Sahara, youth on the move



Youth is a stage of indetermination that hides all the goodness and dangers of uncertainty: it holds exciting visions of the future but in turn, carries a burden in young people shoulders with new responsibilities and choices of directions that can be onerous. This population segment is a very powerful asset for the dynamism of a society, since not being too tied to family or work imperatives, can undertake transformations and new projects. However, if social and economic conditions are not favorable, it can push them to take paths and decisions that harm their future and their environment.

Young Sahrawis face all these dilemmas and try to settle their identity in refugee camps that, despite their apparent immobility, are in a process of change. After more than 40 years of forced exile, the young population has begun to outline their own references and their particular way of addressing the conflict with Morocco. Larabas Said embodies the arise of this unique vision. Leaning against the hood of a rickety Mercedes, he unfolds the traces of a latent war. For him, the fight against Morocco, which has already lasted 40 years, must return to the channels of the armed confrontation. After the 1991 armistice, that suspended the war started in 1976 (after Spain left the Sahara territories and the subsequent Moroccan military-civil occupation), the Sahrawi people represented by the Polisario Front tried to win the right to return through the diplomatic channel. Under the auspices of the UN, a binding referendum on the future of the Occupied Territories had to be held, but almost 30 years later, the situation remains stagnant due to the blockade that Morocco imposes contending that it disagrees with the voter register.

Indeed, Larabas is son of the conflict and, despite not being bellicose, he approves a general mobilization if the situation of his people cannot be unlocked. In fact, its position is an exercise in pragmatism because the peaceful path associated with diplomacy has not brought any solution. At the moment he prefers to be employed in car and truck drums than in drums of war. At the age of 25, he has already traveled the roads of half Europe. He worked as a carrier during the time he lived in Bilbao (Spain), until he decided to return to the camps to be close to his family. Now he has exchanged the asphalt for the sand and works as a mechanic fixing cars that he drives to Mauritania in order to sell them after overcoming countless obstacles through the desert.

Before traveling to Mauritania, Larabas tests the car on a plain near Smara.


The Sahrawi camps are composed of wilayas, named after the provinces of their country, Western Sahara, and settle in a territory ceded by Algeria, in the south of the country. This area of ​​the desert, called hamada, is a rocky and inhospitable surface known as the desert in the desert, due to its extreme conditions.

Zahra Aymad is 16 years old and has always lived in Smara, one of the wilayas that keeps the name of a province and a land that has been divested of its rightful inhabitants. The names keep the memory and prevent refugees from forgetting where they come from and where they should ever return. However, Zahra does not want to leave. Like all the youth in the camps, this land is the only one that she has known and despite the harshness of living conditions and unfair displacement, it is also the place where she has grown. That is why despite not giving up the claim of her land, confesses that she does not see herself returning to a territory she does not know. She does not even know where she should go back to.

After losing everything, the fear of losing a land although foreign they have made it their own, is a feeling shared by many young people. In this land they have forged their identity and have extended their bonds of friendship. Precisely the circles of friends are one of the few spaces in which young people can have an effective socialization outside the family, since once the educational stage is over and due to the lack of work horizons, the possibilities of areas not intervened by the family are reduced. That is why Aziza, Malu, Embatu, Umlajut, Atu and Sbaita affirm that they would like to return to their land but they are afraid of separation. These six friends, all of them between the ages of 18 and 20, study with other classmates at Afad School, a professional training academy for women. After classes they meet to eat in a central restaurant and exchange impressions. In these moments between friends they develop a high degree of freedom and can feel themselves. The role of friendship among young Sahrawis also has the value of generating safe and friendly spaces to share and expand.

However, the social and media presence of the feminist struggle worldwide also infects the daily demands of Sahrawi women. This way, Sahrawi society does not close to other traditions and conceptions of life, and tries to enrich itself from mutual respect and without losing sight of its cultural framework. The girls say that now young women want to study, train, do other things than those determined by traditional roles. Historically, Sahrawi women have had a greater social weight, compared to other Arab societies, and driven by this condition, women claim and make their own place.

1. Upon leaving class, the group of girls walks through the wilaya. 2. Classes at the Afad School. 3. Malu and Salka stroll at sunset in their wilaya.

However, they also admit that there are other girls who do adhere to more traditional patterns, such as choosing to marry early. They understand it, because without other alternatives, getting married gives them the opportunity to have more independence and start an adult life.

Salka Hamdi, for example, explains that she got married as soon as she came of age after 2 years of dating. Her husband is 15 years older than her and works in Spain all year long, except for a few weeks that comes to visit the camps. She is the youngest of the sisters and because of that she had to stay and live with her mother. This circumstance prevented her from going to study in Algeria, even if she wanted to. "Then, without working or studying, you have to get married," she says with half a smile.

The distance suffered in her relationship leads to talk about one of the great transformations in the camps: the arrival of technology and in particular smartphones. Young people stick to their cell phones and in the case of Salka it is a fundamental tool for talking with her husband. In fact, she points the cell phone and the heart, "my husband is here and here."

1. Embatu, Salka and Malu share their concerns. 2. Marriage is by tradition one of the pillars in which the culture of the Sahrawi people is based. It represents the union between two families and the moment in which society recognizes the transition from young to adult, which means building a home and starting a family. The ceremony festivities are an act of participation and conciliation of the community, and the celebrations can last up to three days after the marriage.


Before the era of hyperconnection, the only way in which Sahrawi teenagers were able to open up to the world and experience firsthand what it was like to live in another country was with the Vacation in Peace program, which is still working. Through this initiative, thousands of children travel to Spain every year to live with their foster families for a few months. Wita Alin is about to reach the age of majority and for years she was going to Asturias, where she built a perennial bond that lasts until today. She is very grateful to have been able to land in another place and another culture and today she uses her cell phone, among other things, to be able to communicate with her second family. Wita shows, joyful and excited, the photographs of her different stays. She is especially fond of those images where she appears with her family and longs for what she lived with them. She says that her dream is to be a photographer and to be able to make an exhibition in Spain. For now, she is content to squeeze through her eyes the reality that surrounds her, day by day in the camps. From her prism, the arid environment turns alive and colored.

Wita reviews photo albums with memories of her trips to Asturias during the Vacation in Peace program. Inés, Palma and Gonzalo, with whom she continues to maintain a close relationship, are helping her with the photographic material and the procedures so that she can present her work in Spain.

Like Wita, many young people invent alternatives that dignify their present and of those around them. That is the case of Lhaj Lelubib, 26, who along with his cousin Sidi Moh Mulay opened a mobile kebab stand in Smara. Regardless of the strange conjunction of a kebab in a refugee camp, Lhaj cultivated his dream based on the obvious, that people like to eat outside. To boost his idea, he trained himself with YouTube video tutorials and gradually introduced innovations, from the constitution of his truck (he first mounted an iron and a kitchen, then added a refrigerator), to the products, which he is dressing and complexing according to the tastes of their customers. Thanks to this he has become a reference in the camps and also for many young people, who see in him the hope of surviving and working their own way without having to go to another country. Lhaj states decisive and proud that "you should not give fish to people, but teach them to fish." He believes that youth only seeks how to live, how to pull forward, and he wants to contribute by improving the lives of his countrymen. With his unwavering impetus he sees the future with optimism, wants to continue innovating, and from now on his idea is to install solar panels. Regarding the return to his land, Lhaj is clear: He wants to return, but driving his restaurant with wheels... "And on the way I sell snacks!".

Hindu Mani, 28, also glimpsed that good eating has a place anywhere. In her case she opened a pizzeria in Auserd, after receiving a cooking course. At the beginning she had to borrow money, but the project was growing little by little and soon from the oven started to emerge pizzas and benefits. Now, she has even opened a bakery in the distant wilaya of Dakhla. She says that at first many people told her to give up, that a working woman would not go far, but once she took off they came to ask for a job. Hindu has become an example for other young people, who come to present their own projects.

Hafdala Brahim also has his own business, but his vision of the future is bleaker. He buys cartons of tobacco in Tinduf (Algeria) and resells them in a small stall he has in Smara. Customs are making him more and more difficult and the profit margin narrows. That is why he is sure that in order to progress he has to leave outside. "We want to be like other young people in the world," he says. Hafdala was denied a visa to enter Spain and litigating spent almost 600 euros. The lack of alternatives can lead young people to focus on easy money and get in contact with the world of drug trafficking, flourishing in this area as it is a natural step towards Europe.

1. Lhaj and Sidi serve the first customers of the night. 2. Hindu poses before her pizzeria. 3. Wita photographs her friend Zahra. 4. Hafdala Brahim’s shopping stall. 5. In the evening, Hafdala and Hama Mohamed relax watching the Champions League match between Barcelona and Slavia Prague.


One of the alternatives to which more young people cling is sport. Musa Salama is director of the Youth and Sports area and strongly believes that sport is not just something fun, "it is not to play, it is to change," he emphasizes. The lack of activities or incentives makes young people have a lot of free time and for Musa an excessive idleness is pernicious. That is why they try to fight leisure time through sports. They hope to connect with young people and listen to their worries and concerns. To do so, they want to launch a Sports Café, a space in which to get a more horizontal approach to the thinking of young people to understand them and to feel heard. In addition, sport can play a media role, as the participation of Sahrawi athletes in major international events can have a strong echo, as is the case with the Sahara Marathon.

1. The boxing school was born with the idea that young people play sports. Boxing, for its speed and contact, is very attractive and the facilities are filled every afternoon. Today they have two schools and one more under construction. 3. Najem Brahim is 20 years old and has been practicing athletics for 3 years. He likes it because he enjoys it and because it improves his physical condition, but he sees that the lack of resources hinders his progression. He aspires to become a champion and an example of other young people, as well as to bring the reality of his country to international stages.

Sport is an art in which various skills are deployed, such as the ability to improve, discipline, dedication or ingenuity to practice strategies to overcome and face the adversary. All these skills are also characteristic of the Sahrawi people, who have been applying it for years in the struggle for their survival, both in the military field and in the political or diplomatic field. In that way, beating on a soccer field or in a ring is only the extension of another major confrontation, in addition to its obvious utility to keep morale high or alleviate the suffocating evidence of being locked in the desert with a horizon, likewise, closed.

Refugee camps are huge prisons in the open air with contained and wasted human energy. However, in this unfortunate scenario, Sahrawi youth has the last word. The main issue is to face the challenge of rethinking and rebuilding by integrating the changes that have taken place all these years but without turning their back to the impassive determination of all previous generations. The challenge is great, but the desire to overcome this blockage is greater.