Orphans of La’ayoune, Western Sahara

Guest contribution by Sabiha Mahmoud

My latest journey began in Morocco. Despite the hustle and bustle of the region’s strong tourism industry, within its fabric lie many layers of poverty. The orphanage I visited in Agadir, a major Moroccan city, seemed well funded. But a plane journey across to La’ayoune, also known as El-Aaiún, in the Western Sahara revealed a stark difference. The Western Sahara already faces occupation and more and more of its people are becoming displaced from it. I wanted to make certain I documented as much as I could, and orphans always remained sore point. The abandonment and neglect from a place that is already being forgotten or erased is a story that needed to be told.


An orphan from the girls quarters points me in the right direction of where I could catch a taxi back to the main city in La’ayoune.


Left: A shy orphan who did not speak much except to mention his dream of becoming a footballer one day. Right: A child from Mali bears two scars on his forehead like a cross. The scars tell a heartbreaking story. Children in Mali are recruited as child soldiers. His family managed to get him to safety but they were killed. He was brought to the orphanage.


The conditions inside an orphanage in the occupied city of La’ayoune are very much like a prison. I have photographed inmates in their cells before and this mirrored it: tiled walls and concrete floors, with a thin mattress on each bed. This image is of the boys quarter. Sixteen boys sleep in the same cold room. The only light that enters the room comes from few openings in the wall. There is no heating.


Left: A teddy bear sits on top of the poste incende, the emergency fire box. Right: There is usually one person in any given group that keeps morale and spirits high. This child is the one. He wears his school uniform proudly and the very fact he has to struggle to get to his school such a long way away from the orphanage is a lesson for us all to appreciate the education we are fortunate to receive.


Above everything else I have witnessed, this strikes me the most. Here, orphans are not dignified with names on their lockers. They are known by numbers. Casualties of injustice often have their names forgotten or stripped away and are reduced to numbers. Is human life of such little value?


Baby Rashid, seemingly in well health, but far from it. He has a vitamin D deficiency and prefers to stay in his cot swinging side to side. These adjoining metal, rusty cots make up the entire perimeter of the room. A large rug lies in the middle.


Left: Of the orphanage’s sixteen lockers, one had a padlock placed in front of a bag filled with clothing, almost like a marking of some kind, a tombstone at a grave before the body. It was quite symbolic. I later learned his parents were on their way to collect his belongings because the boy had passed away. He had been placed in the orphanage because his family was too poor to look after his needs. The orphanage provided at the very least a roof over his head. When the boy’s parent’s arrived, they announced that his belongings would be sold to provide food for the rest of the family until the end of the week. Right: Children are constantly seen cleaning staircases. When I turn a corner with my camera, the children drop their mops, buckets, and cloths and run to the nearest door.

Sabiha Mahmoud

Sabiha Mahmoud is a British photojournalist working both for the press and freelancing on the side to tell untold stories from across the globe. She blogs at Life Through The Camera Lens.

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There are 33 comments

  1. saramcknight

    Thank you for this information, and the amazing photography. I’ve visited a lot of countries, mostly in the middle east, and the abject poverty in some regions struck me so deeply, that it was basically unforgettable. I still remember seeing a young child (in Turkey) beg for food, completely naked, too poor to afford clothes. The world is a heart breaking place, but maybe we can inform people and slowly change it? I sure hope so.

    1. Sabiha Mahmoud

      Raising awareness is definitely one of the least things we can do for the plight of other human beings, somewhere the voice will reach and someones heart will change, thank you for your comment Sara

  2. sixdegreesphotography

    While I love the skill with which these photos were taken, I abhor the circumstances on why they had to be taken.. So many children hurting, so many..
    Thank you for sharing these..Once we are aware, we can not turn away..

  3. Melissa BarlowBowman (@mcbarlow36)

    These children are beautiful, and their stories are heartbreaking. Your pictures remind me of one I saw recently on Twitter of a young Syrian boy sleeping between the graves of his parents. Regardless of how we feel politically, we must be reminded of the innocent lives affected by war, famine and violence. I am trying to attach a copy of the picture in the hopes you can use it for good. However, I’m not sure I’m attaching it correctly. I was told by the person posting it that it had not been published but had just appeared on some Arabic twitter accounts, but I can’t verify that. pic.twitter.com/LkbYXlZoAc If you can’t access it and would like to, let me know your twitter account info and I will forward it to you.
    Thank you for what your are doing!

    1. Sabiha Mahmoud

      Ah unfortunately that image(cant remember the authors name) of the Syrian child that has been going around social media was not real and was staged however the reality still remains that there are children there who have lost entire families and have to live life alone. We must look at the image from a conceptual poimt of view and the message it portrays. Thank you for your comment

  4. Irony Square

    Eye and heart opening. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in our own lives and struggles we think we have, when in reality they are minuscule in relation to the problems some people around they world are born with.

  5. naamayehuda

    Indeed it is always the children–the innocent victims who chose not the birthplace nor the religion nor the political strife or power struggles–who bear the brunt of the violence and poverty. Them, and in many places women and girls, when they are stripped of choice, education, and protection. It is heartbreaking to see these beautiful, precious children, struggling in a reality that is not of their making, and bereft of so much we take for granted. We would never want this for our own. How can we justify it for the child of another? Wherever there is senseless violence, or one done for whatever proposed ‘goal’ that justifies the means, children end up paying the higher price of it. It needs to be known. Thank you for this post.

  6. llip2

    This is so sad, stories like this are happening all over the world, and it would take every one working together to end this poverty.

  7. wcrrich

    The pictures stir the emotions, but they leave me wondering what about the rest of the story. Without your comments, the pictures show improvements over other pictures of children in filthy and atrocious environments. What is the rest of the story?

    1. Sabiha Mahmoud

      The rest of the story is as such: after having spent a period of time there, through my images we managed to raise funds for the orphanage to improve the conditions and to encourage those well off in society there to adopt or in the least regularly visit the children. The Western Sahara is facing its struggle of independence and it is a political stalemate situation but we must not forget about the I dare to say ‘smaller’ struggles within that can be resolved. I hope that answers your question and thank you for commenting

  8. The Rambling Philosopher

    I feel like someone’s tugging at my heart. 😦 I really feel bad for these children. They’re supposed to have no care in the world yet, to just enjoy being young. But it seems like childhood has escaped them at such an early age as they’ve already carried so much emotional and physical burden. I hope that these photos and this article will reach someone who is privileged and blessed enough to have a luxurious life and somehow help these children, whether for food, or an improvement in their lodgings etc. Any donation will be helpful. And I hope that this will also raise more awareness to the state of the underprivileged and I hope for more support and attention to them because they badly need it.

  9. swamiyesudas

    Sahiba, I did not give a ‘Like’ to Yours merely because it seems even Cruel to do so, for such a story. Thank You for covering it and sharing it. I know doing such work is Hard. Wish You all the Very Best in Your journey of Life. Love and Regards.

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