By Emma Marie Chiang
Contributing Writer, Photographer, and Videographer
In Arabic, Sabah Mohamed helps a woman fill out paperwork to receive a bag of food at the weekly food pantry. Sabah, a 26-year-old Sahrawi woman, is in training for a new job as an immigration lawyer at Tharsis Betel, a non-profit organization founded by Adulama Missionary Church that supports refugees with daily resources and legal services in Jerez, Spain.
As a Sahrawi refugee from the Western Sahara, Sabah identifies with other Sahrawis and refugees, because she also knows what it’s like to lose everything in a place that was once home and to flee to an unfamiliar country. This is why she desires to support these people by providing resources and legal services.
“I and my family are refugees,” Sabah says. “It’s very important that refugees have a place where they are not persecuted by other forces, a place where they can live happily and grow up in a country that is safer for them.”
Sabah was born on September 21, 1991 at Dajla refugee camp in the middle of the Western Sahara desert, the fourth child in a family of eight. She grew up in a war-torn country and among a divided people.
Western Sahara is a disputed territory on the northwest coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. After Spain withdrew from its former colony of Spanish Sahara in 1976, Morocco annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara and claimed the rest of the territory in 1979, following Mauritania’s withdrawal. The people of Western Sahara were forced to vacate their country and live in the Sahara desert in Algeria without clean water, electricity, or other basic resources to survive. A guerrilla war with the Polisario Front contesting Morocco’s sovereignty ended in a 1991 cease-fire, establishing a United Nations peacekeeping operation. The UN offered a choice to the peoples of Western Sahara: independence or integration into Morocco. The majority of Sahrawi people fled to live in Algeria, Morocco, Italy, and Spain.
The Spanish government organized a program that allowed Sahrawi children to live in the country with a foster family for two months during the summer. This is how Sabah found herself in Spain. When she was seven years old, she traveled to Spain for the first time, and, due to a medical issue, two months turned into seventeen years.
When Sabah was born, she suffered a foot deformity that, without surgery, would affect her ability to walk once her body fully developed. Her biological family, living in Algeria at the time, could not afford the surgery and physical therapy. But with the generosity of Sabah’s Spanish foster family, her feet healed correctly. As she continued physical therapy, Sabah lived the majority of the year with her foster family and visited her biological family in Algeria during the summers.
Throughout her life, Sabah remained connected to her Sahrawi culture and found many cultural similarities in Spain. “Sahrawis feel that Spain is a welcoming country, that it’s a perfect place to flourish,” she said. Sabah earned a degree in Law and Management and Public Administration at the University of Seville, Spain. She hopes to educate the Spanish government and find efficient ways for Sahrawis and other refugees to obtain residency and naturalization.
When you have something, you have to share, you have to know how to give, to later be able to receive.
According to a recent report by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of mid-2016, there were 16.5 million refugees globally, five million more than in mid-2013. More than thirty percent of all refugees as of mid-2016 came from Syria, the largest source of global refugees. With more than sixty Syrian refugees soon arriving in Jerez, Spain, she and other lawyers and social workers hope to provide them with efficient educational, legal, and cultural support.
“These refugees are doctors, engineers, and lawyers who can’t flourish in their country because of the war. I want to provide them with services so they can develop little by little without fear and oppression,” she said.
As a faithful Muslim woman, Sabah believes Allah put her in a perfect situation – as a Sahrawi refugee raised by a Spanish foster family – to advocate for Sahrawis and other refugees arriving in Spain. Her faith motivates her because she believes she will be compensated in the afterlife for doing good to others. The majority of these refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers are coming from non-Christian backgrounds.
AIM is partnering with local churches, such as Adulama Missionary Church, who are welcoming the African Diaspora to find a new life in the community of Christ. This summer, I joined a team of AIM missionaries and members from international churches to listen, learn from, and share the gospel with African refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers throughout Spain and Malta.
When I met Sabah, she radiated a deep love for her people and understanding of her responsibility as a Muslim woman to provide legal assistance to refugees in Spain. When she talked about her dual cultural identity as a Sahrawi refugee finding a home through the love and support of a Spanish foster family, the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 came to mind. The father saw the son from a distance, had compassion on him, embraced him, and kissed him, preparing a banquet feast in celebration of his arrival. In the comforting atmosphere of Sabah’s home, while drinking traditional Sahrawi tea, I shared the parable with her, and discussed Scripture that deepened our conversation and friendship. She taught me the intentionality of God and how he uses national and cultural identity, life circumstances, and relationships for his good eternal purposes. And I hope she learned from me about Christ’s invitation to receive the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus, the host of the eternal banquet feast.
When I think of the African Diaspora, I picture Sabah and others from African nations, fleeing war, corrupt systems, and broken families. They are searching for a new land to call home and, ultimately, for a Heavenly Father to welcome them into his kingdom. As a person of peace – someone who is open to exploring the gospel – Sabah is surrounded by Christ followers and continues to ask questions about the Christian faith. “When you have something, you have to share,” she says. “You have to know how to give, to later be able to receive.”