Meryem signing DRC’s agreement to receive a grant for her business in Dahkla refugee camp. Photo by: Mari Paz Ortega

Sahara’s forgotten refugees

A 28-year-old woman, born and raised in the Dakhla refugee camp, is seeking to re-define her identity and create a better life for her and her family. With help from the Danish Refugee Council, she is now an entrepreneur with a festive idea.


Meryem is confident about the future success of her project in spite of her young age.

The 28-year-old was born and raised in the refugee camp of Dakhla; one of the five official Sahrawi refugee camps. The Sahrawi community is facing their 41st year of displacement in the Tindouf province in Western Algeria, since fleeing the Western Sahara War in 1975.

“You grow up quite confused about how you define your identity. It is also sad in some way to be dependent on assistance all the time,” Meryem says.  The Algerian Government estimates around 165,000 refugees live in the five camps and most of them depend on humanitarian assistance to survive.

Meryem attended a course in Dakhla offered by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), and presented a business proposal that was granted funding. She wants to establish a business, which rents out equipped “jaimas” – a traditional tent used for events.

Attention and funding are declining

Although the international community put the Sahrawi situation at “most severe”, attention and funding for the Sahrawis are declining in favour of other large-scale humanitarian emergencies. In addition to the diminishing support, the harsh desert environment paired with a camp-based economy with very limited opportunities for economic self-reliance is putting the Sahrawis in an even more vulnerable situation.

Back in October 2015, the floods in Dahkla camp destroyed Meryem’s clay house. “My brothers had to raise money to help us rebuild our home,” she says as her husband, a graduate in economics, is unemployed.

In one of the most protracted displacement situations globally, without any realistic short or mid-term perspective of a durable solution, the lack of livelihood opportunities in the camps has become a potential feeding ground for social tensions and, in worst case, radicalization.

“I studied for five years in Libya and completed my high school diploma in Algeria,” says the Sahrawi woman, who, despite the difficult situation in the camp, has returned. “I wanted to come back to the Dakhla camp; this is where my family is.”

The limited job opportunities, few business-start-up loans, and almost non-existenting livelihoods and social opportunities in the camps have led to increasing frustrations and potential tensions within the Sahrawi youth. DRC and the Sahrawi Ministry of Youth have provided trainings in business management and employability skills targeting the 429 youths in the five camps with funding from ECHO and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Grants will generate opportunities and hope

Meryem is excited to see her project implemented on the ground, and plans to divide the tent into two parts: one side for food preparation, equipped with a kitchenette, and another that has tables and sofas to host guests. “I will make the tent available for weddings and baptisms, it will be the first business of this kind in Dakhla,” says Meryem.

With an initial investment of EUR 1,000 – one of the micro grants offered by DRC - she expects to purchase all the initial equipment, and to reinvest in renovating the furniture and the tent once she starts making profit.

DRC is distributing 53 grants to start up or expand micro, small or medium enterprises (MSMEs) in the five camps, and thereby providing income-generating opportunities and hope for the camps’ youth.

The project aims at harnessing the full potential of the Sahrawi refugee youth ensuring a more dignified and worthy life for the Sahrawi community.

Since April 2016, the DRC Algeria team has sought to implement relevant, coordinated and effective livelihood support to the Sahrawi youth. DRC is providing the youth with training in employability, business management and business development. Further, DRC is distributing small grants to start up or expand micro, small or medium enterprises (MSMEs).