His brown olive skin stands out from the sea of Spanish people out on the streets of Bilbao. They carry hand-made signs and trade union banners and their chant comes out as endless waves of “Democracia real ya!” (Real democracy now!)
He chants along, marches forward, and blends in among the crowd of granny pensioners, hardline anarchists, trade unionists, and LGBT activists. I ask him why he’s here and he smiles as he answers, “Where there is injustice, I fight for justice. Who more should understand its value than me who had my share of inequities the moment I was born.”
He, Sidi Hamoudi, is a Sahrawi: “We were simple nomadic people who used to live out of caravan trade and cattle herding. Now we are refugees, without the possibility of returning to the land where our forefathers lived.”
Home for him is the western part of the Sahara desert which has since 1975 been militarily occupied by the Kingdom of Morocco after a failed decolonization from the Spanish State. This left behind a political vacuum that made the claim and occupation of Morocco a swift and devastating move for the Sahrawis.
France and the United States have supported Morocco throughout the conflict politically and economically. The occupiers claim that Western Sahara has been an integral part of their Kingdom before the Spanish occupation in the late 19th century and has currently left the vast stretch of their homeland in the hands of the Moroccan military. It is, according to the United Nations, one of the last remaining major non-self-governing territories.
Born in a middle of a 16-year war, life in the camp was full of difficulties: “I was living with my grandmother in the refugee camp in Tindouf in the border of Algeria. And one of my earliest memories is of a mother crying but at the same time ululating. I asked my grandmother why she did that and she told me that she had just lost two of her sons in the war but she wanted to show she was proud of their bravery.”
He first came to visit Spain when he was 11 years old through the summer program “Vacations of Peace.” It is a Spanish program which receives Sahrawi children living in the refugee camps during the excrutiatingly hot Saharan summer months and during which they are provided much needed medical care and check-ups. He lived during those periods with a Spanish family and he admits that the process of adapting to European society was almost a daily process of culture shock.
“Everything was so different for me then. We only had camels in Western Sahara for transport, so seeing the city and seeing thousands of cars on the street was exciting but scary at the same time.”
“I also had to learn the differences in our societies. During my first days, when I felt hungry and my foster family wasn’t at home, I would knock on their neighbor’s door to ask for bread. My family would later apologize to their neighbor for my behavior. At that time, I couldn’t understand how it was bad since I could do exactly the same at home because neighbors are like family to us.”
Now at 26 years old, he came back to Spain to begin a master’s degree. He studies international cooperation in the public university and he plans to put his education into good use.
“Coming here gave me a wider perspective of the world. And of course, with the media as global as now, we can no longer stop caring about what happens in Egypt, Syria, or in Europe.”
He currently volunteers in the local NGO, Paz con Dignidad (Peace with Dignity), and heads the translation unit of development projects in the Arab countries. He has also become a constant participant in the nationwide rallies of the Spanish 15-M Movement for participative democracy and firm regulations in the banking and financial sector.
Meanwhile, his homeland of Western Sahara is still occupied by Moroccan forces and there is till political deadlock in the UN General Assembly on what is to be done. There has been a wide UN support in giving the Sahrawi people the right for a referendum on the question of independence or autonomy under the Moroccan Kingdom. However, this has been continually blocked by the US and France.
When asked what he sees in his future, what he says is even more poignant: “I just hope to one day live in the land where my ancestors used to roam, a place I still haven’t been in or even seen. I’d just like to have a family and have a peaceful life in the desert.”