economic contribution to the child’s family the most important form their solidarity can take, with one mother indicating the following:

Every year we take a collection from friends, family, and neighbours, even for Easter and Christmas we do the same. I feel very responsible. It’s almost as if my greatest responsibility is economic. (Host mother, I-37)


The 9 year old boy this woman was hosting had been in her home for three summers. She expressed mild feelings of guilt when she revealed to the interviewer that she was considering taking a hiatus from the hosting programme. She said:

[I]t makes me sad to think he won’t be with us next summer because we’ve really grown to care for him. What I do plan to do, and I assure his mum about this, is to help him economically every year that we are able to... I’ve tried to explain to him what might happen because I don’t want him to feel bad. I told him, look, you’re going to continue coming to Spain, you’re going to get to know other families, you’ll get to know other children, you’ll call us and we’ll talk to you on the phone. And of course I would continue to send him money.


Perceived Economic Impact

Some of the host parents and local coordinators commented upon the impact their economic and material assistance has made on the refugee camps. On the one hand, they recognised that the money, food, and goods they sent have the potential to improve the wellbeing and socioeconomic situation of individual children and their families, as well as of the broader community. On the other hand, certain concerns surfaced regarding the role these contributions have made to the development of a money-based market and socioeconomic differentiation in the camps. The following examples capture these sometimes contradictory perceptions.

The host mother of a 10 year old girl who had stayed with her family for three consecutive summers explained how she customarily sends between 300 and 350 Euros to the girl’s family three times a year, totalling some 900 Euros. “With this, her family can live throughout the year,” assured the host mum. She made the point that a family with two or three children who receive similar contributions can live well during the year.

Another host dad who has visited the camps on five occasions over the past decade articulated the changes he has noted over the years, suggesting that the economic changes were inevitable:

There have been important changes, most importantly economic changes. If we consider that 10,000 children come to Spain every year and if every child returns with 100 Euros or even 50 Euros, you do the calculations…this has generated an economy. This generates an economy within the families. Eight years ago these little stores you now see didn’t exist. Now, instead of going to buy from the Algerians who go to Tindouf, these families go to Tindouf to buy the products so they can set up their own stores [in the camps]. And it generates an economy…it’s’s certain that this change has happened, it’s certain that in the camps there are social classes now. The family that has five kids who come to Spain has an economic status that is higher than a family who has two kids at home who don’t come…[A]s a consequence of the economic changes, the children are a bit more cared for ( atendidos). You note it in their nutrition, and in their dress. The first years they came like [shaking his head]….my God. (Host father, 10 years. I-27)


Another host father said that with the money they had sent over the years with their host daughter, her family was able to open up a small shop which they named after him, “Manolo’s Store.” (I-22) He considered this a positive impact on the family, while he acknowledged the growing cash economy was creating a kind of class differentiation within the camps.

b) Medical

One of the stipulations of the programme is that each child receives a medical examination during their visit. The host family is normally responsible for arranging and taking the child to the doctor and many take it upon themselves to cover the expenses of any follow-up treatment, such as dental work or prescriptions for eyeglasses. Some of the local coordinators and their associations seek out funds and support in the community to cover additional costs.

Most of the children arrive to Spain with a degree of iron-deficiency and signs of malnourishment. Others are diagnosed with more serious ailments, such as kidney stones or eye irritations caused by sand exposure. There is also a high incidence of wheat-intolerance among camp residents. In response, special links have been established between the camps and several Spanish celiac societies, including the Asociación Nacional de Celiacos Saharaui and the Asociación de Celiacos de Madrid which also participate in the summer hosting programme.

There are also a number of Sahrawi children who are sent to Spain specifically for the purpose of seeing a medical specialist or to undergo treatment or surgery unavailable in the camps. Children who require medical attention may have to stay beyond the two-month period covered by the programme Vacaciones en Paz until they receive and recover from their treatment. Four such children with serious medical conditions were interviewed during the course of this project, one of whom had spent 6 months in Spain and was returning to the camps with the Vacaciones en Paz children at the end of the summer, and three girls who did not know when their medical treatment would be completed.

c) Emotional

While visiting family homes in Madrid, the researchers observed host-parent/host-child interaction. Younger girls tended to be particularly affectionate with members of their host families, some of them sitting on a parent’s or sibling’s lap during the interview. Host parents who had repeatedly hosted the same child were in particular likely to comment on the genuine affective ties they had established with their host children. A small number expressed an interest in adopting their host children for the purpose of educating them in Spain, but on the condition that their families in the camps supported the idea.

The emotional dimension of hosting was reflected in some of the positive comments offered in the parental survey and included:

  • “I love my daughter with all of my heart.”

  • “It’s been a very positive and enriching experience” (first time hosting).

  • “For me it’s been very satisfying because I have been able to help someone in need and it motivates me to be a better person.”

  • “I wish we all would become more conscious of the needs of children throughout the world and everyone “add our grain of sand.” The experience has been totally positive.”

  • “Hosting a child is not charity. It’s a privilege and an act of justice.”


Maria is a first time host mum to a 7 year old boy. She also has a 3 year old son of her own and insisted, “The way I treat my son, I treat him” [I-19]. Her emotional attachment was tempered by her philosophy on hosting, explaining:

It’s been difficult sometimes because I am very responsible. I am a serious person and take everything in my life seriously and to me this is very serious. He is a little boy and I am responsible for him and everything has to be right. It must be as if he were my own son. But at the same time, there are some people who are more flexible, so they enjoy the experience more. To me, its been very enjoyable in terms of sentiments, in terms of love, because a boy, smiling at you when he has learned something, when he can explain something to you in your mother tongue, it’s lovely, it’s something that makes it worth the effort, of course, without a doubt. On the other hand, your daily life is affected…you try to do everything you normally would do, you try not to be different, but in the end he’s not a member of your family. (Host Mother, I-19)


Not all hosting experiences result in deep emotional bonds. In four cases, host parents had relatively extreme reactions to the Sahrawi children. One parent wrote in the survey that “there is a lack of respect towards the Catholic religion. We’ve really had it with so much ‘Allah’,” and two children interviewed had reportedly been “returned” to the organisers of the programme by their host-parents. In relation to the “returned” boys, the organisers and other host-parents interviewed stated that this was wholly unacceptable, stressing that a child should only be “returned” in the most serious of circumstances. The reasons for the “returns”, as given by the observers were, in one case, because the original host-parents had been unable to accommodate their life to that of the Sahrawi child (the host-parents in question reportedly had no children of their own, and this was given as a reason for their not knowing how to “deal” with the Sahrawi child), and in the second case, because the host-parent’s biological-child was so jealous that the host-mother had to choose between her own son and the Sahrawi boy she had hosted for less than a month.

Celia, a first-time hoster in her 60s, confided in the researcher that her experience hosting Doha, a 10 year old girl, had been very difficult. In hushed tones she explained:

She’s done something to me, but I’m not sure…but I know I am sure…look, I already want to cry. [She starts to get choked up.] I have a bad heart. [She shows me the scars on her chest from a heart operation.] [I] have my heart pills in a little box in a cupboard. I have them in there so the grandchildren don’t get into them…And one day, I found my two year old grandson sitting on the table with the heart pills right in front of him. It’s because she’s so jealous of him. When we’re not in the room, she hits him. She goes… [she pinches her forearm]. And now my daughter doesn’t come to the house. How did the pills get there? A two year old can’t get up there and get the pills himself. She’s hit him too. And we hear him say, “no, no, girl!”, and he runs away…She’s so jealous of my grand daughter [too]. Very jealous. She tells my daughter that she should like her [Doha] more. (Host Mother, I-23)


Celia said she had not confronted Doha about the pills, but believed she had intentionally intended to harm her grandson. When the interviewer saw Celia and Doha at the airport on Doha’s day of departure, the girl looked happy, playing with Celia’s similarly aged granddaughter. The interviewer asked Celia if things had improved at home, but was told that the situation remained uncomfortable and that she could never trust Doha. She would not be hosting Sahrawi children in the future.

Other negative experiences were reported by children themselves: two girls (in separate interviews) told the researcher that they had been “hit” by members of previous host families – one of the girls was re-homed with a different family mid-summer, the other remained but did not return to the accused family the following year.

There are many children who had been with two or three different families over the years, which suggests their previous families may not have requested their return. We were also told that in some regions within the country, the coordinators practice a policy of no-repeats with the same family. Many of the children who had come to Madrid had spent previous summers with families in other regions.

Some of the children described their previous host families as “alright”, but did not express deep emotional attachments with them. There were others who took the opportunity of being in Spain to make contact with former host families, either through telephone calls or visits. Host parents were usually very willing to facilitate the contact and often used the opportunity to learn more about the children and their family background from their former hosters.

A small number of parents indicated that they felt pressured by the child or the child’s family, who were keen for the host-family to adopt the Sahrawi child to provide them with an education and “a better future”. Some parents were keen to do this. Barbara, for example, has hosted 10 year old Hassan for 3 years and his sister, Munina, aged 12, for five years. This was Munina’s final summer in Spain as she would be too old to return with Vacaciones en Paz 2006. Barbara was under the impression that Hassan was going to remain with her in Madrid and not return to the camps with his sister and the rest of the children. She said that throughout the year she had discussed the issue with Hassan’s mother who agreed to have her son stay in Madrid in order to continue his studies. With this in mind, Barbara had prepared Hassan’s room, purchased a bed for him, and began the paperwork to eventually make his stay legal. However, when Hassan arrived, he broke the news to his host family that his mother was not prepared to have him stay on, at least “not yet”. Barbara was annoyed that she had not been informed of the change of plans and disappointed that Hassan would not be living with them, especially since she understood it was what his mother wanted for him.

Other parents did not feel comfortable with the idea of taking in the child long-term:

… the truth is, I’m feeling a lot of pressure from his mum for him to stay here and study. She’s had this idea in her head since the first year we took him in. His mum has a very strong character. Ever since the first year, even he was talking about how his mum wanted him to stay. But the truth is this was never our intention. That wasn’t the agreement. Our intention was for him to come to spend the summer with us. Then we did it again, because, as you can see he’s a sweet boy. But his mother is really pressuring us ( agobiandonos). It’s the pressure that’s the problem. This year he came saying very clearly that when he reaches his last year in Spain (in the Programme) he should stay to study. So I asked him, don’t you want to see your mum and you brother and sisters, and he said he would. When the Sahrawi children come to Spain, he would go back to Sahara, and when they return to Sahara, he would go back to Spain. I’m telling you, this pressure is really getting to me. (Host mother, I-37)


Host Parental Reference

The parental survey asked parents how their host children referred to them – as “Mum” and “Dad” or by their personal names. 23 respondents answered the question and revealed the following: Nearly three quarters of the children were reported to call their host parents by their first names (eg. Antonio, Maria). Five respondents said their host children call them by both, sometimes by their first name and sometimes as Mum or Dad. One parent clarified that their host child calls them by their first name, but when talking to others describes them as mum, sister, etc. One child calls the host mother “Mum” but the host father by his first name. Another child calls everyone in her family by their first name, except the grandmother who she calls “grandma” followed by her first name. One family reported being called “Mama” and “Papa” (Mum and Dad), but the host-father said he and his wife would prefer being called by their first names.

While the children were not explicitly asked how they refer to their parents and other family members in the camps, all of the children spontaneously used the terms “mamá” and “papá” or “madre” and “padre” [mum and dad] throughout the course of their interviews, for instance in response to the question “Who do you live with?”

I live with my mummy and with my grandmother, and my grandfather, and with my siblings, one sister is called Glana, she’s older than me. My smaller sister, my big brother, older than the other sister, another sister, then my aunt lives there, and another uncle. But another uncle lives in the mainland Spain and the other one is in Mauritania. Now my grandmother is in Mauritania, with my grandfather and with my sister. (Sahrawi girl, aged 16. I-18)


Camp Visits

It is worth noting that several of the host-parents who had travelled to the camps to visit “their” child commented upon the emotional difficulties they had encountered when there:

Their behaviour there is completely different from their behaviour here. Their behaviour there is influenced by their customs and traditions, so out of respect they can’t or don’t express their feelings… Here he’s very open and caring, and we’ve never imposed anything, he’s called us mummy and daddy without us having to say anything to him, it’s been his own decision, he speaks about his brother, he calls Alfonso “my brother”... But when you get there, you’re desperate to hug him and see him, and then, they, especially since he’s male, the feeling that he has here, here he hugs you, kisses you, all of that, there, forget it. When we speak with him on the ‘phone, he’s not at all talkative. It’s not at all like when he’s here. And it’s not just him… the foster parents get together and talk and it’s usually more or less the same. (Spanish host-mother; second time hosting this boy. I-6)


Several Spanish women who had visited the camps and stayed with families of the children whom they had hosted were critical of mothers relegating the bulk of housework to their daughters, especially in those cases where the mothers do not work outside the home. They remarked that women of their age in the camps (usually forty-years and older) did very little, that they drank tea all day and visited their friends to play cards and dominoes. It was their daughters (the ones who they had hosted in previous years and for whom they had great aspirations) who had to bear the brunt of the household work, and, in their opinion, at the expense of their education and careers. One host mother who has visited the camps ten times was hesitant to outwardly criticise the women in camps, but described the situation of her current host daughter in this way:

Her mum is 42 years old. She got married when she was 14, and she had her first child at 15. It’s customary that one of the daughters stays with the mum. The oldest is already doing a degree, and the other who was studying in Algeria… she’ll probably go home to be with the mum…for the sake of tradition…The mum, she gets up, makes tea, welcomes people, but…it’s their customs. When I go, it strikes me as strange… It makes me think that when they do finally go back to their country (Western Sahara), they’re going to have a hard time. I realize that in the camps there isn’t much to do, because there just isn’t anything to do there…Nothing…imagine you get up, you sit in the tent and make tea, hours and hours and hours, making tea and talking, preparing the meal…but it’s one of the daughters who makes the food! (Host Mother, I-27)


d) Political Consciousness

The Vacaciones en Paz programme is an opportunity to raise political consciousness regarding the Western Sahara conflict. Host parents enter the programme with varying degrees of knowledge of and commitment to the political issues. Sahrawi children also arrive with different levels of consciousness regarding their status and history as refugees.

Conversations with host parents revealed a wide range of political involvement in the Western Sahara issue. Several families expressed little desire to join or participate in the activities of the local Sahrawi associations, even if they intended to continue hosting in coming years. Some were frank in their disinterest and preferred to leave the political dimension separate from the Vacaciones en Paz programme. These host families see their involvement as a social and humanitarian activity that is essentially about the children they host.

One first-time host mother had a particularly negative experience with the Sahrawi girl who she had been assigned and insisted she would not be hosting Sahrawi children in the future. Instead, she would look into hosting a child from Chernobyl through one of the other established hosting programmes in Spain. The political dimension of the Western Sahara issue was not what drew her to or what would keep her in the Programme.

Other families who had more positive experiences indicated that hosting a Sahrawi child put a human face on what they saw previously as an abstract, dry, political issue. Their politicisation is a consequence of the emotional and supportive relationships that develop through the hosting experience. Those host families who have visited the children in the camps on one or more occasion claim to have returned as ‘changed’ people, with different perspectives on the issue and on the children’s lives.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are host parents who have been politically involved in the Western Sahara issue since the 1970s. Several are active members and even the founders of their local Sahrawi associations. For them, hosting a child was another way to express their solidarity.

Many host parents indicated that the Sahrawi children they hosted were unaware of the political situation surrounding the Western Sahara. Some parents suggested that the children’s political consciousness was directly related to their age and family background, with the younger children being unaware of the political dynamics unless their parents were members of the Polisario administration. One host mother who has been involved in solidarity work since the colonial era, has been to the camps 7 times, and has hosted the current child for 3 years (and previously hosted the girl’s sister), indicated the following:

Our experience is that they have no clue. The older ones do, but not these ones. They only know that they hate Morocco, but that’s it. At home we always try to explain, to help them situate themselves, tell them the basics, on their level, because they don’t know (whispered) about the conflict, which I think is good, (normal level) but so that they have an awareness about why they’re there, where their country is, etc. They don’t usually even know where that is on the map. (Host Mother, I-2)


Some host parents believe that it is important for the children to be politically aware, and therefore take an active role in informing them about the history of the conflict and about the Sahrawi people’s struggle for self-determination. Some mentioned using maps, photos, and books to teach the children about these issues.

They consider that they live in Laayoune, but it’s not the Laayoune… you know… so we speak with her, show her maps, tell her where her family is from originally, that they have sea, etc… (Host Parent, I-6)


During some of the interviews the host parents demonstrated their role in the politicisation process by correcting the children’s answers. One example of this occurred when the interviewer asked two girls where they want to live when they grow up. One of the girls indicated she wanted to be a maths teacher, so she was asked where she wanted to teach maths. She responded, “In Spain.” Her host mother shook her head and she corrected herself, “In Sahara, I mean in Sahara!” The other girl said that she wanted to be a gym teacher in the camps, to which the host mother responded, “In the camps? No. You want to go back to your land…to the Occupied Territories.” [I-20]

The following excerpt recorded another intervention made by a host mother during the interview:

Interviewer: You told me when you were older you wanted to be a professor.

Mariam: I want to teach kids.

Interviewer: Where do you want to work?

Mariam: Here. [In Spain]

Interviewer: You want to teach in Spain?

Host Mother: No dear, you want to teach in Sahara. You want to return to Sahara…the true we explained to you the other day …

Interviewer: Do you want to work in Sahara or here?

Mariam: Here.

(Sahrawi girl, aged 9, I-35)


Other families did not define their host role in political terms and did not make an effort to educate them on issues related to the Western Sahara conflict. The first-time host mother below explained why she and her husband decided to become hosters:

It was more for personal and sentimental reasons. The truth is, regarding the political issues…if I tell you the truth, we don’t know much about the political situation. It didn’t interest me much. At the political level, I feel like we can’t do much. That’s my opinion. In two months, I can make a difference in a girl, I can feed her, make sure she gets the medical attention she needs…but the political question, it just doesn’t interest me much. Maybe it’s because we just don’t know much about it. (Host Mother, I-28)


Her husband added,

It is a question of not knowing. The political question didn’t influence us at all. I don’t feel like I am in any position to comment on the Western Sahara issue. From what it seems like, the Spanish people believe the Sahrawis are in the right. But I don’t know enough to say whether they are, or whether the Moroccans are right. I just don’t know. I don’t worry about it too much. (Host Father, I-28)


And after hosting for one summer, the host mother admitted, “I can’t tell you honestly that this has made me get deeper into the issues.” Nonetheless, they said they will consider taking in Sahrawi children in future summers.

e) Social Capital

Social capital is the term used to describe one’s web of personal networks. Enduring relationships have developed as a result of the hosting programme that link Spanish and Sahrawi families across great distances. The initial bonds created during the summer vacation are often reinforced by repeat-hosting, by telephone and written contact throughout the year, and by the Spanish family’s visits to the camps. These may provide some children with a path for future emigration to Spain, either as children in need of furthering their education, or as adults in search of employment.

Research Summary

This study contributes to the growing body of research that seeks to document and understand the views and experiences of refugee youth. It initially began as a supplementary project aimed at enriching interview data that had already been generated with Sahrawi children in the refugee camps in Algeria. This research effort forms part of a larger study set up by Dr. Dawn Chatty on Sahrawi refugee youth in Algeria and Afghan refugee youth in Iran funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

The supplementary study was centred in Spain, where thousands of Sahrawi children spend their summer vacations with Spanish families as part of the Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace) hosting programme. Forty-six children who agreed to take part in the study were interviewed on similar topics as were addressed in the camp study, including gender, education, politicisation, hosting experiences, and aspirations for the future.

Overall, the children’s consciousness as refugees was overshadowed by their strong sense of Sahrawi identity. Their immediate knowledge centres on life in their neighbourhoods and in the camps, while knowledge of Western Sahara and their family’s histories of exile were generally difficult for them to articulate. All of the children referred to the camps where they live, not as camps, but as “Sahara.” Around half of them expressed awareness that there is ‘another’ Sahara – Western Sahara, or the ‘true’ Sahara, as it was sometimes called.

Children described their play groups as gender-specific – boys play with boys and girls play with girls. Household chores were also described as gendered, with female members taking on the bulk of domestic work. Nonetheless, the children did not attribute these differences to discrimination or gender asymmetry. They did not give particular importance to the different roles and treatment of boys and girls in the camps.

Another strong pattern that emerged was in relation to children’s plans for the future. Nearly all of them expressed a strong desire to return to the camps after the hosting programme ended, and although most of them planned to work as adults, they intended to do so in the camps. The weak desire to emigrate corroborated the data collected with youth in the camps and may have reflected the strong sense of family loyalty characteristic of their community in exile. It may also have reflected the seeds of a more generalised political ideology that linked remaining in the camps with the continued commitment to the independence struggle and hope for an independent Western Sahara. It appeared that with this young age group, the family pull was the greatest factor that influenced how they envisioned their adult lives. They were used to having family members live for extended periods of time outside of the camps for the purposes of work or study, as the camps lack the infrastructure to support a full educational system. While mobility and fluid household membership was considered normal, they expected to eventually return to live near their parents.

As the fieldwork progressed, it became increasingly clear that the Vacaciones en Paz hosting programme was more than just a way to contact Sahrawi children in Spain. The hosting programme was worthy of study in its own right, as it was an important, multi-faceted source of support for these children and their families. In addition to the interviews carried out with children, a questionnaire was also administered to 26 Spanish host parents and aimed to collect data on patterns of hosting, the degree to which contact is maintained throughout the year with their host children, and the quality and quantity of economic and other forms of support offered to their families in the camps. Through the programme, children’s medical and nutritional needs were attended to; they gained knowledge from new cultural experiences; they developed what may become deep emotional bonds with their host families and expanded their web of social relations; and they accrued valuable economic benefits in the form of money and goods which they took back with them to the camps. In summary, this study described how the hosting programme, in its economic, social, emotional, and political dimensions, facilitated a transnational network of care, of which Sahrawi children were shown to be central nodes and actors.


We thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for generously funding the research on refugee youth. The research team would also like to acknowledge the cooperation of the Polisario Delegation in Madrid, and particularly the assistance of Abdullah and Sidi Ahmed who approved the research effort and put us in contact with the local coordinators of the Vacaciones en Paz programme. We would like to thank local coordinators of the various NGOs in Madrid who put us in contact with the host families in their districts. Our deepest appreciation goes to the families who trusted us enough to let us into their homes and who treated us with characteristic hospitality while we spoke with their host children. Finally, we acknowledge the patience and generosity of the Sahrawi children who agreed to participate in this study and who made the research an enjoyable experience.

References Cited

EUCOCO (2005)Stop Cuts to Sahrawi Refugees!Stop Cuts to Sahrawi Refugees! Written submission to EXCOM. Available at from Oxfam, Belgium.
San Martin, P. (forthcoming) ‘Nationalism, Identity And Citizenship In The Western Sahara.’Journal of North African StudiesJournal of North African Studies, Autumn/Winter issue 2005.
Shelley,Toby (2004)Endgame in the Western SaharaEndgame in the Western Sahara. London: Zed Books.
UNHCR (2005)Western Sahara Operation UNHCR/MINURSO Confidence Building Measures. 2005. Supplementary AppealWestern Sahara Operation UNHCR/MINURSO Confidence Building Measures. 2005. Supplementary Appeal. March 2005. UNHCR.
Velloso de Santiseban, A. (1993)La educación en el Sahara OccidentalLa educación en el Sahara Occidental. Madrid: UNED
WFP (2002)Emergency Reports: Algeria. Report no. 35Emergency Reports: Algeria. Report no. 35 (Aug. 30 2002). Accessed at on 4th November 2005.
Last updated Sep 21, 2011