Photos Jackson Howard and Timothy Kustusch
The program was the brainchild of Boujima, a man known to the rest of the Saharawis as Castro, who came up with the idea in the mid-90s. In 1996, the school first opened its doors as a one-room centre serving those with both physical and mental disabilities.
“This school is the only one of its kind in any refugee camp in the world,” boasts Castro in his Cuban-accented Spanish. “Even in third-world countries that have had their independence for decades, there is no centre like the one we have here.”
Today the centre’s facilities consist of two classrooms, a cafeteria, a relaxation room, a “wild room”, and a library that doubles as the administrative centre. This last addition was constructed three years ago thanks to a generous gift of 6,000 euros donated by a Catalonian couple who had visited the school in the late 1990s.
Perhaps the school’s most innovative room is its “wild room.” Here, the students are surrounded by a number of different objects and obstacles and are left to interact with each other and their environment. Monitors do not scold or reprimand the students for improper behaviour, but they use hands-on examples and activities to show the students how to live in peace with their surroundings and other people. Over-sized models of zippers, shoelaces, bags, and other every-day objects litter the floor and the walls, and are used by teachers in instructing the children.
Another innovative space, the relaxation room, is compromised of soft couches and pillows, walls lined with rugs of subdued colours, chains of dimly-coloured lights, and a stereo that plays soothing music.
“Here, the students come to be at peace,” says the school’s director and founder. “We have learned that punishing students for erratic and violent behaviour will only inspire more anxiety, so we bring them here to relax on their own.”
Students are taught in groups based on the severity of their disabilities, and they are given the skills they need to function normally in their society. The school is dedicated to three main principles: education, integration, and autonomy.
“Some families do not know how to react to their children’s disabilities, so we teach the students how to be productive members of their family and their community,” explains Castro.
One unique program offered by the program is an arts and crafts micro-business. Students paint paintings and sew small dolls and sell them to visitors. The children are then given the earnings from the sales and instructed to go to the market on their way home to purchase vegetables, rice, and potatoes for their family to consume.
Similar schools are now run by the government in all of the five Saharawi refugee camps, but opening the first centre in Smara was an uphill struggle.
“At first we were met with some resistance from the Polisario government,” maintains Castro. “They were not excited about the idea of redirecting resources from the movement for Western Saharan independence to the education of our handicapped children. But once we opened this school, they saw its merits and applauded our efforts.”
When he first came up with the idea, people looked at the short, yet energetic man as if he were crazy. “That experience helps me to better associate with the students,” he says with a grin.
The school’s director insists that he received a divine calling to open the school back in the early 90s.
“One day, Allah tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Castro, get up! There are children who need your help.’ In the Koran and in Allah’s eyes, we are all equal – we are all the same, and so we all deserve the same treatment.”
The running of the centre requires tireless work and patience by Castro and the rest of the volunteer staff. In what may be the understatement of the year, the school’s director admitted that the education of handicapped youth in a refugee camp run on humanitarian aid is “not easy work.”
Nonetheless, the dedication of this Saharawi and the rest of the camp residents who support his efforts attest to the open and advanced society defined by the Saharawi culture. In these arid and inhospitable lands, children who are normally shunned in societies throughout the world are treated with dignity and respect.
Perhaps most telling of the school’s mission in the Saharawi refugee camps is a sign painted in Spanish that adorns the door of one of the school’s classrooms: “Here, neither trees nor flowers grow, but human beings blossom.”