We awoke long after everyone else, but it was still fairly early. The family greeted us – a mother and two small sons. We had a breakfast of bread and coffee, and got to know Sukaina, the mother of the boys that we were staying with. Her house consists of a mud-brick room for the kitchen, another for sitting and resting, and one with a hole in the floor (the toilet) and several buckets for washing. These three buildings made up three sides of a rectangle that wrapped around a sand covered “courtyard”. The fourth side consists of a large tent supplied by the UN, brightly orange on the inside with cushions along the walls and more bright rugs on the floor. Surprisingly, there was a TV in both the mud-brick sitting room, and the tent. However, these are rarely used because electricity is scarce and only comes from a single solar panel that is left out during the day and connected to batteries that charge up and are used for a small amount of electricity in the night. The batteries do not last long, but are recharged daily.
Other families, we found out later, have multiple solar panels and some even have large satellites for television. These are given to them from friends and family in Spain. Many things in the camps come from either Spain or Algiers, which is where most of the students from ages 12 to 18 go to study. Younger children are sent to places throughout Europe for two months during the summer for vacation. This helps the children see other cultures, other lifestyles, and also helps publicize their plight. Education abroad is paid for by funding from Algeria to students who do well on the international baccalaureate exams at the end of their schooling in the camps. There are many schools within Smara camp (one of the five camps, not including the government headquarters; Rabouni). The literacy rate here is at 98%, much higher than America and the students are taught Arabic, Spanish, History, Geography, Math, Science, reading, writing, etc.
The families are large and live near each other. Everyone you meet can stand in the street in front of their house and say, my uncle lives there, my cousin lives there, my brother lives there, and my other uncle lives there while pointing at all the houses around them. Sukaina’s situation is the same. We live next to her mom, several sisters, nephews, nieces, and cousins. It’s a very communal environment and everybody is friendly and welcoming. We drink tea several times a day with several different people. They drink green tea flavored with sugar and fresh mint. While the Sahara isn’t the most agriculturally abundant area in the world, each family does manage a small area to grow mint for their precious tea. It’s worth it. The tea is delicious and prepared with such care and such extravagant displays.
Sukaina’s two sons Muhammad and Mustafa (ages 6 and 4) are two of the cutest, happiest, and fun kids I have ever met. We have taught them how to “pound it” where we hold out our fist and the hit it, bring it back and explode it. Sukaina’s sister has two sons, Ahmed who’s 14 and Mahamout who’s 8, and a daughter, Sumoya who’s 2. Ahmed has become a good companion and he and I talk in a broken mixture of his sparse English and my sparse Arabic. Mahamout was fun and played with Muhammad a lot until he was sent to Italy for the summer for vacation along with thousands of other camp children his age. Sumoya is a piece of work. We know she’s around by her whining. She warmed up to me after the fourth day or so and is always running up to me. She stops crying when I’m around. She reminds me a lot of myself when I was little. She is feisty and won’t let anybody help her do anything. She is choosy with who she lets hold her or play with her, but she is really cute once she warms to you. At night Ashley and I go to the top of a sand dune behind Sukaina’s house and watch the stars. Sumoya often follows us up there. She sits on my lap and I sing her nursery rhymes in English. I still don’t want kids, but the kids here are great and it’s going to be difficult to leave them at the end of this trip.
We sleep in the courtyard on straw mats under the stars. You haven’t seen the stars until you’ve seen them from a place as desolate as the Sahara Desert! It’s breathtaking. There are more than I knew and it’s great sleeping outside under them every night!
Each camp is spread out from the other ones for protection and to delay overuse of resources in one area. Each camp is split into four neighborhoods or wilayas. Our neighborhood is called Mahbes. In Smara, there is a dilapidated hospital with empty rooms full of dust, crumbling walls, sparse beds with decaying mattresses (and some with out mattresses, just bed frames) and little medical equipment. Many of the doctors were sent to Cuba when they were 12 to study medicine. 13 years later they return to the camps to treat their people. One doctor (who is also Sukaina’s cousin) told us he lived on the beach in Cuba and made friends from every country. He came back in 2005 after being away from age 12 to 25. He showed us the hospital and its dismal facilities. The doctors are well trained but without the right equipment, electricity, or even the comfort of a bed for the patients there is not much they can do. The hospital in Rabouni (the government headquarters) is much better, said Omar (the doctor), it has electricity. They still don’t have facilities for any serious ailments, but they can at least treat people at night. If someone needs serious medical help they are put on the floor of a stripped down van and hurriedly drove for about an hour to the nearest city, Tindouf.
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