country? Where it is?’ Then you end up, instead of talking about yourself, you are talking about the history, the background, the geography … you are suddenly in a conflict area.”
So it’s probably best to get the basics down first: Saleh is a prominent Western Sahara human rights advocate, in Australia to talk about the plight of her country, located on the north-western corner of Africa, bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria.
She was born in a Saharawi refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria, where her family has lived for more than 40 years, and where her parents met.
They both fled there after Spain, which colonised the country in the 19th century, pulled out of it in 1975. A civil war ensued and Morocco has partially occupied the territory since. It has split the country down the middle with an armed and mined 2700-kilometre “berm”, a wall the likes of which Donald Trump can only dream.
According to human rights organisations including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, the Moroccan government has committed human rights abuses against the Western Sahara people, punishing dissidents. It exploits the region’s natural resources of phosphate and fish.
It’s a natural duty which comes to you. You don’t sign up for it.
Tecber Ahmed Saleh
Despite both sides of the conflict agreeing in 1991 to a referendum on self-determination as part of a brokered ceasefire, it hasn’t happened.
No foreign media is allowed into the area and displaced Saharawi like Saleh – who lives among the 170,000-strong diaspora in the Algerian camps – cannot visit it.
Which puts Saleh in the cruel position of advocating for a homeland she has never seen.
“It’s a natural duty which comes to you,” she says. “You don’t sign up for it.”
Saleh meets me for lunch at Fenwick restaurant on the harbour in East Balmain – close to the home of her Australian host, Lindsay Osborne of Australia Western Sahara Association.
It is the kind of glorious spring day only Sydney can produce. Sunshine glints off the harbour, of which we have sweeping views from our upstairs table. Ferries chug past, cheerful.
We arrive early and order freshly baked herb bread to snack on while we wait for our mains.
As it turns out, I do most of the eating, while Saleh talks. She is funny, voluble and self-deprecating. She has an easy smile and wears traditional Saharawi dress, a colourful flowing garment with a loose head-scarf, or mefhla.
Saleh’s life experience is about as removed from my own as I can imagine, especially from our present post – the best table at an elegant harbourside restaurant.
At the risk of sounding deeply stupid, I ask her what it was like to grow up in a refugee camp.
Saleh graciously explains that the Tindouf camps, while basic and dependent on humanitarian aid, are long-established and well-organised. They are essentially self-governed by the Western Saharawi refugee population, overseen by the independence movement, the Polisario Front. The camps are the seat of the Western Saharawi government in exile – Saleh herself works for the Ministry of Health.
“It was so well organised that in my childhood, when I was growing up, I didn’t actually know I was in a refugee camp,” Saleh says.
“This is my home and this is my family. You don’t have that comparison with the world. When you look at your neighbours everybody is the same. Everybody is living the same lives. We are playing in the sand, making dolls out of you know … sheep bones. But we were happy, we were very happy.”
Saleh was eight before she realised her life was deprived in any way. She was selected by a Spanish NGO to go on what was called a “vacation in peace”, where children were offered the opportunity to escape the 50-degree temperatures of the camps and have a summer holiday with a host family in Spain.
Saleh spent two months with a Spanish family in Alicante. They had a pool and they lived by the ocean, which she had never seen before.
“Suddenly I was introduced to another culture, that taught me that my situation is different and not like the rest of the world,” she says.
At home she shared a tent with her parents, her grandfather and grandmother, and four of her seven siblings.
“Suddenly, I am in another family, totally different. I have my own room, my own bed, my own toys which I have never seen before,” she says. “Then I start questioning why are we different?”
Once home, she battered her parents with questions.
“My mum, she got tired of me, but my dad was really patient so he answered,” she says.
“I came back, I started pushing my dad – ‘Why aren’t we like people in Spain?’”
Saleh’s father explained how their homeland was once a Spanish colony and how the civil war forced them to leave it.
“He was telling me I also had a beautiful home in Western Sahara, in Laayoune, the capital. I was telling him, ‘They have the ocean’, and he said ‘We had everything they have but it was taken from us because of the Moroccans and the fighting’.
“Since then I felt like I am responsible for that fight also.”
Saleh’s horizons were further broadened when she was sent away to boarding school in Algeria, a necessity as there were no high schools in the camps.
Boarding school was fun. It also taught her independence and mental toughness.
“There is nobody to provide for you so you have to provide for yourself,” she says.
Our food arrives. Mine is a fish stew with fregola, cherry tomatoes, olives and capers. Saleh has ordered the lamb rump cordon bleu, which comes with covetably golden French fries. We both drink water.
Saleh was clever. After finishing high school she won a coveted scholarship to a college in Norway run by United World Colleges. When she arrived it was summer, but she was freezing, because it was only 18 or 20 degrees and she was used to temperatures double that.
“I was like, with jacket, with boots, with sweater,” she laughs.
“The lady hosting me asked me if I wanted ice cream, I said, ‘No, it’s too cold, I want hot chocolate’.”
I was amazed by the green, by the rain. I was amazed by everything.
Tecber Ahmed Saleh
Once her basal temperature adjusted, Saleh fell deeply in love with Norway. It was a sensory overload of lushness.
“When you come from the desert and everything is brown, and suddenly, everything is green, water everywhere, so much water!” she cries.
“I was amazed by the green, by the rain. I was amazed by everything … and then the winter comes and everything is white.”
Saleh learned to ski. She also learned, at college, that she was not alone in her experience of displacement. Her classmates came from developing countries all over the world. She met Tibetans and Palestinians, and absorbed a feeling of solidarity, but also tolerance.
“It’s opened my perspective about the world. We are not alone,” she says.
After college, Saleh studied biology at Westminster College in Missouri and later completed a Masters degree in Clinical Laboratory Science at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.
She wanted to study medicine but was entirely dependent on what scholarships were available to her.
She has put her research skills to work for her people. Medical facilities in the Tindouf camps are basic, and there has been no long-term data collection or public health policy.
She has led research into the effects of the high iodine content of the camps’ water supply, which causes thyroid problems in its residents. She has researched how the “refugee diet” – high in carbohydrate staples like couscous and flat bread, supplemented by camel meat and scant fresh fruit and vegetables – affects health long-term. She has also set up a cancer register. Cancer in the camps’ residents is often not picked up until it is too late, and patients must be sent to Algerian towns for treatment.
Saleh is able to travel – she regularly visits Spain and she recently took a holiday with another single girlfriend to Venice (much to her mother’s chagrin, who wants her to hurry up and marry).
I ask if she has ever been tempted to claim asylum or emigrate to another country? She responds with a firm no.
“I just think that through my education and experience, I like to believe in my way I am giving back to my community,” she says.
“Not in a big way. In a small way.”
There are an unprecedented 70.8 million people currently displaced across the globe.
Saleh daintily cuts her lamb. I don’t want my fish stew to end, so I mop up the last of the sauce with the last of the herb bread.
There are an unprecedented 70.8 million people currently displaced across the globe, due to conflict or persecution. I ask Saleh how it feels to be a refugee and what that means to her, particularly in a global climate that seems increasingly hostile to them.
“I think the world is more tough on us as a group of people,” she says. “You are brought up in a situation you didn’t choose and you have to face the consequences in every step of your life.”
Saleh orders an almond crème brûlée with blood orange for her dessert. It arrives looking beautiful, the blood orange slices laid on it like jewels.
I order a cappuccino, but gaze so longingly at the brulee that Tecber insists I have a spoonful. It is a perfect balance between tart and creamy flavours.
Saleh will be in Australia and New Zealand for several weeks, giving talks and doing media interviews.
“Building awareness is the best thing I can do. So maybe next time I come to Australia nobody will get shocked and say, ‘Where is Western Sahara?” Saleh laughs.
After lunch we call Saleh’s Sydney hostess to come pick her up. As we wait, we idle outside in the sunshine, looking out over the brilliant water.
When she was a child, Saleh’s father told her about their family home, back in Laayoune. It was so close to the ocean, he said, that sometimes the waves touched its walls.
“That’s the only picture I have,” she says. “My house next to the beach.”
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards