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Sahara refugees form a progressive society

Literacy and democracy are thriving in an unlikely place.

(Page 2 of 2)

Mosques are conspicuously absent from the camps, in large part because the Saharawis "don't believe that to speak to God, you need a fancy place," explains Mr. Said.

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Saharawis seldom pray in groups save on important Muslim holidays, and view even these ceremonies as purely optional. For some, this is a welcome escape-hatch from the religion's bloodier rituals.

"Each person has his own Islam," says Zorgan Laroussi, a translator in the camps who chose not to attend the mass slaughter of camels for the feast of al-Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. His brother-in-law Salek did go, and relishes explaining the ritual's finer points while the two men and their families share a dish of grilled hindquarters.

Saharawis are equally welcoming of other religions. "There is an almost continuous presence of church groups from all over the world - in particular the US - in the camps," says Said. "Every year for the last four years, there has been a joint prayer at Easter."

"Tolerance is not something new, but it's something [Saharawi leaders] encourage," he says. "In a tolerant society, the center prevails, not the extremes. That means respect for others, whether for the faith or their ideas."

This credo finds ample use in the Saharawis' recent conversion to a united democratic government. Following their flight from Western Sahara, they quickly saw that overcoming the desert and the Moroccan Army meant forsaking old tribal loyalties. "What's most important is that we Saharawis hang together, so we highlight stories that promote unity among us," says Minister of Culture Miriam Salek, who works with the Ministry of Education and the Saharawi Youth Organization to keep alive Saharawi folklore and history.


In 1976, the Polisario proclaimed, and more or less became, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. Although a government-in-exile, it is recognized by 75 countries, and the UN formally considers Western Sahara an occupied territory.

Tier upon tier of elected officials make up the camp government, from the national parliament down to neighborhood councils. Saharawis are avid voters, and many participate in local civil service - even if it's merely taking a twice-weekly shift on the trash detail, or helping dole out rations.

This could be the blueprint for an independent Western Sahara, and there is a general sense of pride and excitement among the Saharawis for their new society. "This has worked so far, what we have here," says one young daira (district) councilman, "and it should still work in Western Sahara. We built this on the hope of the people, and I don't think they'll want to change."

But as the years drag on, many fear they will never have the chance to find out. Their smoothly running camps and refusal to resort to terrorism keep them out of the public consciousness, relieving pressure on the UN to push for a quick settlement to the 29-year-old conflict. "We have been landless for so long," laments Tellib Helli Embarik, an old tribal leader. "I don't know if the UN is just waiting for us to disappear or what!"