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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.

Last updated Sep 23, 2011