About Refugees, By Refugees

Fatma in colorful shawl

Fatma El Gala

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Photo and interview by:




Belal Darder Mohamed

“I have always been very clear that… I am Saharawi and I am Spanish at the same time.” says Fatma El Gala (37), who was born in an Algerian refugee camp. She came to Spain aged nine with a program allowing Spanish families to temporarily host Saharawi children. “I came with a family and I stayed with them, I grew up with them… They’re my second family.” Being separated and out of contact from her biological family was hard: “The thorn of being separated from your people, of being far away, no one takes that away from you.” But she believes her sense of perseverance has helped her to adapt: “I think we should look at things differently. We were born refugees, but we have also had the opportunity… to be able to achieve our dreams,” she says. Fatma and her children now live in Madrid, where she works as a lawyer: “Having contact with [my family], having my own family, having my profession, to be able to exercise it freely and be who I am, I have fulfilled my dreams.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

Can you tell me where you live now?
n Madrid.

And describe your house to me, please.
My house… Well, it’s a house… Uh… Alone. Particular, uh… I don’t live in a building, but I live in… In a house where I don’t have neighbors, okay? It’s a house with a patio and terrace and with three bedrooms. It’s a cozy house, especially for us.

And with whom do you live?
I live with my children and my nephew.

And what do you do in your day-to-day life?
Work, usually work, among other things. Well, I practically dedicate myself to… to what.. to… the usual, being a mother… [telephone rings].

It’s okay.
Sorry, I have to turn this off.

Okay, okay. No, or take it if you want…
No, I just had, I had muted it. Well, that’s it. Everyday things, work, taking the children to school, and little more.

And what do you do to feel happy?
Being with my people.

Elaborate more. How do you…? Tell me more about this, about being with your people.
I think… at every stage in our life, we have some things that make us happy more than others. But today I am at a stage where my children are the ones that make me really happy. So spending time with them, with my children and family in general, spending time with them is important to me. It’s the greatest satisfaction I have had so far. And of course, work, because it makes me feel fulfilled.

And tell me a little bit about how you arrived in Spain… You told me you came when you were nine years old. Can you tell me a little bit about this, please?
I arrived in the program “Vacaciones en paz” (Holidays in Peace), which is a program that… Well, which is carried out from Spain through associations that support the Saharawi people, through which Spanish families temporarily welcome Saharawi children so that they can spend the two calm months of summer, which is extremely hot in refugee camps. So I came to it like this, I came with a family and I stayed with them, I grew up with them, I lived with them until I got married and they’re my second family.

In Madrid? In…?
No, in Murcia. I have always lived in Murcia. And until I finished and came to live in Madrid.

And how about this experience of having to leave your family at age nine and live with a family… Well, stranger? And all this, right?
Uh… Not only did I live with a family I didn’t know, but I came from a totally different culture to mine, and… the ignorance was total and absolute, they had no… I mean, Saharawi culture has nothing to do with Western culture at all. And well, and from the ignorance that there is a world other than ours, the shock is greater when, obviously at age 9 you are separated from your family, from your mother in particular, who is the person you are most, uh, most attached to. But mainly the worst thing we’ve undergone was the contact because if you go to the United States today and want to have contact with your family, you have the chance to do so. But at that time there was nothing in the camps, there was no phone, there were no phones and communication was practically non-existent. I spent 9 years without going to the camps: I came with 9 and stayed 9 without being able to go back and see my family again.

There were no calls, video calls, or… obviously none of this.
My mother had to travel to Tindouf, which is the closest city to the camps in Algeria, in order to talk to me. Well, there were days when there was luck and she could catch us and there were other days when she didn’t. Via a call shop of course. And well, the way was to make appointments. If I spoke to her today, then from here, if today was 15, then next month, on the 15th we’d agreed to speak at 12 noon. If communication allowed us, good and if not, then nothing. But it was, it was difficult.

Right… Tell me more about this clash you had to face as a nine-year-old girl, right? I think it’s very difficult. I mean, I came here, I was 22 years old and it was very difficult for me, right? So I imagine that for a nine-year-old girl, it’s even harder.
Partially, yes. Especially the first few days, but also children when, when we are, when they are children, the smaller we are, the more adaptive we are. It’s probably harder for us adults to adapt to a new place, but children adapt much faster. I think that was more positive for me than negative, because I had a very bad time at first, but the second month I was already practically integrated into… with the family I was with. I already had friends and well, I can say that I could… I could take it somehow more… easier than if I had come here much older, okay? I started to speak Spanish fast and… Well, the the thorn of being separated from your people, of being far away, no one takes that away from you. In fact, I tell you, the first few days were terrible, but then the adaptation was very good.

And tell me a little more about the language as well. I mean, did you come here speaking Spanish? Or did you have to...?
Nothing, I spoke practically nothing, I had to learn everything and of course, I had to learn it without, without studies, because I came in summer. In summer, what you do is play with your friends, you don’t study. So when September arrived, they enrolled me and such… Well, I didn’t go to classes with children my age instead, I got private lessons. But well, I remember perfectly well that my mother was told: “Don’t buy her books for now, because this year she’s going to spend it learning Spanish.” Well, in the second trimester they told her, “buy her everything because she already has the level of her classmates.” Well, I think that it’s the age, it’s the age that helped me absorb the language quickly because right now If I’d start studying another language, I tell you that… it’s not going to be that easy, but being young, I think we have a much more, much capacity to to absorb other languages and the ability to learn them. And well, I think the desire to be like others also pushed me to make an extraordinary effort. I was in a group, in a class where everyone spoke Spanish perfectly and I wanted to be like them, that you couldn’t tell the difference, so well, well, I would read on my own, the lessons that they gave me in the morning I would go over them in the afternoon and I think that helped a lot too.

And how could you combine your Saharawi identity with your Spanish identity?
Mmm… I’ve always been clear about who I am, where I come from, and where I’m going. It was very clear. I’ve had an education in those nine years I spent with my mother, which I think was the key to everything. She has always instilled in me that I am a Saharawi and that the Saharawi identity is not chosen, but that it is something that has been designated to us. We were born Saharawi and we must be proud of it. So, um… I have always been very clear that I have, that I am Saharawi and I am Spanish at the same time, that is, that I can combine both cultures without any problems. And so it was. I’ve always tried to keep them. Keep the Span… the Saharawi when I’m here. I have my… the part that I have because of living so many years among Spaniards and the Spanish culture. And I’m trying to get the positive of both of them. The combination is perfect.

And I always ask people this question, but I don’t know if it’s going to be valid in your case, because I always ask, “What was your dream before you come? And what is your dream now?” But I don’t know if at nine years old you had a… a goal or a dream.
My dream at age nine was to have legal documentation and to see my family again. That was my dream at the age of nine, I had it very clear. I mean, after I stayed in Spain, of course, because before I didn’t think much, but I tell you, it was, it was so shocking to have to leave, that the dream has always been that. The dream now? I think I’ve accomplished my dreams. I think my…

Could you, could you see the family again and…?
Of course. I have contact with them, let’s say, permanent. This year, unfortunately, because of COVID, no. But being with them, being close, having contact with them, having my own family, having my… my profession, to be able to exercise it freely and be who I am, I have fulfilled my dreams. I have fulfilled them despite the difficulties. Well having been born a refugee, having to fight with greater effort than many people, well, when… I think we also have to settle for our achievements because we don’t have to look beyond what can really be achieved. And the fact of achieving being well, being fulfilled as a person and getting, well, having your own family and having harmony and being able to decide in your life what you want to do at any moment, I think that that’s having goals fulfilled. I can’t have a greater goal than that. Objectiv… Dreams. Dreams is probably an independent Sahara in which I can live and can complete the fulfillment as a person because I think personal independence lies in the independence of one’s own identity. Our identity is the Saharawi identity in an independent Sahara, without occupation. So I think most of the Saharawis who have lived here lack that.

And you’ve mentioned the difficulties, the fact of being born a refugee, and all this. What is your… Personal attributes that helped you cope with these difficulties?
Mmm… I think it’s perseverance, saying, “what I want, I have to get it.” So when you’re very clear about what you want, in the end, you end up getting it one way or another. So saying, “not everything is lost” are qualities that obviously allow you to continue and allow you to live in this society in a way more, I don’t know, more harmoniously because we always live with that tension that we are refugees and that we are in a place that is not ours. And I think we should look at things differently. That is, we were born refugees, but we have also had the opportunity to be able to fulfill ourselves, to be able to achieve our dreams, our… Unfortunately, it has been us to be a refugee because that is not a positive thing, but just like it has been us, it could have been anyone else. The bad thing would be to sink in an attempt to get something else. So I think that the opening of this window for others like for example, my brothers and cousins that didn’t have it, so we must be proud and take the opportunity to do what we want to do, without forgetting that there are many more behind us.

And… Is it true that a refugee has to make a double effort daily than a native person of the country? Or not?
Not just refugees, but immigrants in general. No immigrant comes with everything resolved. Immigration, well, because it has various reasons, including, unfortunately, that of refugees, which is more dramatic because you have been expelled from your territory for ex reasons in which, well, in which virtually all your rights are violated. The fundamental rights of every person are violated and in case you return, your life will probably be in danger. You don’t, you don’t have a place that you can safely return to and that, and that’s… There are immigrants who come in search of a better life but it is true that they have a State where there is stability and where they can return to or know that they will return in ex time. The refugee has, he has that uncertainty, but mmm… I think that effort, personal effort, is very important to be able to overcome, overcome that and make adaptation more, more enjoyable. That, that, well, we can, I don’t know… Living, living outside your territory is always dramatic and supporting each other, for example, that a refugee is interviewing me, because I identify twice as much, with the person who is interviewing me. I think we are the ones who have to make our drama less dramatic, making it visible so that it can have, it can have solutions.

And… I talked to Saharawi people who also mentioned something that I thought was nice, right? They also came with the program “Holidays in peace”. They told me that, although they had difficulties, they had a little privilege in the sense that they had or have two families, a Spanish family, and another Saharawi family. Can you… I’d like you to talk to me about this if you also…
It’s a huge privilege. Not just a small privilege, no. Anyone in the world who has two families is proud. But especially for us, because they are totally different, they are from different cultures, different worlds, and different languages. So, and besides, it creates a bond of… where there is no difference. I mean, you’re growing up with a family since you were young, you’re practically their child. I probably know my Spanish family more than my Saharawi family, because I have spent many years with my Spanish family. With my Sahrawi family, well, I visit them for short periods and in a different way, but… Pride is not to feel strange in either of the two cultures, because we… It is true that we are different because our ideology is different because we have grown up differently. We have grown up with Spanish families, with… Em… with totally different visions from an Arab and Muslim culture like ours. But still, we are proud of the tolerance that our society has towards us in this sense, because the way I think, in which I act, is not the same as a girl who has never left the camps, nor can it be the same, nor will it ever be the same. But the tolerance that I receive from the Saharawi population and the tolerance I receive from, from my Spanish family is… It’s, come on, it’s inexplicable. My Spanish family respects that I pray, that I wear melfha, that I decide when I practice my, my culture and traditions at all times, and my Sahrawi family respects, for example, that I am dressed as I am right now, without wearing melfha and covering myself. Or if I decide to do anything. You know? There’s a toler… That’s it, that’s one of the things that I value most in Saharawi culture. Tolerance for the strange, for the different.

You think this is for, for the… no? Because of the injustice that the Saharawi people have gone through. It makes them more humble, makes them more open, it makes them more…
First, we are characterized by that. Saharawi society is a society of solidarity and that solidarity, solidarity leads it to be, to have other factors, such as tolerance. But unfortunately, it is also true what you say, that it has been forced to open up, to have to accept everything, because first the colonialism that lasted many years, in years until the year ’75, [they] have lived with Spaniards, which is a different culture and have tolerated it, [they] have accepted it. They have never lost any of their traditions, they have always kept them in mind, but at the same time, their neighbor was Spanish or the friend was Spanish, or the nephew, the father is Spanish. Do you understand me? So that’s true it helped, but especially today, uh… the acceptance is much greater because the difference is found in the Saharawi population itself. We are in a virtually multicultural society. We have Sarahawis married to all nationalities, something practically unthinkable years ago or intolerable in other cultures that are Arab and Muslim, but Saharawi society, well, are things that have… Pushed by, by the situation. Anyway, this particular issue is what it has be as so many Saharawi children have grown up in the West. And the ties between them and their Saharawi families have not been broken, therefore, for it to be a real connection, this has to be the case. I have to be tolerant of the Saharawi girl who has never left the camps and has no other mindset than that and she has to be tolerant of me, in my way of thinking, my way of seeing things or…

I’m really interested in this. I mean, you grew up here, haven’t you? With, well, I imagine that in college, in college you have been instilled some values that, a little different from the values that are in Algeria or Sahara, right? And has a conflict arisen or…?
Not at all. That is why I tell you, that one of the topics that I value most and with which I am most proud is the tolerance that my society has. That people are, my people are tolerant people, who know how to accept all the differences that may, that may exist. Not only in their own population, but beyond that, we have a lot of ties with, with, with people of other nationalities. For example, with the Spanish society. On the contrary, it’s one thing… but tolerance is… Mmm… you have to live that, you have to go to the camps and the occupied areas to see it. You’re going to see how the old man, who has a totally different mindset, from mine, how he respects me, how he listens to me, how he values what I say and vice versa. You see it as he does it with a boy who is well, who studies here in a school in, in Cuenca and who has returned for the summer and speaks practically nothing of Hassania, which is our, our dialect. So that diversity, that, that tolerance from diversity, is what, what, what I value very much.

And what does it add to the Saharawi people the fact of having so many Saharawi children, right? All over the world. There is an exodus of the Saharawi children, what does this add to the Saharawi people?
Wealth, cultural richness, ideological richness. But above all, it is a youth that is educated or is being educated. That youth is the future of that people. It is a pride that they are being educated and it is a necessity, it is a necessity, and the contribution, everything they bring is positive because if there is something that the Saharawi national is characterized by, it is identity. For example, you put the melfha on me today. For me, the melfha is my identity. It’s my identity, it’s something that identifies me. When I wear it, I feel Saharawi. Mmm… so even after that many years, I’ve been out for 27 years, no, no, the melfha is part of my life, my day-to-day, uh… Even if I don’t wear it continuously, I know when I wear it and I know how, how I feel when I wear it, mmm… Our traditions are there, intact, regardless of whether we have, uh, left and grew up in other cultures. So, uh, that youth is the future. Our people are the continuation of our own identity, of our culture. But it’s a continuation… enriched, enriched with knowledge, with advancement and… The fact that they have been educated I think it can’t be more positive.

And your children… You told me you’re a, you’re a mother. Do your children also identify as a Saharawi or as…
Of course.

Of course. In fact, I try to make sure they spent a lot of time in the camps so they know and don’t forget where we come from. In my house, we only speak Hassani.

That’s good. Well, that’s it. Uh… One last question, how did COVID affect you? It’s just that I always ask people…
Well, it didn’t really affect me in a way… Eh, how can I tell you? Unfortunately, it was a shock for everyone, but it caught me when I had just given birth to the baby. I was, I was, I had just started my maternity leave and well, I had to take maternity leave for six months, no matter what. But well, I tell you, it caught us with my mother at home, who is an elderly person, who doesn’t, she just knows the Sahara or the camps. And that for her… I’ve seen the shock with her. You know that we the Saharawis always have the doors open, doors don’t close anywhere. Well imagine, she came here for a medical matter, and having the house closed every day was madness. I mean, if she wanted to do meters, she had to go up to the yard and do meters like that because you can’t take her out at 65, because it was, it was a major risk factor so we had to be careful. And it has been like, COVID ended and she swore that she would leave and never come back.

Poor thing. She came at the worst time, didn’t she?
Of course. Then I noticed it very much there because of her, but not by myself, that I, well, had taken two months off, I had four left. And that’s just how long the lockdown lasted, but no, no… We as lawyers do not have the obligation to be behind, not the obligation, but we are essential. We went out just like the doctors and if I had a police station assistance, I had to go. So, well, I occasionally went to the office, but from her, we did have a hard time.

Yes, you’ve noticed more its consequences on her.
In her a lot, very much, because she transmitted her discomfort to me. But well, that was normal, because I tell you, she’s a person who has never been locked up, never and she came against her will and…

For the medical matter, right?
Yes, she came for a medical matter, and look what happened to her.

Was it her first time in Spain?

I hope it’s not the last one, but she says it is.

Let’s hope it’s not the last one. Well, thank you very much, Fatma.
It’s nothing, a pleasure.

No, the pleasure is all mine.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.