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When Home Is a Camp

Senia Bachir-Abderahman (Western Sahara, Red Cross Nordic UWC, Mt. Holyoke ‘10) grew up in a tent. Her family’s tent is in a giant refugee camp, home to 159,000 people, in a remote desert region of Algeria. Her family has existed there since the 1970s, when the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara began fleeing their country during a war with Morocco that would last until 1991.

Senia was born in the camp, where 80 percent of the residents are women and children. About one in four children there is chronically malnourished. Working very hard at school in Algeria, Senia learned to speak English, Spanish, French, and Arabic, along with her native Hassaniya. Three years ago, she was 15 when a delegation from the Norwegian UWC Selection Committee entered the tent where she lived with her mother, stepfather, and five brothers. They were offering good students the chance to apply for a UWC scholarship. It would be the first such opportunity for a Sahrawi.

“I thought, ‘I don’t think I’ll get in, but at least I’ll have tried,’” Senia recalls. She did try. She won the scholarship. During her two years at UWC, each summer she returned to teach English to other refugee women at the camp. Now at Mt. Holyoke College, she hopes to major in biology and to work in health care one day. She also runs, cross-country skis, sings, plays African drums, and wears the hijab, the Muslim woman’s head scarf. And, just about every day, Senia finds herself explaining to someone where her country is in the world.

“No one’s ever heard of Western Sahara,” she says. “No one knows that the camp I come from is the biggest refugee camp in the world.” How has she changed since that day when the Norwegians came to her tent?

“I’m more concerned,” she muses, “about the cause of Western Sahara and my people. I never realized how much conflict is forgotten and unknown. Now, I understand more what it means to struggle.

“To me, then, my life in the camp didn’t seem so strange,” she says. “I understand how different it is, now.”