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A Student’s Death in a Fire Prompts Protests Over Algeria’s Neglected Dormitories

ALGIERS—On the night of February 6, Nacéra Bekkouche, a 24-year-old sociology major at the University of Algiers, died in a fire that broke out in the dormitory room she shared with another student.

The tragic accident has shed light on poor safety conditions and a lack of services at university housing units in Algeria and has prompted thousands of students to demonstrate against government and university officials, whom they blame for allowing facilities to fall into disrepair over decades of neglect.

The fire that killed Bekkouche, who was from the central Algerian province of Tiaret, was ignited by a short circuit in an electric stove she and her roommate used for cooking and heating. The roommate suffered second-degree burns.

While some people regard the accident as an isolated event, the student protesters say it is directly linked to official neglect of student’s living conditions and basic needs.

The protests continued even after the dismissal of Haji Saifuddin, director of the university housing unit where the fire took place, two days after the accident, and the dismissal of Bachir Derouaz, director general of the National Bureau for University Services.

Lack of Fire-Safety Systems

“I hope that the student protests after Nacéra Bekkouche’s death will be a reason to reform the university services sector and address the poor services in light of the government’s abandonment of its interest in facilitating students’ living conditions,” said Moustafa Belakef, the public relations coordinator at the National Union of Algerian Students.

Belakef pointed out that the lack of services in university housing complexes forces students to set up their own means of cooking in their rooms, exposing them to accidents and fire hazards, especially in the absence fire extinguishers and other fire-safety devices in the dorms.

The Algerian authorities closed the housing unit where Bekkouche died, on a campus for women in a suburb of Algiers, and placed it under restoration and maintenance. However, students believe that the maintenance and restoration process should extend to all university housing units.

Dilapidated Conditions in University Dorms

“Maintenance must include all university housing units across Algeria, many of which date back to the 1970s, and none of them have ever been repaired, not even partially restored,” said Belakef. “Some of them are about to collapse, and they must be closed immediately, and students should not be residing there as this would pose a threat to their lives. New university dormitories should be established.”

Negligence and Consequences

More than 600,000 students reside in over 421 university housing units in Algeria, most of which were built in the last twenty years, according to Loussif Sadi, an official at the University Services Directorate in eastern Algiers.

Students usually resort to university housing when they enroll in universities that are far from their residence. Yet the deterioration of university housing services in Algeria in general has kept many away from seeking residency there. Those who are forced to do so must be content with  just a bedroom, poor quality or no food-related services, and often no hot water or heating.

For instance, Houari Rachdi, who studies chemistry at the University of Sétif and has lived in the university housing for two years, visited the housing complex’s restaurant only twice. He suffered food poisoning on his second visit and missed his studies for 12 days, he said.

“I have become dependent on restaurants near the student housing complex, and this of course costs me extra expenses that not everyone can afford,” he said. “That drives the majority to eat in university housing despite the poor quality of food or try to cook on their own inside their rooms, which causes many accidents.”

Another student, Mourad, who asked that his last name not be used, resides in a university housing complex in the province of Constantine, in eastern Algeria. Mourad has installed a double heating coil inside a brick mold for cooking, so he doesn’t have to eat at the complex’spoor restaurant, and for daily uses like heating water for washing and heating the room in the winter.

“There are no services,” Mourad said, “so I have to manage for myself.”

Poor Maintenance and Cleaning

In turn, Amir Amaouche, a master’s degree student at University of Algiers 2, in Bouzareah, northwest of the capital, complains about the poor condition of the bathrooms and the lack of maintenance and cleaning operations, despite the existence of an annual budget subsidizing housing services.

Ibrahim Arkoub, who is studying electronics at the University of Constantine 1, believes that the decline in services in university housing complexes is directly reflected in educational attainment and research. He thinks that “the availability of healthy food and easy and safe heating means are necessary for the students’ comfort” and ability to pursue their studies.

“Heating services are absent at 50 percent of student housing units, and what is available to date in some of them is very old and needs comprehensive renovations.”

Ibrahim Arkoub studying electronics at the University of Constantine 1

“Heating services are absent at 50 percent of student housing units, and what is available to date in some of them is very old and needs comprehensive renovations,” Arkoub said. “Students cannot study or review their lessons in temperatures reaching below zero in some provinces.”

Arkoub is also dissatisfied with the lack of health services at university housing complexes, including dentistry and mental health support, even though the state frequently talks about supporting free higher education and scientific research.

“We demand them to provide the basic and humanitarian services that support our university studies and are supposed to be supported by the government,” Arkoub said.

Slow Reform Steps  

Loussif Sadi, of the University Services Directorate in eastern Agiers, acknowledges that there have been accidents reflecting deficiencies in oversight by the administrations of some housing units. But he points out that the government provides education for free and supports it with a budget of more than 109 million Algerian dinars annually (more than $800,000) directed to the services sector alone.

These services, according to Sadi, include university transportation and food; health services; sports and entertainment spaces; and continuous training for workers at undergraduate university housing.

The state also provides a monthly grant to university students ranging between 4,000 to 10,000 (about $30 to $75) to help them meet their daily needs, and to support the rest of the services free of charge.

Yet Amir Amaouche believes that this grant “is worthless in light of the costs of research and the Internet service, and the low quality of food.”

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Belakef, the public relations coordinator at the National Union of Algerian Students, believes that the solution lies in abolishing the National Bureau for University Services, the body currently responsible for university housing, and creating a new ministry concerned with services for students with an independent budget. He also calls for increasing the university scholarship amount.

“There must be an entity that actively and continuously follows students’ conditions,” Belakef said. That office should also engage with student organizations “to provide a quality service that supports the students’ educational journey and does not cause them to be disrupted or died, as happened with Nacéra,” he added.

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