Saharawi refugees have a good time at the FiSahara festival
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Saharawi refugees have a good time at the FiSahara festival
Last updated: August 8, 2014

As the longest conflict in African history continues, Saharawi refugees start seeing Algeria as home

Banner Icon The Algerian way of life is becoming the norm among Saharawi refugees. Agaila Abba tells the story of her Saharawi mother, who has adopted Algerian culture as her own.

Last month, I received a call from my mother in the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria, who wanted to share her joy about the Algerian football team’s victory against South Korea in the World Cup. When it comes to Algeria, my mother’s pride extends to anything that happens to Algeria because, as she would say, “Algeria is the only country that feels like home.” My mother’s view of Algeria represents how many Saharawis have come to embrace Algeria as part of their identity.

My mother and most of the elders of my family were born in Laayooun, a city in Western Sahara. When Morocco invaded the country, my mother was nine and my family was forced to flee to Algeria for refuge. They had intended on staying in Algeria for a short amount of time, but forty years later my family, along with thousands of Saharawis, still remain in one of the biggest refugee camps located in southeast Algeria, waiting for a solution to the longest conflict in African history.

"My mother’s view of Algeria represents how many Saharawis have come to embrace Algeria"

While growing up in the camps, most of my family members moved to the city of Tindouf, where they were exposed to the Algerian dialect and way of life. For example, every Friday my mother would take me to the marketplace in Tindouf where she would negotiate with the vendors in her Algerian dialect. Only when we went back to the camps would she flawlessly switch to her Saharawi dialect.

The languages spoken within my family increased as the years passed and as most of the members traveled outside of the camps in pursuit of education. This is something done by thousands of other Saharawi families, oftentimes leaving their homes for many years. When they finally return to the camps, they have already adopted the language and culture of their host countries and struggle to readopt to the Saharawi and Algerian cultures.

Since my brother and I were educated in Spanish at a young age, we have made Spanish the main language of communication between the two of us. But when the time comes to communicate with the rest of our family members, we have to communicate in the dialect that is understood best. Most of my family members constantly switch between the Saharawi and Algerian dialects, a switch that is seen as absolutely natural.

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With the increase of mixed marriage between Algerian and Saharawi, many Saharawis have adopted the Algeria-Saharawi identity. In the camps, the sight of the Algerian and Western Sahara flag have become normal, and the adoption of Algerian cuisine and music are part of the daily life of many a Saharawi.

Algerian flags are also seen during important events such as Algerian Independence day, when the Algerian football team qualifies for the World Cup or any events that the Algerian people might celebrate. Saharawis celebrate these events for the simple reason that they see Algerian happiness as their own.

Furthermore, in the past few years, many a Saharawi not only see Algeria as their home, but also have had no problem adapting to its culture. This summer, my mother will be visiting Western Sahara for the first time in 31 years. Although nothing about the country will be familiar to her, she is happy to see her dream of going back to her birth country come true. However, there is no doubt that while visiting Western Sahara, Algeria, the country that has become her home, will be constantly in her mind.

Agaila Abba
Agaila is a Sahrawi born in the refugee camps in Algeria. She is currently pursuing her studies in Political Science and International Studies with a focus in African and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She is an active campaigner for the rights of the Sahrawi people.
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