By Paul Rigg
Recently in Madrid the Universities of Leeds ; Managua ; Berkeley  and Pretoria  joined forces with over a dozen others in Algeria, Cuba and Spain to support a unique ‘University of the Desert.’ The planned ‘University of Tifariti’ has now – for the first time – an ‘institutional level commitment’ to the Saharawi cause.
“The qualitative leap we have made here today has been to move from informal work by groups of researchers and lecturers to the institutional commitment of universities to the Saharawi cause,” said Professor Isidoro Moreno from the University of Seville .
“The importance of the location of this university in the desert is that it is in a ‘third place’ – not in the Saharawi Refugee Camps in Algeria; nor in the part of the Western Sahara that is occupied by Morocco – but in the liberated land in between. This university aims at both establishing a center of academic excellence and confirming our sovereignty as a nation,” he continued.
The Saharawis are a people who used to inhabit the area now known as the Western Sahara when it was a Spanish colony. When Spain entered a period of political instability in the mid-1970’s – caused by Franco’s impending death – over 300,000 Moroccans took advantage of the moment to march into the territory. The ensuing fighting forced around 165,000 Saharawis across the border into refugee camps in Algeria. The Saharawi people have been waiting for over 30 years for Morocco to comply with a United Nations directive to hold a referendum over the territory’s independence.
In those 30 years an extraordinary transformation has taken place among these refugees, which represents one of the most important educational success stories of any African country. When the Saharawis arrived in their Algerian camps they had one of the poorest literacy rates on the continent but today, largely as a result of UN support, they can boast over 90 percent literacy. On the other hand, they have been shown enormous generosity by the people of Algeria and Cuba who have funded their education through every level of the system. As a result Professor Moreno says that to 2005, Cuba produced around 1,500 Saharawi university graduates and, while exact figures are not available, other sources suggest that Algeria has produced around ten times that amount.
“Some people say: ‘Why did we send thousands of our children to be educated in a Communist country like Cuba?” says Bucharaya Buyen, the Polisario [the organisation that represents the Saharawis] delegate in Spain. “And we say because countries like the US and the UK never offered them places, and we wanted our young people educated.”
This group of young people are known as known as ‘Cubarawis’ because many of them left home at 12 and spent the next 14 years of their lives in Cuba before returning to the refugee camps. Along with their Cuban accents and cultural habits they brought with them ideas and knowledge that have helped sustain and revitalize the weary exiled society. “It is true that they cannot put their studies to use here because there are no jobs, but it is better they have studies than nothing,” continues Mr Buyen. “People say ‘Why do you have some trained as Ship Captains when you live in the desert?’ and we reply: ‘Because when we return to the Western Sahara we will have a coast and that skill will be needed.”
Mansur Salem Husein, 30, is one example of a ‘Cubarawi’ who graduated in Telecommunications from the University of Habana . Like most of the young men at the camps, when he returned from Cuba he did voluntary military service with the Polisario. “I don’t want to go to war but after thirty years we feel we are running out of options,” he explains. “When I was in Cuba I was always thinking of returning here to help my people. I need to continue my training and hope to get a grant to do my masters at a university in Madrid. Then if the University at Tifariti develops strong academic credentials I would like to go and lecture there.”
Ab-ba Ali Maulud, 29, Director of the Hospital at Dajla [the poorest of the refugee camps], spent 13 years training to be a doctor in Cuba and he agrees: “I didn’t even know where Cuba was when I left to study there at 12. If the University at Tifariti gains a good reputation I would love to be able update my training in my own country.”
“We are still at the planning stage but we are thinking about offering courses of relevance to the Saharawis, such as International Law, Media, Economy and Foreign Affairs,” continues Mr Buyen. “For example, we have around 300 Saharawi doctors at the camp and we would like to be able to offer them re-training in our own country. This is not going to be like a conventional Western university and we cannot hope to offer all the courses that others offer; but remember that the University of Salamanca , started over one thousand years ago with just one course in Theology and it is now the most important university in Spain.”
Another unconventional aspect of developing a university in the desert is that the heat rapidly rots the paper of books and other archives. That is why Professor Maribel Linares from the University of Murcia  has spent years living near the camps establishing the ‘National Archive for the Saharawis,’ in order to help preserve their culture and traditions. “Part of this archive will be transferred to the new university when it opens,” she explains, “but in those meteorological conditions as much as possible needs to be made digital.”
The Refugee Camps are bristling with foreign academics undertaking research projects. There are well-established links between the camps and the University of Bologna , for example; while the University of Melbourne  is currently seeking to develop a legal research program. The University of Roehampton  in the UK has established a ‘three way audio visual messaging project’ between the Roehampton undergraduates, the refugees and students at various universities across Spain. In September a film school will open in the camps which will provide one-year courses in subjects such as directing and scriptwriting and graduates will then go on to study at universities in Spain and Cuba, where agreements have already been established. One of the most extraordinary sights you see when walking around the refugee settlements are the number of women dressed in traditional costume, with their entire bodies covered, carrying a camera and shooting, for example, documentaries, news reports or video messages for their supporters around the world. Educational courses linked to the film school have clearly empowered a whole generation of women in the camps.
What does the university expect to offer in terms of academic structure? “One of the key decisions we are yet to make is to what extent the university will be a distance learning one,” says Santiago Jiménez, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Compostela  and coordinator of Spanish universities in support of the Saharawi people. “We want to offer specialized and postgraduate courses but have not yet decided whether to train lecturers from the camps to give the courses. If we decide to take this latter route, the process will be a longer one.”
Professor Jiménez stresses that it will be important to both offer training to specialists and graduates but also to attend to the interests of other sectors of the population with less formal education but who are nonetheless committed to acquiring training. “However this institution develops it must be flexible and adaptable to the specific needs of the Saharawi population,” he says.
The language of instruction is expected to be in both Hassania, the Arab dialect spoken by the Saharawis, and Spanish. As a result of their colonial history, Spanish is the Saharawis’ second language and community leaders see it as essential that this cultural link is maintained and reinforced. One way in which this has already been done is by around 10,000 Spanish families welcoming a Saharawi child from the longstanding refugee settlements in the desert near Tindouf, Algeria, into their homes for several months every year. This is thought to be the largest solidarity movement between two peoples anywhere in the world, and one result of this is that if you try to talk to the young people in the camps they will very likely respond to you in fluent Spanish. The experience of the Cubarawis has also reinforced these language ties. “Our history and geography with Spain is shared and we want our future to be united as well,” says Abel Kader Taleb Omar, the Saharawi Prime Minister. “Teaching Spanish at the university will be another way of promoting our identity.”
Professor Jiménez and his colleagues are clear about the next steps. “In first place, it is essential that the Saharawis feel ownership for the project; we must focus above all on the actual conditions and endogenous needs of the Saharawi society, rather than seek to impose exterior aspirations,” he says. “We have to bring together the knowledge from their traditions and unite it with the demands of a center of modern learning. We also need the education of the whole school population to be given a boost; fortunately it seems that there are both committed people and supportive organizations that are prepared to offer us resources.”
However, Professor Jiménez recognizes the challenge that they face in bringing the project to fruition. “We know that the construction of the campus and the library will be expensive and hope that international organizations and friendly countries will make one-off contributions. We do not forget however that the current context is one of recession.” “It is a complex challenge, but the Saharawi people believe that focusing on their culture, education and training is going to be as important as food if they are to prepare themselves for the future,” concluded Professor Jiménez.
For more details contact the support agency at: [email protected]