Runners raise US$22,500 for refugees in Sahara Marathon

News Stories, 4 March 2008

© UNO-Flüchtlingshilfe/D.Kappe
And They're Off: Competitors taking part in the 8th Sahara Marathon.

SMARA, Algeria, March 5 (UNHCR) Hundreds of runners taking part in this year's Sahara Marathon have donated US$22,500 to construct a sports centre for Sahrawi refugees in southern Algeria.

Some 400 people, including refugees and runners from almost 20 countries, took part in the February 25 event, which included a full marathon as well as shorter races for adults and children. It was held in and around Smara, one of five camps near the border with West Sahara that hold some 200,000 Sahrawis.

This eighth version of the marathon is organized by international volunteers to show support for the Sahrawis, who fled Western Sahara in 1975 during a conflict over the right to govern the territory when Spain withdrew from the region. UNHCR supports some 90,000 of the most vulnerable refugees.

"It is quite unbelievable how much enthusiasm the Sahrawis have for the marathon," said Dietmar Kappe of UNO-Flüchtlingshilfe (UN Refugee Aid Germany), which has helped promote the marathon and UNHCR's work with the Sahrawis. "The event gives encouragement to the people and a little joy."

The money raised will also enable construction of a sports complex at Smara, adding a new dimension to the lives of the Sahrawis, especially the young. It comes at a time when UNHCR is trying to bring education and sports to all refugee children through its ninemillion.org campaign.

Nikola Mihajlovic, head of the UNHCR office in the nearby town of Tindouf, thanked all those who had helped organize the annual event and the foreigners who took part in the races. "Thanks for visiting us and the Sahrawis and participating in the race and giving the friendly people, who have lived here for decades, much-needed hope," he said.

Aside from taking part in the races, the overseas competitors were able to experience some of the hardship that the Sahrawis have to endure every day in camps like Smara, which is home to some 45,000 people.

The temperature soars during the day and gets very cold at night. The provision of basic amenities is very limited and there are only a handful of shops in the camp, selling cheap items and simple food.

Most of the refugees live in tents provided by UNHCR; some have light bulbs powered by car batteries or solar panels forwarded by relatives living in Spain. There is a hairdresser and two almost empty mobile phone stores in Smara.

UNHCR provides non-food relief items to the most vulnerable refugees in the camps and coordinates national and district-level protection networks gathering UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups.

The refugee agency has also organized reunion visits between refugees and their families in Western Sahara as part of a series of confidence-building measures since 2004.

© UNO-Flüchtlingshilfe/D.Kappe
Pit Stop: Much-needed refreshment in the desert.

These also include telephone services between the refugee camps and the Western Sahara territory, which have benefited tens of thousands of refugees and their families since 2004, but their expansion is hampered by a lack of funds.

For the record, the men's marathon was won by Pedro José Hernández Sánchez of Spain in a time of 2 hours, 43 minutes and 25 seconds, while Germany's Madeleine Lorenz led the ladies home in 3:30:24.

By Rouven Brunnert in Smara, Algeria