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Mind the gap or ???? ?????.

Authors: Elena Boukouvala Published:

A trainer's account of what needed to be learned and unlearned, teaching in a Sahara refugee camp.

Mind the gap or ???? ?????. *
-Training on autism in refugee camps in Sahara

* “Mind the gap” in Arabic

“Don’t try to change me to fit your world. Don’t try to confine me to some tiny part of the world you can change to fit me. Grant me the dignity of meeting me on my terms – recognize that we are all equally alien to each other. Question your assumptions. Define your terms. Work with me to build more bridges between us.”

Sinclair J. (1992) Personal Essays in ‘High Functioning Individuals with Autism’

A girl is having an overview of the camps

All photos: Emma Brown


This article explores the complexities of cross cultural adult education during the dramatherapy training on autism in Sahrawi refugee camps. The Sahrawi are refugees from Western Sahara who are being hosted by Algeria since their country was invaded by Morocco.

Looking at the communication with people with autism as the learning of another ‘alien’ language the article reflects on what needed to be learned and unlearned when teaching adults with another language in the context of the camps. I will start by illustrating briefly the history and the context of everyday life in the camps. I will then go through the four days of the training offered in the special school of Bojdou. Using particular incidents as a springboard I will explore the tension between the concepts and the lived experiences of how the body, creativity, ritual and participatory learning were present in the training. I will continue with the voices of the participants and their questions. I will close with reflections and questions drawn from my own experience.

Before starting, I would like to share with you that it has been challenging to write about this topic. It refers to a context that is quite complex politically and socially and for which I might not have adequate information. Being still emotionally affected by the experience, I do not know if it has been possible to take adequate distance to reflect critically on it. Yet my lesson from this training is that you must create with the resources that are available. I hope that this perspective, as limited as it is, will be useful for you and that it will initiate a dialogue between us.

Brief history of the camps

The refugee camps described in this article are located in Algeria close to the military town of Tindouf. They were created in 1975 when residents from Western Sahara fled from their land and into the desert during the war with Morocco. Twenty eight years later the second generation of this initial wave of refugees lives in the camps relying heavily on humanitarian assistance for survival, which has decreased significantly since the financial crisis in Europe. Sahrawi refugees place a strong emphasis on learning. The literacy rate has increased from 5% to 90% since 1995.

The background of the training

I went to the camps with Olive Branch Arts, a British arts company which has been visiting the camps since 2010 creating theatre with the youth and more recently offering drama and movement therapy. During the last visit of Olive Branch in 2012 the special schools of the camps requested a training on autism for their teachers. I was one of the two dramatherapists who delivered the training in two special schools in November 2013. I am Greek, coming from a psychology background and my colleague is British coming from an anthropology background. Much of the discussion articulated here has been stimulated during the dialogue with her as well as my ongoing participation in the international class of the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy.

Dramatherapy: the methodology

According to the British Association of Dramatherapy:

“The aim of dramatherapy lies in the facilitation of creativity, imagination, learning, insight and growth, through the intentional use of healing aspects of drama and theatre as the therapeutic process”.

In my experience, drama can support people to reflect creatively on their inner process whilst taking distance from it. It provides them with the opportunity to experiment through the art form with roles that might not be accessible in their everyday lives. Giving shape to experiences that might resist articulation, it can allow them to communicate what might have been impossible to express otherwise.

The Sesame Approach of Dramatherapy values in particular the use of movement, story and ritual as containers of the therapeutic process. It is client led and based on the trust in the healing resources of the client. In this context attunement into the needs of the client might call for dropping of what has been learned during the training (Smail in Pearson, 1996) and unpacking of preconceptions, interpretations and assumptions which might restrict openness to experience (Hougham, 2007).

Part of the learning during this work was how to unlearn in order to teach, adjusting the method to meet the needs of this specific context. Although we used drama, movement and play in our work with the children, we noticed from the beginning that the participating teachers were unwilling to move. We chose to interweave embodied activities with discussion which took into account the physical experience of the participants. Similarly the concept about the use of ritual and story transformed when confronted with the experience of respecting the use of those in this specific cultural context- the Sahrawi refugee camps.

Cultural context: a glimpse of everyday life in the camps

It’s after midnight when we land in the closest airport to the camps in the military town of Tindouf. A car is driving us through the desert and into the camps passing through a couple of check points. It’s cold and very dark. There are no lights on the road other than the ones of the car. Whilst driving we are accompanied by the Polisario front (the regulatory body of the camps) and the Algerian police. During our stay we have arranged to receive accommodation by a family in the camps. Our host’s house is a patio comprised by a series of huts that surround a little yard covered with sand. The electricity of the house comes from the battery of a car. Our water supply comes out of a plastic tube connected to metallic tanks in the middle of the camps. The food is given by financial aid or bought from a small variety of shops.
We all live in the same room whilst the family hosting us lives in another. The desert surrounds the camps. During the day I can hear children playing with the sand. In the evening the family gathers to share tea and talk whilst some of the children study the Quran.

People walking on the streets of the camps.

Toby Shelley describes the building of the Sahrawi identity in this context of life:

“The heroics are in the mundane, the ability to hang on, resisting frustration, waiting, surviving” (Shelley, 2007:35).

The school of Bojdou

On our first day in Bojdou we are greeted by Decalla, the director who envisioned and created the school in 1994. Nineteen years later the school offers classes for people with mild and moderate disabilities as well as blind people, physiotherapy and workshops on carpentry and sewing. However, given the limitations of the resources, occasionally many of the classes can not operate and the aims of the school become distilled into making sure that the students are safe, fed and clean.

Decalla, the director.

First day: The role of the body

The training that we are going to offer is comprised of participatory observation sessions in the classes during the morning and group work with the teachers in the afternoon. We have seven participants (all female teachers of the school) and a male translator.

On the first day we are starting with playing a few games to facilitate people to concentrate and invite a playful atmosphere in the group. The participants begin to move. They laugh, seemingly excited until one by one they slow down, looking for a place to rest. Some of the women ask to continue the training whilst sat on the floor. The translator explains that it is not usual in their culture for women to move around. As he does that one of the participants zooms out of the room and to the toilet- she has been sick for the last few days.

Sitting down, we are opening up a space to hear about how people perceive their work: the challenges and the joys of it. The main difficulties faced are related to the lack of resources: electricity, stationery, frames for sewing, food whilst one of teachers says that she finds it hard to wake up in the morning. There are also some questions about the pedagogical side of learning and the methodology to support children that insist on repeating specific activities to expand their learning. They enjoy the creative side of working with children, the play, the sports, the knitting and the discussions about the children’s families.  We discuss the use of personal space and invite people to demonstrate physically the boundaries of their own space by extending their arms.

As we discuss, I become more aware of the cultural context of our work. The women are not meant to move around. How easy is it to move under this strong heat covered with multiple layers of cloths? How feasible is it to move or to concentrate when being sick, hungry or experiencing fatigue? What stories are their bodies narrating through these symptoms? How can we listen when we do not know the language?
During my practice as dramatherapist I have been impressed by the use of movement as a bridge for expression and interaction when words are not enough or available. Yet in this context the body seems to acknowledge its presence not only as a means to interact, reflect and process experiences, but as a condition of being human and affected by the environment- the body that is hungry, ill, vulnerable, resilient. Noe talks about the how the body becomes ours as the activity of the world flows through it (Noe, 2009).

I begin to understand that the translation gaps in between us and the participants are not just related to the language we use but also to the lived experience this language refers to. Yet our bodies are still sensitive to the environment and to each other. When we experience translation gaps we laugh and communicate with eye contact and physical expressions. Can our differences initiate dialogues in between us? When we do not know, can we learn from each other?

Reflections after the delivery of the training.

Second day: Creativity

The next morning we start to observe the classes. We are going to the class of moderate learning disabilities. The teacher has been trained in psychology and special needs education, being the only one in the school that has received such specialized training. Her class is filled with children’s drawings, numbers, pictures of handmade clocks and individual folders for each of the children. As I explore the class someone hits my back. I am introduced to Mohamed. He rushes all around the school, preferring to move in straight lines. Sometimes he pushes other children. He enjoys revisiting the same activities and often resists to listen to the instructions of the teacher. Mohamed invites me to play with him with the lego until the end of the class.

The training follows. Most of the teachers move slowly, the heat is strong and the flies noisy. The director is not there because one member of her family is sick, one of the teachers is ill again- she did not manage to come this time. We are starting with the invitation to make a rhythm with our hands. One of the teachers asks: “Can we get straight to the point?” We explain how this ritual can be used to support students (especially when they do not communicate verbally) to share their experiences before the lesson starts.

We then make an introduction into the theory of autism. The discussion shifts into the topic of pedagogy of learning- how can we engage people to learn? The teacher of the blind who is blind herself questions how she can help a student that keeps on revisiting the same sewing activity to expand her interests. We are asking why a child might want to do the same thing again. There is silence in the room. The teacher of the blind breaks it: “Doing the same thing might help her feel confident, maybe that’s why she does not try something new.” A discussion begins about the needs of the children- what is the need behind behaviour that seems challenging?

Teacher supporting students with writing activities (top). Doing maths together with the help of a translator (bottom).

Observing the classes in the morning I have been struck by the creativity in the camps stimulated by the lack of resources. Creativity through this lens is not just a way to process or learn through the art form. It is also distilled as a resource and a necessity in order to survive. It is needed every day to use the means available in order to meet the needs for education, nutrition, health. In this context we invite the teachers to look at the symptoms of the children creatively, as means to meet their needs with the resources they have. We ask them to imagine other ways that those needs can be addressed. (Oakland, 2007)

Third day: Learning how to unlearn- getting to know another language

During the next day at the school I am working with Mohamed. He decides to play with the lego again. Mirroring his movement I am trying to tune into his play and gradually expand it, incorporating different activities in it. The teacher introduces an activity on writing. Mohamed does not want to do that. We make an agreement to play and go back to writing after five minutes, creating a programme together that involves both what he likes and what he needs to do according to the curriculum.  We also participate in the classes of physiotherapy and sewing.

With Mohamed, communicating with gestures.

The group takes the initiative to start our training today making and serving tea. According to the Sahrawi ritual, the tea is served three times: our discussion is interspersed with tea sessions. Today, at the teachers’ request, we are focusing on the challenging behaviour of Mohamed. Using the metaphor of the iceberg we demonstrate how obvious behaviour of people with autism is underlined by needs, emotional states and genetic characteristics. The translator explains the concept of the iceberg describing the image of a frozen water bottle floating in a pot. The group seems to struggle imagine how an iceberg can look like until we find a shared reference: the film of titanic with Leonardo Di Caprio (1997). The iceberg is referred to as an iceberg again.

Discussions are interspersed with tea sessions.

We start enlisting all the behaviours of Mohamed that the teachers find challenging, making assumptions about the needs behind them and thinking about other ways that these needs can be met. When Mohamed pushes other children: does he want to be aggressive and/ or does he want to make contact and get a sense of his physical body? How can Mohamed channel his energy in ways that are more creative and useful than pushing?

Physiotherapy class: trying to walk on a straight line (top). Playing with the parachute in the school yard (bottom).

As we talk there is a sense of not knowing if any of our assumptions about Mohamed are true and yet there is also a sense of deconstructing what was thought to be true. The teachers become more active and the discussion gets heated. There are many different opinions about Mohamed’s needs- his complexity starts getting more acknowledged. The receiving of information becomes questioning. Some of the teachers say that this helps them to understand him better, mentioning specific occasions that they managed to communicate effectively with him.  Does the way we talk about Mohamed connect with the way we look at his behaviour and build our relationship with him?

Lev Vygotsky is a social psychologist who explored the relationship between thoughts and words explaining how thought is restructured as it is transformed into speech- getting completed in the word (Vygotsky, 1962). Can the different words relate to a change in thoughts and bring transformation in relationships?

Marian Lindkvist, the founder of Sesame, explored the relationship between movements and inner experiences, devising a method called Movement with Touch (Lindkvist, 1998). According to this the therapist mirrors the movement of the client initiating a dialogue without words which gradually can stimulate the client’s response, supporting social interaction and the expansion of his range of movement and experience. Can the expansion of movement relate to a change of experience and bring transformation in relationships?

Can words and movements be used as resources to create other than solid reference points to hold on to? What kind of adult education emerges from this practice of shared creativity?

Fourth day: Participatory learning- creating a shared language?

It’s our last day in the school. Today we are introducing a ritual inviting the students to write their names on name cards and stick them on the wall knowing that they will take them back at the end of the day. Our aim is to acknowledge their individual presence in the group and share with the teachers a simple and sustainable method to mark the beginning and the ending of the day. The children start making their own cards. Mohamed wants to play with the lego. Whilst playing with it he makes a card with his name. He sticks it on his lego house. The circle opens to include his lego house.  Looking at the other children, he stands up and sticks his card on the wall.

Supporting children in writing.

The last day of the training starts with the making of tea. We invite people to create a rhythm, passing around a bottle which we have filled with sand, stones from the desert and coloured paper from the UK. We are sharing ideas about how rubbish of the camps can be used to make instruments.

Teachers use the bottle filled with sand to create rhythms (top). Interacting with children (bottom).

We introduce the PECS system which involves a series of pictures of different activities used in a routine of a child, like toilet, food, drawing (Frith, 2003). They are shown to the child to communicate what activity follows, to offer him the opportunity to choose between activities or to structure the day. Doing that we also acknowledge that the pictures are very culturally specific and they can provide stimulation to create other pictures tailored for their culture. We talk about how the pictures can be drawn with the children.

In the last few minutes we invite the participants to write questions about their practice which will travel to the UK to be read and responded by professionals who are working there with children with special needs.

I am sharing with you here some of the teachers’ contributions from both schools:

“I have problem with the printer and the ink which would help with the administrative side (of the school)” Sofia
“Are there any different activities that can be practiced at the sewing workshop?” Fatimatu
“How can we deal with aggressive children in case of crisis?” Egbeila
“I have difficulty to deal with children in my class because of the different age (12-20) and different level of ability. We want from you to offer a critique for our work” Ment Elkhair
“What can you help us with?” Bedid

During the last day of the training a dialogue seems to develop between the UK and Sahrawi culture. The ritual of the tea co-exists with the ritual of the movement. The PECS pictures are culturally specific to UK and yet they appear to stimulate discussion about the creation of other pictures tailored to the needs of the schools in this context. This exchange seems to be more challenging when it translates to the reality of having a dialogue in between practitioners based in these two countries. How easy is it for Sahrawi people to personally connect with the residents of the UK when an air ticket to London can cost for them more than a year’s salary? How easy is it for UK residents to imagine how it can be to live in the camps without running water and with food provided by aid? Maybe in this difficulty to understand lies the potential of education to create dialogues between different cultures and perhaps the limitations of it to bring on its own social change.


I went to Sahara loaded with resources and assumptions. I had the opportunity to live in the camps for seventeen days and I wonder still about how it might have been for some people to experience these living conditions for twenty seven years. Part of the work has been to unpack assumptions about how the use of body, the creativity, the participatory learning looks like and relate to what was emerging in the context of the group, the school, the camps, the desert.

I learned that the body is a means to reflect creatively and that it also has needs for health, nutrition and safety which become particularly important when they are not being met. Creativity can be used to process experiences and sometimes it also needs to be used as a means to survive. Participatory learning can be empowering for the students and it can be the only option when the cultures of the teachers and the students are different. I have learned that there is a gap between concepts and lived experiences and that often the way to “mind the gap” is to ask for explanations. When we teach in cross-cultural contexts, how do we translate what we know in a ‘language’ that we do not speak? What do we need to learn from our students in order to teach them? Is the content of our work the process itself?

Vygotsky said that the activity that responds to the historical needs of the era we live in is revolutionary, looking at method as “the tool and the result of the study” (Vygotsky, 1978). Seen through this lens, the content of group facilitation emerges from the process of the group which is closely related to the context people are located and “the needs of the era” they live in.

Drawing creatively from Vygotsky’s work, Holzman looks at groups as developmental environments saying that “growth comes from participating in the process of building the groups in which one functions” (Holzman L., 2009:36). In Sahara I saw a similar practice of group building interweaved within the everyday routine to promote growth and survival. I saw refugees using collectively what was available to them- the food, the ink, the paper, the car battery to work together as a unit – managing to create organized communities from scratch in the middle of the desert.


One of our hosts in the refugee camps wants to build a garden in the desert. He does not have enough money to pay for the builders and he needs to create the bricks himself. He does not have enough time to do this on his own and asks for help from his neighbours. He is passionate about learning, saying that we need to use any chances and resources that we have in order to develop. Listening to him I wonder how we can still build spaces to learn and develop within the current global political, financial and environmental crisis. Can we make bricks for each other when our resources are limited and our gardens look different? Whilst building can we deconstruct some of the assumptions about how the garden of our neighbour needs to look like? What kind of adult education do we need to help us with that? I believe we need an education that supports us how to learn as well as to let go of our knowledge and to ask when we find ourselves in a context different than that from which our knowledge emerged from. In other words, we need education that teaches us how not to know.

A garden in the desert.

Read also:

In the camp -refugee camps and adult education

Dadaab, in Kenya, is the biggest refugee camp in the world with its population of half a million. As camps grow permanent, their residents need education


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Hougham, R. (2007). “Phenomenology- a research perspective”. Postgraduate Conference, Central School of Speech and Drama.

Holzman, L. (2009). Vygotsky at work and play. United Kingdom, Routledge.

Lindkvist, M. (1998). Bring white beads when you call up on the healer. United Kingdom, J. Garnet Miller Limited.

Noe, A. (2009). Out of our heads. USA, Hill and Wang.

Oakland, V. (2007). Windows to our children: a gestalt therapy approach to children and adolescents. USA, The gestalt Journal Press.

Shelley, T. (2007). Resistance and Colonialism: Building the Saharawi Identity, in International Law and the Question of Western Sahara. Portugal, Edicoes Afrotamento.

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Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge: MA, Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge: MA, MIT Press.



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Elena Boukouvala Elena Boukouvala is a Dramatherapist MA, Counsellor of children and young people MA, and a Psychologist. Contact: Show all articles by Elena Boukouvala
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