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A Young Refugee's Quest to Return to a Homeland She Never Knew

Senia Bachir Abderahman's fondest childhood memories were the evenings she spent with her grandmother, both of them sitting on the soft, cool sand of the Algerian desert, looking up at the star-studded sky. Though she had completely lost her sight, her grandmother, Asisa, remembered the position of the planets and stars and would teach Senia about astronomy. But often, which is what Senia cherished the most about these nights, her thoughts would drift off into the past and she would start telling stories about the old country, a place Senia never knew.

"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 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 fled 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 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 there and gave birth to Senia in 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.

Without electricity, television, or toys to entertain them, the kids in the camp had to get creative. The boys played soccer with balls made out of socks wrapped in plastic bags. The girls made dolls out of camel bones, drawing faces on them and dressing them in black and white cloth—the traditional dress of the Sahrawi. They even made up their own games to pass the time. "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 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 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."


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