Najla Mohamed-Lamin grew up in a refugee camp believing the world ended where the horizon met the Sahara Desert.
“When I was a kid, I thought [the camp] was the world. I didn’t think there was something outside of that,” Mohamed-Lamin, now 28 years old, said.
Mohamed-Lamin now finds herself in Bellingham attending Whatcom Community College. She left the refugee camp she grew up in near Tindouf, Algeria for the U.S. a year ago, after a local family offered to host her.
Mohamed-Lamin describes most of her childhood in the camps as happy, but she sensed she wasn’t where she belonged.
“I grew up hearing my grandmother praying everyday: ‘Please God, return me to my homeland. I want to die there. I want to be there.’ But I didn’t really fully understand,” Mohamed-Lamin said.
Her grandparents died in the refugee camp and are buried there.
Mohamed-Lamin’s first memory of seeing the world outside the camps was around the age of nine. She traveled with a program that took her to Spain, Western Sahara’s former colonizer.
“We have water crises and don’t have enough water to drink, and they’re swimming in water,” she said, remembering her shock upon seeing swimming pools.
That trip drove Mohamed-Lamin to begin realizing the injustice of her situation, pushing her to become politically involved.
“You start to question: Why am I here? Why do I live this life? Why do I live in a tent but not in a house? Why don’t I have the things other kids have?” Mohamed-Lamin said.
Mohamed-Lamin’s grandparents and mother were among the Sahrawi people who fled to Algeria after Morocco claimed a majority of Western Sahara in 1975 – the beginning of the 41-year-old conflict.
The United Nations estimates there are 165,000 Sahrawi refugees in the Algerian camps due to the Western Sahara territorial conflict with Morocco.
“In the middle of nowhere there were airplanes bombing them,” Mohamed-Lamin said. “Some people forgot their babies, some people forgot everything they owned and they just got away.”
Despite U.N. calls for a solution, the status of the Sahrawi refugees remains unchanged.
“Everyone felt this was temporary. Everyone thought this was for a week, for a month, for one year. Nobody imagined it was going to be for 41 years,” Mohamed-Lamin said.
Mohamed-Lamin has pursued education, even when there weren’t many opportunities, and sees this as key to helping her people. She learned English through a school in the camps, organized by Not Forgotten International, a Wisconsin-based Christian organization.
After completing the school’s curriculum and an online GED program, she had exhausted her local educational opportunities.
“I grew up where possibilities are not there. Even if you starve [for] them, if you want them, they’re not there,” Mohamed-Lamin said. “Eight years back, going to university somewhere out of the camps was like going to the moon because it was so impossible and now I’m doing it.”
Mohamed-Lamin’s journey to the U.S. involved support from friends, one of whom was Rebecca Roberts-Wolfe.
Roberts-Wolfe learned about the Western Sahara conflict while studying in Senegal in 2008.
“Everyone expressed to me their desire to have their story told, especially in the States,” Roberts-Wolfe said. “At the time I had never heard of [the conflict] and I knew Americans had probably never heard of it.”
“You start to question: Why am I here? Why do I live this life? Why do I live in a tent but not in a house? Why don’t I have the things other kids have?”
Roberts-Wolfe was inspired to work on a documentary about Sahrawi women. Mohamed-Lamin was originally just a translator on the project, but Roberts-Wolfe decided to make her one of the stars.
Roberts-Wolfe had intended for the documentary to be feature-length. However, when she heard of Mohamed-Lamin’s desire to attend university abroad, she set the project aside to help her fundraise.
“I am much more excited about the prospect of what she will come up with in terms of working for her people in the future, than what I will come up with by making this documentary,” Roberts-Wolfe said.
Joey Huddleston was another of Mohamed-Lamin’s friends instrumental in her journey to the States. He had met her on his first trip to the camps in 2008 as a volunteer in the camp’s English school.
On a second visit years later, Mohamed-Lamin told him she wanted to attend university in the U.S.
“It’s really hard for Sahrawis to leave those camps and further their education the way she is doing. It’s next to impossible,” Huddleston said.
However, Huddleston saw Mohamed-Lamin’s determination.
“She really went down the list and started checking boxes,” Huddleston said. “You just can’t see someone who’s that serious about it and not try to work behind the scenes to help them in that way.”
Huddleston’s sister, Western alumna Corrie Hodge, offered to host Mohamed-Lamin in her Bellingham home.
Funding can be a major barrier for those making the journey. Kelly Kester, director for international programs at Whatcom Community College, said students seeking a visa must demonstrate adequate funding, around $19,000 at Whatcom and $26,000 or more at Western.
A three-year process of paperwork and fundraising ensued. Mohamed-Lamin was warned that in the end, she might be denied a student visa, but she remained determined.
Eventually, she had the funds and a student visa to come to Bellingham in March 2016.
“It was very surprising that she received a visa; thousands of applicants are rejected daily for visas to the U.S.,” Kester said over email.
Obtaining a visa is often difficult for students like Najla who are seen as at risk of staying in the country after their studies, Kester said.
Mohamed-Lamin’s host family has welcomed her. Together they fasted for Ramadan and celebrated Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday. At the Womxn’s March in Bellingham Jan. 21, the young girls from Mohamed-Lamin’s host family wore headscarves in solidarity with her.
While in the U.S., Mohamed-Lamin hopes to study sustainable energy or environmental science at a university. Depending on financial assistance, she’s considering transferring to Western.
After graduating, she will return to the camps to apply her studies to improving the lives of her people, with hopes for a solution to the conflict.
Mohamed-Lamin would like to help other Sahrawi women attend university in the U.S. through connections she has made. She also wants to create a library as a resource for women and children in the camps.
“[I want to] give people, especially women, opportunities where they could feel fulfilled and feel like they are able to do something because there are not a lot of those opportunities there,” Mohamed-Lamin said.