Cubarawi – (coo-ba- ra-wee) n. A person of Saharawi birth who has spent at least five years studying in Cuba, and thus currently displays a mix of the two lifestyles and is fluent in both Spanish and Hassaniya.
You won t find this definition in Webster s Dictionary, World Book Encyclopedia, or even Wikipedia. It is not a recognized word in any language, but it is an expression with considerable meaning for hundreds of Saharawi refugees here in the camps outside of Tindouf, Algeria. A Cubarawi is a very real phenomenon, and it is yet another aspect of the Western Saharan conflict that is horribly mis- or underreported by international media outlets.
A Cubarawi, by definition, has spent anywhere from four to sixteen years – oftentimes uninterrupted – studying in a Cuban secondary school and/or university. Usually, he or she left the Saharawi refugee camps or the Occupied Territories (the part of the Western Sahara currently under the control of the Kingdom of Morocco) at a young age, because there are many more educational opportunities in the cities of Cuba than in the sands of the Saharan Desert.
Cubarawis eventually leave the Republic of Cuba and return to the refugee camps with degrees in general medicine, nursing, mechanical engineering, law, literature, English language, and a plethora of other areas of study.
"Be careful with that!" shouts Mansoor in his Cuban-accented Spanish as Yalul (an electrical engineer) rolls up his friend s law school diploma. Cubarawis are understandably proud of their long, arduous studies on the Island of Youth.
Pointing the finger
The existence of Cubarawis has unfortunately provided the Kingdom of Morocco with yet another unfounded basis for international propaganda in its attempt to sell the Polisario Front as a brutal, controlling regime that abuses the Saharawi people.
"Within the framework of Cuban/Polisario relations, one of the major aspects of cooperation is the deportation of Sahraoui [sic] children from the Tindouf camps to Cuba primarily to be educated, " claims a 2006 report by the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP). "However, this education cooperation also comes with a very substantial dose of Cuban propaganda."
"Cuban propaganda? Yeah, there was Cuban propaganda. In Cuba, they made us enjoy life and live as we pleased, which is more than we can do here in these camps," said Mafoot, who studied electrical engineering in Cuba for 13 years.
The MACP report goes on to insist that "the children reportedly receive no education in their own language." It is not much of a stretch to imagine that Hassaniya, the language spoken only by Saharawis and Mauritanians, is not a language of educational instruction on the Caribbean island.
Furthermore, the report cites that "the program consists of a half day of class…and a half day of agricultural work in the sugar cane fields to teach the virtues of work. "
"Yes, we worked in the fields in the afternoons, but we didn t mind," admits Aftaim, who studied for 12 years in Cuba and now works as a nurse in the clinic in February 27th camp. "They paid for us to study and live for over a decade, so it wasn t too much to ask us help clear a one-square-meter plot of land once a day."
The MACP document claims that "these young people have been wholly out of touch with both their families and life in the camps for a dozen years or more. Their native language skills have deteriorated and they are unaware of the customs and practices."
The testimony used by MACP to write its report, according to a number of Cubarawis living in the camps, was provided by two Saharawis who were not able to find work in Cuba after completing their studies, but did not want to return to the harsh lifestyle of the refugee camps.
"Some people will do anything for money," says Moustafa, who studied in Cuba for two full decades. "These two found out they could make money off of Morocco by spreading this propaganda about our conditions in Cuba. Life wasn t perfect, but we were not forced to do anything we didn t want to do."
A handful of the points of the report are true, but either blown completely out of proportion or taken completely out of context.
The MACP, a registered agent of the Kingdom of Morocco operating in Washington, claims that the Polisario leadership forcefully separates children from their families in an attempt to indoctrinate them with Cuban ideology. It does not, however, point a finger at Morocco for preventing the holding of a UN-recognized, democratic referendum on the political future of the Western Sahara, thus forcing the Saharawis to live in refugee camps in the Sahara Desert in conditions that any human being in his right mind would want to escape.
Notably, almost all of the Cubarawi students return to the camps because of their undying support of the movement for the liberation of their homeland.
La vida bonita
So, what is the general consensus of the Cubarawis who have returned to the refugee camps about their supposedly forced stays of educational indoctrination?
"I loved it!" shouts Aftaim with a smile. "I loved the people, the beaches, the lifestyle, and especially my studies. We got a taste of the world outside of this hell we re forced to live in by the Moroccans."
"The people there were wonderful, and they treated us with kindness and respect," insists Badr, who returned to the camps in 2004 and helped found the Brigada Sumud volunteer youth organization.
Of the 11 Cubarawis interviewed before the writing of this article, everyone single on of them looked back with fondness on their lives in Cuba, and above all, the Cuban people.
A difficult transition
The MACP is right to conclude that the children and young adults live outside of their own culture for over a decade, and thus suffer from a certain degree of cultural disconnect when they return.
"Of course it was a difficult transition," says Badr. "We have no independence here. We were used to living on our own, and here, everyone wants to know everything about you. They re always asking where you re going and where you ve been. I m still not used to that."
"I ve never made tea," confesses another Cubarawi, who asks not to be named because of the sensitivity of such a statement.
Above all, after over a decade in a Spanish-speaking country, some Cubarawis have considerable problems with the Hassaniya language when they return. But after a few months, the Saharawis eventually recover most, if not all of their native tongue.
"It was definitely difficult to come back," confesses Saleh, a Cubarawi after 12 years in the Republic of Cuba. "There are still some words in Hassaniya that I don t know, and people look at me funny when I can t think of them."
"But you know what I really miss?" he continues, with a playful grin. "Walking around my apartment in my underwear. There s no privacy here. I just can t do it."
Having left the camps at an early age, the Cubarawis picked up not only some Cuban customs, but also the Caribbean mindset. Because of this interesting mix of cultures, they understandably connect best with each other.
"We don t only hang out with each other, but when we re together, people think we re the best of friends," says Salama, who studied English in Cuba.
"Sometimes Arab people are too concerned with money and planning for the future," offers Mafoot. "The Cuban people are very happy people, because they live in the now. It is hard to live in the now when our whole existence is based on the future of our country."
When life back in the camps gets too burdensome for these young people accustomed to the freedom of Cuba, they know that they can always meet up to speak in Hassaniy-ish (a mix of Hassaniya and Spanish), play cards, and talk about the good old days.
"No matter how frustrated I get here," says Badr, "I know I can always go meet up with my friends who have the same mindset as me."
All dressed up but no place to go
Perhaps the most abrasive aspect of the return to the camps is the lack of comparable opportunities that the Saharawis witnessed in Cuba.
"It s tough here, because in Cuba, we saw how people would get their degree and then be able to get a job that they could use their skills in," says Saleh. "Here, a lot of people struggle to find work related to their expertise."
Once back in the camps, the Cubarawis do what they can to find ways to utilize their expertise and contribute to improving the lives of their fellow Saharawis.
Aftaim is a nurse. Salama is an English teacher. Mehedi is a computer technician. Mafoot works in the Ministry of the Rehabilitation of the Liberated Zones. Saleh has opened a small group of stores based on an alternative economic system.
Still, there is a noticeable sense of anxiety when you talk to a Cubarawi – they are used to being surrounded by activity and opportunity, and here outside of Tindouf, there is little.
"We find work where we can," offers Jalul, who studied engineering, "but sometimes it s not stuff that you studied."
A rose by any other name
Thus, the Cubarawi is a very real phenomenon here in the Saharawi refugee camps. Despite having spent half of their lives on the Island of Youth, however, there is no doubt in the minds of the Cubarawis who they really are.
"Of course we made tea in Cuba!" shouts Moustafa. "I was born a Saharawi, and I ll die a Saharawi!"
Still, as a group of four Cubarawis cruise towards the sunset in a Land Rover blasting music and waving and shouting to all passers-by, it is clear that these Saharawi students have brought back a little Caribbean flavor to the refugee camps.