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Page last updated at 23:28 GMT, Wednesday, 10 September 2008 00:28 UK

From shipwreck to solidarity

By Rafael Estefania
BBC News, Hansala, Morocco

Rafael Quiroz can still vividly remember the day five years ago when he and his wife discovered the swollen corpses of 37 would-be migrants washed up on a beach near his home in southern Spain.

Rafael Quiroz and  Violeta Cuesta on Rota beach
The discovery of the corpses shocked Rafael Quiroz and Violeta Cuesta

"It was horrible," he recalls.

"All those young people dead on the seashore. We were horrified by the sight of the dead, but also by the thought of their families on the other side."

They were the bodies of 37 Africans who, like many before them, had drowned while attempting to cross the treacherous Strait of Gibraltar, between Morocco and the coast of southern Spain.

Their flimsy boat, or patera, was overcrowded and unprepared for the strong currents and the fast-changing weather conditions along the strait.

After a day and a half at sea, the boat was hit by a storm and sank. There had been 57 people on board and most of them had never seen the sea before. Unable to swim, over a half of them had no chance of survival.

Changing times

Mr Quiroz and his wife Violeta Cuesta are both teachers in the town of Rota.

Having lived on the coast for many years, they witnessed the tragic consequences of illegal immigration into Spain many times.

But this time they felt things were different.

Widow of one of Hansala's dead migrants with her two sons

"In the last 20 years, more than 80,000 people have died trying to enter Europe by sea. Most of those bodies lay unclaimed in the mortuaries and were buried in Spain without their families ever knowing their whereabouts.

"We said to ourselves: 'Enough is enough, we have to do something to help,'" says Mr Quiroz.

After tracing the origins of the dead immigrants, the couple found out that 12 of them had come from Hansala, a small mountain village in the Beni Mellal region, one of Morocco's poorest.

The area is known as the "triangle of death" because of the high number of illegal immigrants it produces.

The Spanish couple decided to visit the area and offer to help repatriate the bodies of their relatives.

When they arrived in Hansala, they discovered a collection of derelict houses scattered on the mountainside with no running water or electricity and an extremely poor, but generous, population.

"The villagers shared with us the little food they had, but the victims' families were wary to talk to us because they thought we were from the Spanish government and that we were demanding money for the repatriation," remembers Mr Quiroz.

It took a few journeys back to Hansala, and the help of a Berber language speaker, to gain the trust of the victims' families.

"It wasn't until several months later that we managed to bring the bodies back to Hansala. The whole village participated in the burial and mourning of the 12 young men. We felt like we became a part of the village at that moment."

New lease of life

Returning the bodies was just the beginning of their work in Hansala.

They founded an NGO called Solidaridad Directa, used their own savings and holidays, and, with the help of some volunteers and the villagers themselves, they set out to improve the living conditions in Hansala.

In only a few years, we have seen a transformation on the way people think about their future
Rafael Quiroz
Solidaridad Directa

They built a dispensary, an irrigation system and renovated the old school; they started a system of grants, equivalent to the money a child would make working in the field, enabling parents to send their children to school.

Said is the recipient of one such grant and a self-taught Spanish speaker, who works as the local organiser for Solidaridad Directa in Hansala.

"There are 170 families living in Hansala today and everybody is part of the project and benefits from it," he told me as we walked down the steep dirt path on the way to the new health centre.

"A doctor comes up to Hansala twice a week, the children go to school, and we have started an association to improve the living conditions of women. We are currently organising workshops to teach women how to make fruit preserves, so they can sell them in the market and earn their own money."

Walking around the hills and pastures of Hansala, flocks of goats and sheep are a common sight today. A few years back, the animals were too scarce and too old to sustain the families in the village.

map

The purchase of new and healthy animals with the funds of Solidaridad Directa has revived a dying trade and has given many villagers the chance to make a living as shepherds once again.

But most importantly, it has helped change the perception of those people for whom the illegal crossing into Spain was the only real option to find work.

"In only a few years, we have seen a transformation on the way people think about their future," Mr Quiroz says.

"When I first arrived in Hansala, people used to ask me to help them to emigrate to Spain. Today they want advice on how to set up a business in Hansala."

It is still a work in progress in Hansala, and life, despite the changes, is hard, especially in winter when the cold bites and the rain makes the paths thick with mud.

But so far, not a single person from Hansala has attempted the strait crossing since 2003.


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