‘It’s hard to be patient when you are hungry‘
Afaf is 27, she is a fifth-grade teacher and lives in a Sahrawi refugee camp in the Tindouf region, southwest Algeria. She is preparing couscous, a staple in the Saharan diet, working the wheat flour and barley through a sieve to form the distinctive grains. “This is the most difficult part of couscous preparation,” explains Asaf. “You have to rub hard with your hands to open the barley.”
Afaf and her family dream of returning to Smara, their home in Western Sahara, and have a normal life. Patience (a key word that many refugees utter almost like a mantra) and confidence that one day they will be able to return home feed the dreams of Sahrawi people, but Afaf is clear that “it is hard to be patient when you are hungry.”
The simple kitchen in which Afaf prepares couscous takes up one of the small adobe buildings that make up the family home. Like for the rest of Sahrawi refugees, the bags of food that pile up in her kitchen come from the World Food Programme (WFP). Month after month since 1986, WFP has been distributing wheat flour, barley, sugar, pulses, rice, peas, yeast, oil — non-perishable products that support the diet of the refugees.
WFP maximizes the resources available to provide the refugees with an adequate calorie intake. This is no easy task considering that this forgotten crisis has been dragging over time, and that WFP’s work is funded through voluntary contributions. And yet, as the WFP Representative in Algeria, Romain Sirois, points out, “it costs less than half a dollar a day to feed a Sahrawi refugee.”
I am impressed as I walk through the WFP warehouses in Tindouf, which hold enough food to cover the needs of the refugee population for at least two months. This is the minimum reserve needed to ensure that there are no breaks in the supply chain and to stock the more than 100 distribution points throughout the camps where families like Afaf’s collect their rations on a monthly basis. WFP aims to keep this stock stable, so that it can be used in case of emergency, but more and more it is having to resort to it to make sure refugees do not run out of food.
Lalla Sidi Mohamed, Afaf’s grandmother, who arrived here more than 40 years ago, says that back home in Smara it was easy for them to keep a varied diet. She lists the fresh foods they used to enjoy: “fruit, meat, dates, milk…” and without hesitation she adds: “what I miss the most is fresh fish.” Access to these fresh products remains a major challenge in the remote desert environment of the Sahrawi camps.
This is why WFP is supporting Sahrawi refugees in using hydroponic technology to grow fodder for their livestock, mainly goats. By improving the nutrition of their animals, refugees get more milk and better meat.
As she skillfully prepares the couscous, Afaf candidly says that “the most important thing is the taste, not how it is made.” Maybe Ali, her 8-year-old brother, will inherit her ability to run the kitchen and fulfill his dream of becoming a cook when he grows up. At the moment, his favourite dish, like that of so many children, is pizza.
Spanish Cooperation is a steady source of funding for the food needs of Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf. In 2017, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) received funds from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) and the autonomous communities of Galicia, La Rioja, Madrid and Murcia. Other WFP donors in Algeria include the European Commission (ECHO), Germany, Switzerland and the United States.