"Everything was green and the air was so fresh," Asisa would start reminiscing about her home in the Western Sahara as a wide-eyed Senia, who was born and raised in the desert at Smara Refugee Camp, listened in awe. Her grandmother's descriptions posed a stark contrast against the desolate landscape of their refugee camp, where her family had been warehoused for decades, located in an inhospitable part of the Sahara dubbed "The Devil's Garden."
"People often ask me 'How can you love a place and consider it your home when you've never set foot on it?' and it's a valid question," said Senia. "But you just can't deny what my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother went through. For me, they are examples of a just struggle." And even though more than three decades have gone by since the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara began in the mid 1970s, Senia's family and tens of thousands of Sahrawis like them still wait to go back home.
When Morocco invaded her family's hometown in the Western Sahara, Senia's grandfather joined the independence movement to fight for his people's freedom and died in battle. Senia's grandmother, Asisa, and her six children ran for their lives across the desert to Algeria. They ran on foot, fearing that escaping by car or camelback would make them an easier target for enemy bomber planes. They traveled only at night, hiding behind trees and rocks in the daylight. "My grandmother told me that she and my mother, Lala, who was 12 and the oldest of the six children, would take turns watching for airplanes while her siblings napped," Senia recalled Asisa's story.
The family's journey across the desert was marked by tragedy. The youngest son, Brahim, who was a mere eight months old, died of dehydration. Two more of Asisa's sons died by stepping on a landmine. Asisa herself wasn't entirely spared. An airplane bomb exploded right in front of her, causing her to go entirely blind. "Half of the family was gone. It was a true devastation and heartbreaking," she told Senia once. "And then I lost my sight."
The following day, a truck picked them up and drove them to Smara Refugee Camp near Tindouf, Algeria, where the family and some 90,000 other Sahrawi refugees live to this day. Senia's grandmother grew old in the camp, her mother came of age in the camp and became a teacher, and Senia was born there inside a tent. Like the rest of the Sahrawi refugees, they rely on international humanitarian aid for clothing and food, which consists mostly of rice lentils, and bread.
Because they didn't have much and there wasn't much to do in the camp, Senia and the other children had to get creative and even make their own toys. They played soccer with balls made out of socks wrapped in plastic bags. She and her friends made dolls out of camel bones, drawing faces on them and dressing them in black and white cloth-the traditional dress of the Sahrawi.
Since they didn't have any electricity, television, or cartoons to entertain them, the kids made up their own games. "In the evenings, my siblings and I had competitions memorizing names and countries," said Senia. "And when it got really hot at night, we would sleep outside of the tent and look at the clear sky and draw shapes connecting the stars."
Education beyond the equivalent of elementary school is not available at the camp, so Senia had to go away to a boarding school in Algeria, thousands of miles away from her family. She then earned a scholarship to attend a United World College in Norway before enrolling at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she is a senior double majoring in biology and Spanish. She's allowed to travel outside of the camp only because she's a student.
Now 21, Senia considers herself a member of what she calls a group of women who are fighting for a country they have never seen but strongly believe in justice for its people. "I come from the biggest refugee camp in the world," she said of the four-camp complex outside of Tindouf. "It has existed for such a long time in such a remote place that I imagine most people elsewhere do not even know about it." But Senia is doing everything in her power to make her people's cause internationally known. Not only does she talk about it at lunch with her friends at school, but she has also spoken about the plight of the Sahrawis on Capitol Hill, as well as before the United Nations.
Senia will not rest until she can live in a free Western Sahara. "It's in our blood. You can't deny your origin, your identity. The camp is temporary," she exclaimed full of optimism. "We're not Algerians and we believe in our cause. We believe that the international law is on our side."
Too many refugees like those in Smara Refugee Camp languish for decades. Refugee camps were intended to be temporary places and were not created to support communities of people for generations. USCRI continues to work to end the warehousing of refugees. You can help.