This photo is like so many: an overview of a city from a vantage point on a hill at the edge of town.
The city in this case is Oujda, Morocco. Located in the far east of the country, Oujda is far removed from the well-worn tourist destinations of Fes and Marrakesh.
Members from Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., journeyed there as part of our partnership with the Protestant Church of Morocco and their work with migrants.
We wanted to see the place where many migrants and refugees enter Morocco with hopes of perhaps eventually making it into Europe and the promise of improved opportunities.
Oujda’s significance lies in its location, just a few kilometers from the border with Algeria, a border that has been officially closed for 17 years.
As is often the case with closed borders, some traffic still crosses. In Oujda, humans are the primary cargo.
They are Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees fleeing their homelands due to political or religious persecution.
They are people escaping war-torn countries like the Congo, where an estimated 5 million people have died since 1996 in a series of wars and conflicts.
They are people whose desperate economic circumstances drive them forward in hopes of providing for themselves, their families, or in some cases, whole villages.
They set forth on extremely dangerous journeys and wind up passing through Algeria.
In Algeria, they are often taken advantage of by the military and “mafias” who play upon the lack of options and vulnerable situations migrants and refugees find themselves in.
Very often official papers (passports and other documentation) are taken and destroyed, so that when people finally arrive in Oujda, they have no official identification and little means to prove who they are and where they came from.
For those who make it to Oujda (some die along the way crossing the Sahara Desert or at the hands of smugglers), troubles continue.
With no public resources available for the tremendous needs of this population, a few nongovernmental organizations and churches have taken up the cause of this unwanted and unwelcome group of refugees.
They need everything: housing, clothing, food, medical attention. They cannot work legally in Morocco, nor do they wish to stay in Morocco.
They are “in-between” or “in transit,” as they say. Most cannot go home, and they find it practically impossible to go forward.
Forward in their case would be Europe, where they hope to secure employment and a better life for themselves and those who may be depending on them. “Connection money” – money paid to smugglers to take them to Spain in rafts and boats – can run as high as 2,000 Euros, an astronomically high sum for refugees.
Yet one reads regular reports of drownings when overloaded boats capsize.
What the picture does not show is that directly behind the spot where this photo was taken are refugee camps. “Camps” is a generous word; they are more like sticks and pieces of plastic put together to form crude shelters. Cooking is done over open fires with water hauled in from wherever it may be found.
Groups are organized by country of origin. This photo was taken from the Ghana camp. The 30-plus mostly young men we saw had that look of desperation and hunger found among those who have sacrificed much to arrive where they are, yet are still a long way from where they hope to be.
You may be wondering why I did not take a photo of the camp or some of the refugees whose stories we heard. The beauty of the forest in which the refugees live hides an ugly reality.
I didn’t photograph the refugees because these people have been used and abused, in predictable ways, of course, but also by journalists and others.
They are skittish, pessimistic and even somewhat hostile toward outsiders. And who could blame them? They are “the least of these” – at least in that place – and they feel alone.
We went to tell those who would listen that they were not alone, that the Protestant Church of Morocco cares about their situation, that we would support direct aid efforts.
And that we would let others outside Morocco know of their plight.