Saturday, September 27, 2008

Young Western Saharan refugees build for the future in Cuba

Source: UNHCR

Young Western Saharan refugees build for the future in Cuba
24 Sep 2008 13:50:26 GMT
Source: UNHCR

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HAVANA, Cuba, September 24 (UNHCR) – The plight of the Sahrawi is one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world, but over the past quarter century a few thousand have been allowed to leave their desert camps in Algeria and study in a Caribbean island paradise.

Hafdala, Mehdi and Hababa are just three of the estimated 3,000 young Sahrawis who have received a secondary and tertiary education in Cuba . Currently, 175 young refugees are studying courses at the Cuban-Sahrawi Friendship School on the Isla de la Juventad (Isle of Youth). A further 358 are at universities or vocational taining centres across the island republic.

The Cuban government covers the cost of their tuition, board and health care, while the refugees study the same curricula as Cuban students. The UN refugee agency helps fund extra items such as soap, toothpaste, sheets and towels. UNHCR also monitors their protection needs and helps some of the students to return to Algeria at the end of their studies.

Although they return to exile, the education that they receive in Cuba will put them in a good position to build new lives once a durable solution has been found for the tens of thousands of Sahrawis living under harsh conditions in five border camps near Algeria's border with the Western Sahara territory.

The Sahrawis began fleeing Western Sahara in 1975 during a conflict over the right to govern the territory when Spain withdrew from the region. UNHCR supports some 90,000 of the most vulnerable refugees. This support includes providing a basic education for the Sahrawi children, most of whom were born in Algeria and have never stepped foot in their homeland.

"We attended school in the camps, but only until junior high school, and even at this level there were not enough opportunities for everyone," notes Hafdala. "For this reason, many young Sahrawi refugees have to go to other countries such as Algeria , Mauritania , Spain and Cuba to continue their education," he adds.

Mehdi jumped at the chance to study in Cuba . "I knew that many Sahrawis had obtained university degrees in this country and I wanted to do the same," he says. "Although it's hard being so far away from relatives, my parents gave permission because they also want the best for my future. Now we see that the sacrifice is worth it."

The Sahrawi students have been thriving, understanding that a good education could be their ticket to a happy and prosperous future in freedom. Mehdi and Hafdala, both aged 18 and in their final year of secondary school, were the only overseas students to win prizes in Cuba 's Spanish-language contest this year.

Hafdala, whose particular loves are the theatre and writing poetry and short stories, has also won several awards in national environmental contests. "I am interested in the environment because I have lived in the desert, which is continuously expanding because of the damage caused by man. We must convey the message so we can leave a better world to future generations."

Nineteen-year-old medical student Hababa, meanwhile, won a prize two years ago in an annual reading contest on the literary works of José Martí (1853-1895), regarded as Cuba 's national hero and apostle of independence. "Martí was not simply a Cuban, but a man of universal significance, and his thinking still has great relevance," Hababa asserts.

Despite his passion for literature, Hababa is determined to become a doctor. "Studying medicine will give me the opportunity to be useful to my community, either in the Tindouf camps [of Algeria ] or once we return to our homeland."

A small group of Sahrawi instructors ensure that the young refugees do not forget their roots. They organize activities reinforcing Sahrawi culture and traditions. The Sahrawis can also practise their Islamic religion, including the current fasting month of Ramadan.

Once they complete their secondary education, those who have done well enough at the Cuban-Sahrawi Friendship School – like Hababa – can continue their studies at various higher education centres throughout the country.

The Sahrawis appreciate the support they have received from both the Cuban government and UNHCR, and most of them are optimistic about the future. "We know that many refugees do not have the opportunities that have been given to us; for this reason we will continue studying to be in a better position to offer the same solidarity to those who need it," says Hafdala.

By Alberto Aragón in Havana , Cuba

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