Our Work

Influencing positive change

What is Desert Voicebox?

Desert Voicebox is a unique early-learning project that trains local teachers to provide English language and music education, over the course of four years, to Saharawi children living in refugee camps in SW Algeria. Currently, it is the only after school programme offering primary school-age children opportunities to learn these skills in fun and stimulating ways outside the classroom.
Since its humble beginnings as a pilot project in 2016, Desert Voicebox (formerly known as Stave House in the Sahara) has steadily grown to become an established and valued programme in the community. So far, we have trained four Saharawi refugee women to teach and run the programme, and to drive its future expansion in the camps.
Scroll down to learn more about how the project works and how you can support our work. For a quick, easy to read summary of the project, download our brochure.
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How It Works

Currently, over 60 children aged 6 to 14 learn English and music, five days a week during the academic year, in two 45 minute long lessons. The programme is based in Lal Andala primary school in Camp Boujdour, the smallest of five camps, which according to the latest UNHCR report (2018),  house over 173,000 Saharawi refugees. 

Thanks to a successful fundraising campaign, in 2019, the project was able to move from a refurbished school room into its own purpose-built centre of two large rooms and two small practice rooms.

Four Saharawi women make up the teaching staff, two for English and two for music. They receive ongoing training to teach the DV programme in their subject and become officially certified. 
We have prioritised recruiting women who did not finish secondary school but are passionate about teaching children. Prior to the pandemic training was primarily done by volunteers on-site. During the pandemic, it continued remotely but due to poor connectivity issues were primarily mediated through WhatsApp.

English and music are taught in a mutually-reinforcing manner through a curriculum that spans four levels. Guided by the CEFR framework a be-spoke English curriculum has been developed by TEFL-qualified volunteers to help the students achieve good speaking and listening skills and a solid foundation in reading and writing. 

"I can say it is one of the most beautiful opportunities that exist for Saharawi children in the refugee camps. They come eager to learn about music every day and I can see how it affects them positively."

- Fatimetu Malainin, DV Music teacher
For music education, we use the Stave House music method. Developed by Sandblast Friend Ruth Travers, who donated the system to the camps, this method is based on storytelling and interactivity to engage the children's imagination and promote their creativity. Children passing each level of Stave House receive certificates from the London College of Music at the University of West London. 

In addition to the regular programme, we run special enrichment activities throughout the year.

These include:

1. Special annual creative workshops led by international artists and volunteers, who come for periods of between 2 to 4 weeks, each time. These workshops take place two to three times a year and aim to stimulate the student's learning in English through their interaction with fluent English speakers to enhance their communication skills and broaden their cultural horizons.

2. Weekly Saharawi music sessions led by local Saharawi artists in the camps to promote the children’s knowledge of their cultural roots. In these sessions the students focus on learning traditional dance, song and drumming and also are introduced to the-4 stringed tidinit to learn how to play it.

3. Our Saturday English bookclub to promote literacy and a love of reading in English. Native English speakers based in camp Boujdour, come three Saturdays a month to read stories to the DV students.  In these sessions they entertain and inspire through their story reading as well as help the students build vocabulary and improve their pronunciation and reading skills. Whenever possible special guests visiting the camps are invited to read to the children, like Dr Patrick Rankhumise who launched the English Bookclub in Nov 2022 and read the story of Greta Thunberg.

4. Penpal links between Desert Voicebox and English speaking primary schools around the world. These links are primarily mediated through WhatsApp and aim to promote child to child communication in English and involve cultural and creative exchanges to build understanding and friendship with children in diverse countries.

5. Student-led projects that engage them with their elders to activate the oral transmission of cultural knowledge between generations around such topics as learning about their Hassaniya proverbs and the nomadic life of their ancestors.

Why English and Music?

Teaching English and music (neither of which are taught in primary schools in the camps) equips Saharawi children with the skills and knowledge to open new doors and express themselves and their culture to wider audiences. Furthermore, Desert Voicebox is responding to the dire need for extracurricular activities that will engage children in fun, creative and productive ways to keep them off the streets and help tackle the rising problem of juvenile delinquency.

"We want to speak about our rights for a better
life. Not the life of a refugee."

- Aisha, 10, Desert Voicebox student

Gaining a Voice, Expressing Identity

English is increasingly regarded as an important language for the Saharawis to learn in order to access higher education opportunities in English- speaking countries and participate in international platforms to advocate for their rights. Desert Voicebox is addressing a language barrier to enable the next generation to seize these opportunities and have their voices heard on global stages.

Equally, by providing high quality education in both international and traditional music-making, Desert Voicebox enables the next generation to continue developing the important historical role of music in expressing the Saharawi freedom struggle and vitally, gives them the foundations to promote their unique but threatened cultural identity. As a result of protracted exile, more than 60% of their intangible heritage is believed to have been lost, with fewer and fewer elders left to transmit knowledge of their roots and past.

Aim & Objectives

The main aim of Desert Voicebox is to equip the Saharawi refugee children, and the women who teach them, with the tools to improve their lives and to help them turn their dreams into reality.

We provide opportunities for the beneficiaries to develop their potential,  become ambassadors for their community, raise international awareness of their plight, promote their culture and transform their future.

Our objectives are to:

Inspire children to learn and develop their potential
Equip children with skills to express themselves and become cultural ambassadors
Promote knowledge of their own culture and that of other cultures
Train and empower refugee women to become qualified educational leaders in their community
Facilitate access to new and international platforms for the Saharawis to tell their story
Enhance self-reliance and reduce aid dependency
Foster skills-sharing and the growth of international support links

A Story of Positive Impacts

Since 2016, Desert Voicebox has evolved to provide benefits in a number of ways:
We have created penpal links to facilitate exchanges, foster understanding and build new friendships between the children and teachers. Since 2020 we have engaged with penpal links  with 4 primary schools in the UK, one in the US,  one in Romania and one in Germany.
So far, we have provided over 100 certificates from the London College of Music to students passing their Stave House music exams.
We've connected children to their cultural heritage and musical roots through regular lessons from local Saharawi artists.
Our international volunteers scheme have given our students a chance to practise their skills with native and fluent speakers, expand their cultural horizons and escape from the norm of refugee camp life.
Our training programme has promoted self-reliance and empowered five young refugee women to drive the early educational programme for the benefit of their community.

Meet the Teachers

Although Saharawi women play important roles in camp life and in the peaceful advocacy of their rights, they face socio-cultural forces that undermine their development and fuller participation. They are expected to be the main carers of the family, which leads to higher drop out rates amongst female students who leave the camps for higher education.

Through Desert Voicebox, women aspiring to develop professionally will have real chances to do so, without leaving the camps. They will also be able to transfer their skills anywhere they go.

Since 2016, we have recruited and trained four Saharawi women to teach and run the programme in order to play a pivotal role in driving its future expansion to all the camps. We prioritise hiring young Saharawi women who have not finished secondary school to provide them with opportunities to develop careers locally and reduce their aid dependency.

Fatimetu Malainin, music teacher

Fatimetu learned music at the Sahrawi Institute of Music in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf. Prior to joining Desert Voicebox in 2016, she worked as a sports teacher because there were no jobs for music teachers at the time. She is
married and a mother to a little boy.
"I love having so many opportunities to learn as part of the programme ... We get to escape from the normal – something that is so important for us and for the children."

Tekween Mohamed, English teacher

Tekween was born and raised in the Saharawi refugee camps. She works in the Education Office in the camp, and she has been teaching English at Desert Voicebox since 2016. Tekween is married with three children.
"Desert Voicebox provides an amazing chance for children to learn another language and it's wonderful to see the
excitement in their eyes."

Nicole Lehbib Moulay Aali, music teacher

Nicole is from Boujdour Camp and was unable to finish secondary school in Algeria when her brother fell ill. She found work to run extra curricular activities at the local
primary school before becoming involved as a music teacher
with Desert Voicebox.
"I have become better at my new job with a lot of effort. I thank everyone who has given me training and advice, and all those
in charge of the Desert Voicebox."

Nanaha Bachri, English teacher

Nanaha was born in the Sahrawi refugee camps. At age 12, she started middle school in Algeria, and graduated from secondary school but could not fulfil her dream to go to university due to family pressures to return to the camps. Nanaha studied Spanish and English in the refugee camps and taught English in middle
school before joining Desert Voicebox in 2019.
"I really enjoy being a teacher in this programme. I really gained from being part of Desert Voicebox. I'm a different person
now. I'm courageous and confident."

Volunteer with Desert Voicebox

"I was treated like a family member from the first moment.The generosity and hospitality is part of who the Saharawis are."
- Anastasia Oleinik, art and music teacher volunteer
Our volunteers have been central to the mission of Desert Voicebox. It’s thanks to their generous contribution of time and skills, and the loving dedication they’ve shown the children and local staff that the project has been able to progress to its current stage.

Volunteering Opportunities

Often spending weeks at a time in the desert, our on-the-ground volunteers have supported the project in diverse ways: teaching and stimulating the children by introducing new content and activities, training the teachers to become more proficient in their subjects, improving their teaching and self-management skills and developing the educational programme further.

We also work with a number of virtual volunteers who provide teacher training via WhatsApp, develop the curriculum and design lesson plans and creative workshops for the teachers and children.

Watch: A Day in the Life of Georgia, a Desert Voicebox volunteer

If you are passionate about creative education and want to share your skills to contribute to meaningful and positive change, then volunteering for Desert Voicebox is perfect for you! We have a wide range of opportunities available - download our info pack or get in touch to learn more.

Past & Present Volunteers

  • Beccy Allen-English                                  • Jack Morgan- English                             • Dana Slayton-project assist
  • Anastasia Oleinik-Creative workshops    • Farida Alvarez-English teacher trainer    • Andrada & Florin Pascu-music
  • Esme Graziani-penpal manual                 • Georgia Lomax Thorpe -singing             • Izzy Urbanski-virtual workshop
  • Ben Coper-English                                   • Andy Pitt-English curriculum                   • Sarah Dyble-singing virtual
  • Maite Heres -music workshop                  • Rebecca Hedley-English  virtual              •Janet Davis-class management
  • What the Saharawis want

    "I hope that the Desert Voicebox project will expand to all of the camps so that every
    Saharawi child can benefit from it."
    - Nicole Lehbib Moulay Aali, music teacher
    The feedback we get from the Saharawis is integral to guiding the development of Desert Voicebox on the ground.
    Here's what they've told us so far:
  • The volunteers-led workshops for the children and on-site training for the Desert Voicebox teachers are hugely beneficial and should be a regular part of DV's annual programme of activities.
  • They love seeing the kids getting excited and learning about their traditions through music and dance
  • The DV programme should be expanded to benefit more primary school-aged children in the camps 
  • The DV Programme should be expanded into middle-schools to support English learning 
  • In addition to their current certifications in Music, the DV students should get certification in English
  • Organising summer programmes outside the camps and to the UK will greatly enhance the value and meaning of the DV programme
  • "Desert Voicebox is so important for our school and for our children ...
    There is so much demand for the programme and we hope that it can
    grow in the coming years."

    - Salka, Director Lal Andala Primary School

    Our Next Steps

    In response to this feedback, our aims over the next few years are to:
    Ensure our Desert Voicebox teachers are trained to high standards and are certified and able to train others
    Create a bespoke Desert Voicebox English teaching manual for the four year course with clear assessment criteria in order to provide certification in English to the DV students. This manual will then be adapted to extend it in an age appropriate way to middle schools in the camps.
    Expand the current DV learning centre to build a space with facilities for English teacher training in order to deliver a combined remote and on-site internationally certified programme. (2024/25)
    As a first step, organise an intensive 3 week DV summer camp programme in the Algiers region for the DV staff and 40 of the students to receive immersive and experiential English language instruction, intensive pedagogical training, participate in collaborative music-making and cultural activities and explore a new setting.  (summer 2023)
    Raise funds to bring a group of 6 to 8 graduated DV students and two DV teachers to visit the UK for 1 month to build bridges and their skills further (summer 2024)
    Build more partnerships (both local and international) to improve and enrich the delivery of the DV programme
    Install solar energy at the DV learning centre to make the project greener and reduce the disruptions to the programme caused by frequent power cuts

    We need your support!

    We realise that our goals for Desert Voicebox are ambitious. But we are driven by the knowledge that the project is valued, needed and is having a positive impact on the lives of Saharawi refugee women and children in the camps. To achieve these goals, we will need stable and substantial long term funding. So far, despite the numerous applications we have done over the last few years, this funding has eluded us.

    Friends and supporters, here we are, turning to you for ideas, strategies and any help you can give with your skills, experience and time to put together strong funding applications.

    Can you help us with guidance and advice? Do you know about any potential benefactors/patrons who would be interested in providing the funding we need?

    Please get in touch - we can't wait to hear from you!

    "Saharawi child, take hold of a paper and pencil and learn literature, math and science. Sit close by your elders and listen carefully to their wisdom; in the future, this will come to your rescue.

    Agaila Abba Hemedia, Saharawi Writer and Poet
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    Registered Charity (England and Wales) :1115288 | Companies House Registration number : 05397223
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