From the Sahrawi refugee camps to Europe’s skateboarding mecca.
As skateboarding is barely discussed in this interview I should probably give it a bit of context: Sara Cheikh and her twin sister Nayat are integral parts of Barcelona’s skate scene. Everyone knows them and seems to love them as much as they respect their skating. Yet only a few are aware of the fascinating journey they’ve been on to arrive where they are today. “They’re from the desert right?” Sure, but to be born in a refugee camp in the middle of the desert and to end up killing it at MACBA is in itself pretty extraordinary.
Sara was kind enough to talk us through the political situation that led to the formation of these camps, how she and her sister made it out of them and what she is doing to better the living conditions of those forced to remain in them – truly inspiring.
Can you start off by telling us where you are from and how you ended up in Barcelona?
I’m from Western Sahara but I was born in a refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria. I moved to Spain when I was six. I grew up in Valencia, then moved to Madrid for university and came here (Barcelona) about a year ago. I was a refugee in a remote part of the desert of Algeria and obviously you don’t have many opportunities as a refugee. My dad was working as a translator for the MINURSO, the United Nations mission for the referendum in Western Sahara, and managed to move to Spain for a year to make some money. After a year he came back to the refugee camps and found a way for us to move with him to Spain. We didn’t have proper passports as we had a refugee status in Algeria. The only papers we had didn’t really give us any rights in Algeria and were virtually impossible to travel with because even if you managed to get into another country, getting them replaced with proper ones is basically impossible. So my dad travelled to Mauritania, bought us fake birth certificates to get Mauritanian passports, then came back to the camps and took us to Spain.
Can you briefly explain why you had the refugee status? What political situation led to you and others having to form refugee camps?
It’s quite a complex conflict that has barely received any media attention so I’ll do my best to keep it simple. So Western Sahara used to be a part of Spain. As in it was a Spanish colony for 100 years but around 1975 the United Nations asked Spain to decolonise it. What it was meant to do was give the area back to the Saharawis but instead it gave it to Morocco. So when Morocco started occupying the country in 1975 half of the Saharawi population, including my parents, fled to Tindouf in southwest Algeria. The only land they were ‘given’ was a part of desert so they just built a refugee camp there.
At that point these countries were at war right? Can you explain that a little bit?
Okay so it ended in 1991 and it was initially between Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania.
Because like Morocco, they also wanted to take advantage of our natural resources claiming that part of our land had always belonged to them. So we were just caught in the middle of people fighting to take our land.
What was the outcome? What happened when the war ended?
Saharawis were able to recover almost half of their territory, which is literally just sand. Morocco kept the other half that has all the oil, phosphate and other natural resources. For instance most of the fish that Morocco sells to Europe comes from Western Sahara. They are essentially exploiting all of our land’s wealth.
Whilst leaving your people to start a new life in a place with nothing apart from sand…
Even the sand that to most people appears to have no value, Morocco sells it to countries wanting to set up artificial beaches.
And this is what led you to start the Wall Of Sand project, am I correct? Can you tell us a little bit about this charity?
After graduating from university I decided to go back to the camps for two months to see my family and spend some time immersed in my culture. There happened to be an International Art Festival called ARTifariti taking place at that time. The Festival brought together artists from around the world that defend human rights and the right of Saharawis for self-determination. I met my project partners there in that festival. Dominique, Brahim and I were convinced of the need to diffuse the situation of Saharawi refugees in a creative way. And since the theme of the festival was “to bring down the wall of shame” we decided to take it literally and sell the sand of the wall to bring it down in a symbolic way while using the funds to improve refugee’s life conditions.
Can you explain what the wall of shame actually is?
The Wall Of Shame is the wall that divides Western Sahara. In 1981, Morocco built a huge wall of sand dividing our country into two: one side for us with only sand and one side for them with all of the resources.
It’s crazy how little attention this gets in the media.
Especially considering it’s supposed to be the largest militarily active wall in the world as well as the portion of land that is the most contaminated with landmines. It’s basically impossible to even approach.Anyway the Wall Of Sand project’s idea was to bring down the wall of sand by selling its sand. Obviously it’s symbolic though as the sand comes from the area of the wall (rather than the actual wall) as you can’t actually get close to it because of all the landmines. The aim is to raise awareness and to make some money to better the lives of those staying in the refugee camps. The temperatures are really high during the day but they also drop extremely low, making the living conditions horrible for all of those living in the tents. That’s why the money we raise goes towards building proper shelters for the families most in need.
Are there any indications of hope that the wall might come down in the near future?
Yes there is hope. In 1991 when the war stopped one condition was agreed on by all parties: that the Saharawi people would be allowed a referendum on whether they wanted to be independent (and have their land), or be a part of Morocco. The problem is that Morocco has been blocking that referendum for over 25 years now.
What do you mean by “blocking” it?
Well Morocco has the support of the United States and France so every time the topic is discussed at the United Nations they veto it.
So if the referendum actually took place the wall could potentially be knocked down?
Potentially yes, but it’s not even that simple. Morocco has been putting so many Moroccans in the Western Sahara region during these 40 years that even if the vote took place there would be a slight chance that we wouldn’t even win. If the referendum took place this year we would probably still get through but the longer it takes for it to happen the slimmer our chances get…
What’s the solution then?
The solution is for the international community to openly start supporting Western Sahara and for the UN to agree on the referendum happening this year. There is a reason why you had probably never heard of Western Sahara and our conflict and it’s because we are fundamentally peaceful. You’ll never hear about a Saharawi terrorist attack or anything like that because it’s not in our nature. It’s one of the reasons why we have a huge amount of support from various countries and organisations but also one of the reasons why we are never in the news… People need to know that there are two generations of people stuck in refugee camps, with no hope or opportunities even though they are supposed to have a land that is full of natural resources.
Do the people in the camps still have hope?
They’ve always been convinced that this is just temporary, that they’ll go back to their land soon. That’s why only one of the five camps has electricity… Last time I was there I heard people saying: “If electricity finally makes it to our camp, we will stay here forever.” Everything was built as a ‘temporary solution’. Although 40 years is nothing in the eyes of history it is starting to take its toll on the morale of the Saharawis, especially on the younger generations that feel trapped in a desert that has nothing to offer, in a land where they do not belong.
What about the Saharawi people that aren’t in the refugee camps? Is it hard for the ones living in the occupied territories?
Definitely, they are the true resisters. Just to give you an idea, Moroccan authorities have been carrying out systematic ethnic cleansing of Saharawis by secret detentions, killings and enforced disappearances since the occupation in 1975. My father himself was jailed for five years when he was only 20 years old for participating in a demonstration against the occupation. Still you’ll never hear a word of hatred towards the Moroccan people from him.
Nowadays the Saharawis living under occupation have to face more subtle forms of human rights abuses, such as the lack of freedom of expression, association and movement. Numerous Saharawis who are considered troublemakers, such as known human rights activists, are deprived of travel documents. If you, for example, want to interview any of those activists you’d probably be deported. I know from first hand a lot of journalists and artists who’ve had that awful experience.
What really makes me sad is that Moroccans themselves know absolutely nothing about this. I have met many who don’t even know where the Western Sahara is… But they are not to blame. They live under a total manipulation of education and media. They are not aware that Saharawi kids can’t even speak their mother tongue, Hassaniya, in school and also that showing or carrying our flag is considered a ‘crime against the state’. This is why getting funds to help the people in the camps is only half of the battle…
The other half is raising awareness.
Exactly. It’s sad that with refugees being such a current topic literally nobody is aware of this crisis. It’s only an hour away from the Canary Islands and it belonged to Spain for almost 100 years…
It’s pretty incredible that you find time to do this alongside your full-time job, skating and everything else you’ve got going on.
I kind of feel like it’s my duty. I know how lucky I am to have made it out of the camps myself, to have had an education… So the least I can do for my people is to give them a voice.
When you grow out of your roots it is easy to forget why you are where you are; the Wall Of Sand project is a way to remind myself where I come from. It’s been only one year since we started the project and the team has grown to five persons now (millions of thanks to Tim Turiak and Thomas Spallek from the Moxie collective). We just finished our first room for a family and got funds to build two more in March. We’ve given talks in universities and participated in international art festivals and exhibitions, I have been told by unknown people “shit, I thought I was a well-educated person and I knew nothing about this.” So I feel we are reaching our goal and I am beyond happy about it.
I know you still regularly go back to the camps to spend time with your family. What’s a typical day like when you’re out visiting your grandma?
When I go there I split my time between my family in the camps and my grandmother in the free territories. My grandmother lived in the camps for about 25 years but after that time she got tired of living on ‘borrowed land’ and decided to go back to the free territories of Western Sahara, which is pure desert. There is only her in the middle of nothing. It’s pretty impressive arriving there and seeing only her tent and two little rooms. It can seem romantic to live there but the daily life is really exhausting. The sun starts hitting hard around 10am so we wake up at six and prepare the bread and meals for the day so we don`t have to go from the tent to the kitchen in the middle of the heat. I usually go to take a walk with grandma to the ‘river’ around 8 o’clock – it’s actually only sand with a few of plants but when it rains it forms a little river. The hardest thing by far living there is managing to always have water. We have a well and when it’s full all is well but when it starts to empty we have to start making cuts in the frequency with which one takes a shower, until it drops to once a week, haha. Then we need to drive to the closest ‘public well’.
The thing I love the most about being there is feeding and having walks with our six goats. I’ve never had a pet in Spain, so when I go there it’s like I have my mini zoo. They’re so much work but taking care of them is so cool, it really makes me feel close to my roots. The bad thing about it is that they get lost very easily and my brother, sister and I have to go look for them by car. My grandma gets so stressed about it, but for us it’s extremely fun to look for a missing goat in the desert! The evenings are quite chill, we usually have tea outside while listening to ‘elhoul’, traditional Saharawi music with poetry as lyrics. Poetry is like a ‘sport’ in our culture. My grandma can’t read or write but she knows tons of poems by heart. Sometimes we have dinner alone and sometimes we have visitors. Our place is on the way to Mauritania so we have a lot of random people passing by, having dinner and staying with us to make a break in their journey. It was quite an adjustment for me moving to a society where you have to call your friend to tell him you are just coming to his place. Seeing my mum always cook extra meals just in case someone pops by was awesome. And of course no one ever asks if they can stay, everyone just takes it for granted. The desert is everyone’s home.
What does your family think about skateboarding? Have you ever tried talking about it to anyone back home? Like your grandma for instance?
My parents initially struggled to accept it. They were afraid that we’d hurt ourselves or that it would distract us from our studies, so our strategy was to study more than ever for them to let us skate. Now it’s gotten to the point where my father proudly shows off videos of his daughters skating! My grandmother has no idea what a skateboard is, I think seeing us skating would blow her mind, haha. But we’ve planned to bring our skateboards on our next trip to the desert so we can introduce her to the piece of wood that we have so much fun with!
For more info about the Wall Of Sand project
head to www.wallofsand.org