By Roy Fuller
The photo is like so many taken; an overview of a city from a vantage point on a hill at the edge of town. The city in this case is Oujda, Morocco. Located in the far east of the country, Oujda is far removed from the well-worn tourist destinations of Fes and Marrakesh. Members from Highland Baptist Church in Louisville had made this journey as a part of our partnership with the Protestant Church of Morocco and their work with migrants in Morocco. We wanted to see the place where many migrants and refugees enter Morocco with hopes of perhaps eventually making it into Europe and the promise of improved opportunities.
Oujda’s significance lies in its location, just a few kilometers from the border with Algeria, a border which has been officially closed for 17 years. As is often the case with closed borders, there is some traffic which crosses. In Oujda, human trafficking is the primary cargo which crosses this desolate border between Algeria and Morocco. Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees who are fleeing their homelands due to political or religious persecutions; because they belonged to the wrong political party or were perceived to be on the wrong side following a political transition; persons escaping war-torn countries like the Congo, where an estimated 5 million persons have died since 1996 in a series of wars and conflicts; persons whose desperate economic circumstances drive them forward in hopes of providing for themselves, their families, or in some cases, whole villages; launch out on extremely dangerous journeys and wind up passing through Algeria.
In Algeria, they are often taken advantage of by the military and “mafias” who play upon the lack of options and vulnerable situation such migrants and refugees find themselves in. Very often official papers (passports and other documentation) are taken and destroyed, so that when persons finally arrive in Oujda, they have no official identification and little means to prove who they are and where they come from. For those who are successful in making it to Oujda (some die along the way crossing the Sahara Desert or at the hands of smugglers), their troubles continue. With no public resources available for the tremendous needs of this population, a few NGO’s (non-government organizations) and churches have taken up the cause and the plight of this unwanted and unwelcome group of refugees. They need everything, housing, clothing, food, and medical attention. They cannot work legally in Morocco, nor do they wish to stay in Morocco. They are “in-between” or “in transit” as they say. Most cannot go home, and they find it practically impossible to go forward. Forward in their case would be Europe, where they hope to secure employment and a better life for themselves and those who may be depending on them. “Connection money” – money paid to smugglers to take them to Spain in rafts and boats can run as high as 2000 Euros, a sum which is astronomically high for refugees who have lost everything on this journey. The last leg of the journey for those few who make it to Europe is to cross from Africa to Spain. One can read regular reports of drowning by those who did not make it because their overloaded boats capsized.
What the picture above does not show is that directly behind the spot where this photo was taken are the camps of these refugees. “Camps” is being generous in many ways. Sticks and pieces of plastic out of which crude shelters are made. Cooking is done over open fires with water hauled in from wherever it may be found. The groups are organized by country of origin. The photo was taken from the Ghana camp. The 30 plus mostly young men we saw had that look of desperation and hunger found among those who have sacrificed much to arrive where they are, yet are still a long way from where they hope to be. You may be asking why I did not take a photo of the camp or some of the refugees whose stories we heard. The beauty of the forest in which the refugees live hides an ugly reality. The reason I did not photograph the refugees is because these people have been used and abused, in predictable ways of course, but also by journalists and others. They are very skittish, pessimistic, and even somewhat hostile towards outsiders and who could blame them. They are “the least of these” – at least in that place, and they feel alone. A very transient population of approximately 700 lives in such conditions. One of our purposes for our visit was to convey to those who would listen that they were not alone, that the Protestant Church of Morocco cares about their plight, and that by partnering with Christians in Morocco, we would not only support direct aid efforts but would let others outside Morocco know of their plight.
There is more to say about this situation, and while I would wish to have shown pictures of the refugees of Oujda and how they live, my description will have to suffice. That is what the picture doesn’t show.
- Roy Fuller, a member of Highland Baptist in Louisville, traveled with two others from Highland to Morocco in July of 2011.