SAHARA-SPAIN: University of the Desert

The universities of Berkeley, Managua, Leeds and Pretoria have joined forces with more than a dozen others in Algeria, Cuba and Spain to support a unique 'University of the Desert' in the Sahara. For the first time, the planned University of Tifariti has an institutional level commitment to the Saharawi cause. As a result of war, the Saharawi people have been split between a territory occupied by Morocco and a refugee camp in the Algerian desert. A small strip of land in between is under their control and is the proposed site of the university.

"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," Moreno said. "This university aims at both establishing a centre of academic excellence and confirming our sovereignty as a nation."

The Saharawi used to inhabit the area now known as the Western Sahara when it was a Spanish colony. As Spain entered a period of political instability in the mid-1970s - caused by Franco's impending death - more than 300,000 Moroccans took advantage to march into the territory.

In the ensuing fighting, 165,000 Saharawi were forced to flee across the border into refugee camps in Algeria. They have been waiting for more than 30 years for Morocco to comply with a UN directive to hold a referendum over the territory's independence.

But in those last 30 years, an extraordinary transformation has taken place among these refugees, one that is among the most important education success stories of any African country.

When the Saharawi arrived in their Algerian camps, they had one of the poorest literacy rates on the continent. In the last three decades, the Saharawi and the United Nations have transformed one of the poorest education levels in Africa into a situation where 90% of the population is literate.

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, Moreno says that up to 2005, Cuban universities graduated 1,500 Saharawis and, while exact figures are not available, Algeria may have graduated 10 times that number.

"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 Saharawi] delegate in Spain. "And we say because countries like the US and the UK never offered places and we wanted our young people educated."

The group of young graduates 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 revitalise 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," Buyen says. "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 30 years we feel we are running out of options," Husein explains. "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 gains a good reputation 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."

But, as Buyen says: "We are still at the planning stage although we are thinking about offering courses of relevance to the Saharawis, such as international law, media, economy and foreign affairs.

"For example, we have around 300 Saharawi doctors at the camp and we would like to offer them retraining 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, the University of Salamanca started over 1,000 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 to help preserve their culture and traditions.

"Part of this archive will be transferred to the new university when it opens," Linares 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 seeking to develop a legal research programme. The University of Roehampton in the UK has established a 'three way audio visual messaging project' between Roehampton undergraduates, the refugees and students at various universities across Spain.

In September, a film school will open in the camps to 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.

"We still have work to do on secondary education but we now have a sufficient number of qualified students here who are currently creating a demand for the university," concludes Abdel Kader Taleb Aomar, Prime Minister of the Democratic Arab Republic of the Saharawis. "Other universities see the injustice that has taken place here and want to contribute to people getting their rights."

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* Paul Rigg is a Madrid-based UWN correspondent. He travelled to the Saharawis refugee camps for this report