A week in the desert

I hate to say goodbye. I usually prefer to say see youlater. That is not so definitive, so final. But sometimes, when you say see youlater you feel that you are lying, and  it is necessary to say, “Goodbye, I´ll neverforget you all.”

Seven days in the desert, just a week, is enough todiscover new feelings and values. To reflect about what luck and fairness are.In the Sahara desert, the floor is sand, houses are made of mud or fabric, anddoors are always open to everyone. Western Sahara is a forgotten country. Twohundred thousand people live in five refugee camps in a portion of Algerian desert, by the charity of the neighbor country, since the moment Moroccoinvaded saharaui land, thirty seven years ago. 

I arrived to the camps with a group from my universityon March 7th 2012. It is difficult to explain what we felt when wearrived to the desert. Maybe it could be described as a mix of wind, sand, hot,and strange happiness because we knew that it was going to be an awesomeexperience. And it was.

When we entered in an old Jeep in the camp of Smara,we realized that nothing was going to be as we expected. There were thousandsof small houses, small corrals with goats and camels, and children withoutshoes running around the street. When they saw us, they screamed and salutedwith their hands, and the only thing we could do was to return the gesture witha big smile.

We were a group of ten people, so we had to be inthree different families during the week, because there aren´t hotels orsomething similar. I was with two friends, Maria and Empar, in Ama´s house. Amalived alone with her two daughters, Jaiduma, who was eight years old, and Sucaima,who was five. Her husband was working in Spain, and he hasn´t seen his familyfor three years, although he sends money every month.

But in the refugee camps of Sahara, the word “alone”doesn´t exist. The small house of mud was always full of nephews and nieces,brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends.

When I arrived to the house, we had nearly 12open-eyed children looking at us and our bags, and when they discovered whatwas inside, their faces showed gratitude that I had never seen in a child. We´dbrought candy, chocolate, books, pens, colors, and a lot of toys. But for them,the most important toy was the three new Spanish girls that had broken theiralways monotonous routine.

After lunch, we met Brahim, Ama´s 21 year old nephew,who was studying in Algeria but that day was in the camps visiting his family. Heshowed us the camp in detail. The schools, the hospital, the market, and heintroduced us to some of his friends. It was incredible. Incredible because wecouldn´t imagine how those people lived in a place so dead. There weren´tplants or trees, fountains or sites where you could repose when you were tired.The floor was just sand, and the scorching heat was insupportable.

When we walked, we saw a lot of children playing inthe street. They were alone, without adults or supervision because they didn´tneed it. The desert is a safe place for saharauis.

In the evening, we met Fati, Brahim´s cousin. She wasalso 21, and she was our best saharaui friend from the first moment. We fell inlove with her zest for life and her happiness. How can people be happy in thatsituation? How can they smile at every moment when they live in a desert thatisn´t their home, when they know that if they want to do something in theirlife they have to go far from that place? I really admired all that strength,and I wasn´t able to understand how they could bear the situation with a smile alwayson their face.

Every one of the days that we were there, we ate asqueens. We ate salads, camel and goat meat with cous-cous, and a lot of otherthings. But it wasn´t the same for them. They ate at another table, becausethey were used to eating together, sitting around the food and taking it withtheir hands. We discovered the last day that, when we were eating their bestfood, they just ate eggs, bread, and cous-cous, or maybe what we didn´t finish.It was incredible see how people who don´t have anything, give you so much. Andthat´s the reason why we tried to give them everything we could.

We spent the nights teaching Spanish and games to allthe children that every day came to our home. There, your family is alwaysclose to you, and cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, brothers and sistersgo to your home every day. They don´t need an invitation or to say that they´recoming. Every house is for everyone who wants to stay there, and you´ll neverhear “get out of my house.” The adults spend their time drinking tea (they haveevery day like 12 small glasses of tea, and preparing it is one of their mainactivities).

Every day that we passed in the camp, we felt that ouradmiration and affection for those people was growing and growing. But whatI´ll never forget is the days that we went to the school. We were teachers fora few days, and it was incredible how schools work there. Teachers can drop theclasses wherever they want, they don´t have the obligation to go, because a lotof times they are working there for free. The level of the education was low,at least in Spanish and English.

During our days there, my whole group tried to givethe best we could to those children, and I think we did. Then, when they tookbreaks, we were their main entertainment, and it was amazing to look into theireyes and sees so much life.

Seven days there, and our minds changed. And in thebest moment, we had to say goodbye. We had to say goodbye to Ama, Fati, Brahim,Sucaima, Jaiduma, Ali, Mohamed, Letnia, Jasmina, Mariam, Baibat, Mohamed Fadel,Hududu, and a lot more wonderful people. I didn´t want to say goodbye. I preferredsee you later.  And, although sometimeswhen you say see you later you feel that you are lying to yourself, that wasn´tone of those times.

 So, that March14th of 2012 I said one of the hardest “see you laters” in my whole life.Between tears and hugs, we all know that we were saying the truth when we said“I´ll see you soon, I´ll come back, and I´ll never forget you all.” And at themoment, I still think that someday it will come true.



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