sexta-feira, 17 de abril de 2009

Saharawi-Basque youth exchange builds bridges across the Mediterranean

A group of 74 young people from the Basque region of Spain visited the Saharawi refugee camps outside of Tindouf, Algeria, to engage in a cultural exchange with young Saharawis as the first stage of a partnership between the youth of the two nations.

The exchange, which is the first of its kind between Basques and Saharawis, took place in the refugee camp of Ausserd, where the group of young Basques attended six days of conferences, meetings and workshops hosted by the Saharawi Youth Union (UJSARIO). Two Saharawi volunteer youth organizations – the Sumud Brigade and the Freedom and Peace Group – helped to organize and monitor the activities, as well.

Once in Ausserd, the young Basques split into groups that focused on one of eight topics: Health, Gender, Sports, Culture, Environment, Communication, Work and Development. Throughout the week, the Saharawis and Basques discussed their different views, concerns and needs regarding each topic.

"It is an exchange between our two cultures," said Arrate, a student at the University of Deusto in Bilbao, Spain. "We’ve come to listen to the needs of the Saharawi youth here and to see how we can help them meet those needs."

"For example, in the ‘Gender’ group, we are focusing on the needs of the young Saharawi women to have a space where they can communicate and express themselves," explained Bego, another student from Bilbao.

The exchange is meant to be the first step towards a strong partnership of collaboration between the young people of the two nations. The young Basques have come with open minds to learn about the realities faced by Saharawi youth in the camps and to find ways to contribute to the Saharawi movement for independence through projects that show their solidarity with the young people here in the camps.

"We’re hoping to look at the needs that are here and continue to develop projects that we can help out with," said Ainize, also a student from the University of Deusto.

"One thing we’re really focusing on is general development and education," added Agata, from Bilbao. "The youth have to be ready to function normally when they return to their own country in a free Western Sahara."

Since this is the first exchange of its kind, there are still some uncertainties about its outcome. Overall, however, both Basque and Saharawi participants gave a very positive response concerning their experiences.

"To be honest, we’re still not sure exactly what will come out of this," admits Musa Selma, Secretary General of UJSARIO. "We’ll have to see. But I think it has been very productive so far."

While Saharawis from several different camps took part in the week’s activities, the program is aimed specifically at youth from Ausserd, where social services and opportunities for young people are in short supply.

"Smara has a few programs, February 27th has several, El Aaiun has its own, and even Dahkla has a few," said Musa, referring to the other Saharawi camps surrounding Tindouf, Algeria," but here in Ausserd, there is nothing for the youth. So this encounter is very important for both parties involved."

No small task

Arranging the week-long exchange has been no easy task. Preparations began in October of 2008, when a pair of visitors from the Basque group Euskari Youth visited the camps to find ways that the two populations could work together more closely.

"Eight months ago we had two visitors from the Basque region," tells Musa. "We started coming up with ideas, and then five months ago, we really started planning things.

"They [the Basques] had to come up with the money for the plane tickets, food and lodging, and UJSARIO had to arrange all the meetings and activities. It took a lot of planning by both sides. We’re very tired, but it has been worth it," he added.

While both the youth and women’s unions are supported by the Polisario Front – the leaders of the Saharawi movement for independence – the majority of activities and funding in the camps are dedicated towards meeting basic needs of the people and sustaining the peaceful campaign for the freedom of the Western Sahara. As a result, exchanges such as this have to be arranged by the Saharawi youth themselves.

"It is difficult," admits Musa. "If we want to do something like this, we have to go to other countries to be able to do it. It isn’t easy, but it is something we have to do."

Taking a "break"

On Wednesday, the hundred-and-some young people took a break from their meetings and workshops and piled into gigantic, open-topped trucks to visit some of the institutions of the Saharawi camps.

The group toured the Ministry of Information in the administrative camp of Rabouni, the National Archives, the Military Museum, the National Parliament and the headquarters of the Association for the Relatives of Saharawi Political Prisoners and Disappeared Persons (AFAPRADESA).

"It has been extremely interesting," said Ainize. "It was nice to take a break from the meetings and get a chance to actually see the camps themselves."

After a final day of free time with new-found families and friends, the Basques will return to Spain on Friday evening to begin working on their projects.

"This is not the end," admits Alfred, one of the trip’s organizers, "it is only the beginning."

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