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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.

Last updated Sep 23, 2011