Dubbed as the man ‘crazy with bottles’, the young refugee is rebuilding homes and a newer sense of hope for Sahrawi refugees.
by Portia Ladrido
Western Sahara, a region on the west coast of Africa, hosts one of the world’s forgotten conflicts. On one hand, it is claimed to be an integral part of Morocco; but on the other, its ownership is declared by the Polisario Front, a group that has been fighting for the region’s independence up to this day.
It has been over 40 years since the Western Sahara War displaced thousands of people living in the Sahara desert, in most of Mauritania, and in the south-west areas of Algeria. The harsh conditions of the desert climate have proved to be the biggest challenge for these refugees, with sandstorms wildly unfurling through their homes.
In Tindouf, Algeria, five refugee camps are suffused with adobe houses; houses made of soil mixed with water and organic materials such as dung – making it susceptible to instability when heavy rains strike.
This recurring problem sparked the idea for Tateh Lehbib Breica, a young Sahrawi refugee, to improve the living conditions of the people in the most sustainable and eco-friendly way possible. Born in Awserd camp, one of the refugee camps in Algeria, he knew empirically what it felt like to always be at the mercy of the raucous weather conditions – making him all the more convinced that he needed to take action.
Tateh Breica talks to INKLINE about the long, hard road he took to build better homes for Sahrawi refugees to help better their lives.
INKLINE: What inspired you to start the bottle project?
Tateh Breica: I was born in an adobe house. The living conditions at the camp were really difficult. I was always overwhelmed with the idea of improving our hard living conditions there. But, in spite of the hardships, I was able to finish my studies with a degree in Renewable Energy at the University of Lamsila in Algeria.
Inspiration reached its zenith at the University of Las Palmas in Canary Islands where I studied Energy Efficiency thanks to the scholarship granted by a unit in Erasmus Mundus, which is a program financed by the European Commission. The idea really surfaced during my time at the university.
I: What were the things in your childhood or teenage years that made you pursue energy efficiency?
T: Since my childhood, I always loved trying things out, doing experiments with the available materials. There were no toys, no televisions, no trees – only sand and discarded things. I was born and brought up in the refugee camps in south-east Algeria and that is where I completed my primary schooling.
But the camp had no secondary education and we were forced to leave our families and travel 8400 km to study in the centre of Algeria instead. It was very hard for me to not see my family the whole year but my father motivated me a lot to continue my studies until I was able to study renewable energy at the University of Lamsila.
Since I was a child, I have wanted to be a journalist like my father and I’m still producing and making videos and some of them have been aired on BBC. The time when I was studying in Algeria, a lot of my Saharan friends specialised in literature and I didn’t like it a lot because there was a big need at the camp for science related courses so I decided to study energy and later on energy efficiency to improve the thermal welfare at the refugee camps in southeast Algeria.
I: What were the challenges that you faced when you were doing this project?
T: In the beginning, there were a lot of difficulties and very little acceptance. Nobody believed that bottles filled with sand could create houses. They thought it was a failure even before seeing what it could be. When I would pick up the empty bottles in the streets and the garbage dumps, they would start calling me the ‘crazy bottle guy’. I received a number of psychological blows but these detractions only fuelled me to rise up and be stronger. When the construction started and it took shape, their opinions changed and everybody applauded the idea.
I: Who helped you to get this project started?
T: Later on, people changed their minds and started helping me bring bottles, thermal insulators and some of them even came from other camps to renew the bottles. I also received a visit from ACNUR centre in Tindouf and I presented a project to Ginebra’s innovation centre. Out of thousands of projects, mine came third, and that financed 25 homes in the camps for families in need, the elderly, and the disabled.
I: How did you get the word out to the world? Who did you talk to so that you could get the support needed to build these houses?
T: I have a professional camera, a 60D, and I am very active on social media with publishing photos and videos, and replying to the messages that people are sending whilst also sending messages to newspapers and TV channels. A BBC team came to visit my construction and interviewed me and they published a two-minute video about my project.
The official page of UNHCR also published an article about the project and since then the media started to pick it up and to talk about it. I received a lot of help from UNHCR as well, especially from Juliette Murekeyisoni, the Senior Field Coordinator for UNHCR in Tindouf. I was very encouraged and made a great effort to turn the project into a success.
I: Can you take us through the whole process of collecting bottles to building the houses?
T: Usually, we create groups to collect the bottles which we find in the streets and in landfills. Then we bring the bottles to the dunes and the other groups fill the bottles with sand. When the bottles are filled, a truck comes and transports them to the sites where four masons are in charge of building the houses.
During the construction, we first put the foundations and then we add the bottles and fix them with cement. The shape of the building is round so it doesn’t allow for the sand to accumulate around it. The house has two ceilings to decrease the entrance of the heat flow and the walls also contain thermal insulation to reduce the heat flow coming from outside.
I: What were the reactions of the people who would live in these houses?
T: In general, people were afraid. But when the building reached its final shape, they received it with great pleasure and started to live a normal life! They sleep inside during the night, make tea in the morning and in the afternoon, and also use it in the case of sandstorms.
I: What has been the most satisfying thing about doing this project? What has been your biggest learning?
T: In an inhospitable desert, where we have been and still are waiting for the liberation and referendum of our people, we are often hit by a sense of helplessness, despair, and injustice. However, even though my constructions are not the solution to these problems, I have found it very motivating to see how it is in our hands to change our world and our situation. How the vague idea that I had one day combined with persistence have made it possible to develop a project that benefits my people and make their lives more dignified.
However, even though my constructions are not the solution to these problems, I have found it very motivating to see how it is in our hands to change our world and our situation.
The greatest thing I’ve learnt, therefore, is the enormous possibilities of change and of fighting back that are in our hands. In my case, having studied energy efficiency has generated new homes and forms of thermal comfort for the plight of my people despite the limited resources available to us. What can’t we change if only we try?
I: What inspires you to continue what you’re doing?
T: Knowing that this process improves the lives of my people inspires me! It doesn’t provide a definitive solution to this unfair situation but it still makes a major change in their safety and well-being.
My dream is to be able to build a house made of plastic bottles for each Saharan family and to alleviate the suffering of my people, who are still waiting for a legitimate free Sahara. This is my way of contributing to the fight for freedom!
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.