In October, two Luther students seeking a solution to a decades-old conflict traveled to New York City to petition the United Nations. Bound by a shared purpose and a strong friendship, sophomores Rabab Mohamed Nafe and Sofia Martinez Cruz challenged the UN to let the people of Western Sahara vote on a referendum that would allow them self-governance in their own independent country.
In 1975, Western Sahara sought independence from its colonizer, Spain. Spain relinquished administrative control of the country to Mauritania and Morocco, and war broke out between those countries and a Sahrawi nationalist movement. The Sahrawi Polisario Front fended off Mauritania, but Morocco kept a stranglehold on the country, eventually building the world’s second-longest wall to divide the north of Western Sahara from the south. The situation has resulted in hundreds of thousands of displaced people, rampant human rights abuses, and decades-old refugee camps. The UN promised in 1991 to broker a referendum allowing people of Western Sahara to vote on independence, but the referendum has stalled for the past 28 years.
Nafe grew up in a refugee camp in Algeria alongside 165,000 fellow Sahrawis. She lived with rationed food and water, she says, in “a sea of fabric tents. . . . Being a refugee means never having a normal life. It means that the universal declaration of human rights doesn’t apply to you.”
In her address to the UN, Nafe talked about taking a geopolitical course: “We learned the history of colonization. We visited the International Court of Justice. And we discussed human rights. It was a parallel universe” to her childhood. She didn’t mince words when she admonished the committee, saying, “My home is under colonial rule. My people have no justice. Put simply, no Sahrawi children are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and everyone here in this room today know this.”
She continued, “My people had faith in the power of the United Nations. We had hope. I was born during the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism. We are now at the end of the third decade. Should we still have hope in you? Every year, students like me address the Fourth Committee. We stand here and tell you of our suffering. We remind you of the human rights abuses. And we beg you to listen. How many more Sahrawis will have to stand here?”
But it wasn’t just Sahrawi people who petitioned in October on this issue. Cruz, an international studies major from El Salvador, became good friends with Nafe their first year at Luther. They bonded over similarities and a shared language (living in a former Spanish colony, Nafe grew up speaking Spanish, her second language). And when Cruz hit a rough patch her first year at college, she says, “Rabab was there all the time, supporting me. That’s how I got to know her better and got to know about Western Sahara.”
Last summer, when Cruz returned home to El Salvador, her personal stake in the situation grew when she heard her new president, Nayib Bukele, announce their country’s decision to no longer recognize Western Sahara as a nation. The following day, newspapers reported that this decision coincided with El Salvador receiving lots of Moroccan economic investment.
“That was the moment that pushed me to start doing some research,” Cruz says. “I even talked to Rabab that day and apologized because I voted for him. I knew I also had responsibility in this issue because he is representing me.”
In petitioning the UN, Cruz wanted not only to support her dear friend but also, she says, to confront her president and raise awareness. She’s hopeful that she’s had some impact here. After posting the video of her speech on social media, she noticed that it got some traction, with people tagging her president, himself an active user of social media.
“A lot of people from El Salvador listened to my speech and did research on Western Sahara,” she says. “Now there are more people who know about it and the human rights violations, and they can make their conclusions.”