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You are here: Home Research Resources Expert Guides Sahrawi Refugee Children in a Spanish Host Program Importance of theVacaciones en Paz

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.

Last updated Sep 23, 2011