Co-operation in the Sahara and the Balkans

Project Sahara

ONCE and ONCE Foundation, in partnership with local authorities and organisations in Catalonia and the Levante region, is engaged in an education project for visually impaired boys and girls in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.

At the beginning of the last decade, several local authorities and associations from these two areas in Spain which were sending aid to the Sahrawi refugee camps noticed that blind children in the camps were excluded from education. They approached ONCE’s Education Resource Centre in Catalonia with a project to set up schools for the blind and, with assistance from ONCE staff from the centre, develop a team of local teaching staff specialised in instructing blind pupils. As a result there are now five special schools, one in each camp:  Smara, Awserd, Laayoune, February 27 and Dakhla.

In 2003, the ONCE General Council, through its International Relations Department, took on board this initiative and became involved to give the project a new lease of life and create a Co-ordination Commission. The Commission meets annually and all the organisations involved make annual commitments. Agreements are sent to the Sahrawi authorities for their information and co-responsibility in delivering the project.

Distintas imágenes de las escuelas para niños y niñas con discapacidad visual del proyecto de la ONCE en los campamentos saharauisThese commitments cover the full range in education for visually impaired boys and girls, ranging from upkeep of the facilities and furnishings to food and transport for pupils to ensure they are able to attend class. Currently each organisation covers the cost of one of the schools, and our organisation is specifically in charge of the education of the visually impaired children. We support and fund the work of our staff who, year after year, go to the camps to train local teachers, and around 30 local teachers have now been trained to a suitable standard. In addition, we donate all the adapted teaching material the students need to study; not only braille material but also material for pupils with low vision and for leisure activities, adapted technologies and specialist technologies for the visually impaired.  

There are now around 100 students attending class in the 5 schools, and the schools themselves are of a higher standard than even the mainstream centres, without putting aside the future goal of introducing inclusive education in the Sahara, a project which is already being developed.

The Sahrawi schools for severely visually impaired boys and girls have become an example of best practise and a paradigm in the field of international development assistance. Working together, co-ordination and complementing each other’s efforts, as well as co-responsibility by local authorities, are the criteria we meet and the cornerstones all good co-operation projects strive to achieve.

 In such inhospitable conditions as the middle of a desert, and with so many natural and social obstacles to overcome - many more than in the majority of developing countries - we can find blind and partially sighted children who have hope for the future.

Project Balkans 

This co-operation project in Eastern Europe was triggered by the devastating deterioration in social conditions as a result of political change and armed conflict in the Balkans. With support from the International Relations Department at ONCE General Council, a group of ONCE aid workers, staff at the Education Resource Centre in Barcelona, has provided assistance over the past ten years to schools for visually impaired students in Sarajevo, Derventa, Belgrade and Tirana. After the conflicts in the area, changes in the schools and processes to introduce new teaching methods towards a more inclusive schooling are now a reality.

Distintas imágenes de la escuelas para niñas y niños ciegos del proyecto de cooperación de la ONCE en Los BalcanesThanks to the involvement of several public and private institutions, the project has developed a range of education-based initiatives such as teacher training to meet the needs of visually impaired boys and girls and providing the tools to produce braille books and texts, ensuring the students’ rights to education and access to culture. 

Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria and Moldova, among others, have witnessed and continue today to enjoy improvements in the services available for blind people in these countries. 

In addition to education, rehabilitation is another key goal in this co-operation project. ONCE, through its rehab specialists, has been involved in setting up and systemising a white cane mobility training programme for blind children and adults in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in programmes to help low vision students make full use of their residual sight. 

Our co-operation with the NGO MestresxBosnia has also enabled us to establish contacts with staff from mainstream schools who are teaching a growing number of children with a visual impairment. Real inclusion is coming about thanks to teachers in these schools with support from specialist staff. 

The schools ONCE is co-operating with have a clear view of the task at hand and they set their own pathway to follow. As a result, the goals of the project have been achieved in most of the countries, although in Albania further work is needed in inclusive education with support from Albanian institutions, the European Union and ONCE and ONCE Foundation.