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Playing games to heal wounds in Spain

The March 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid traumatized Spain and spawned suspicion about the country's large Muslim community. NBC's Rachel Levin reports from Spain on efforts to heal the divisions.

It's not every day that you have to dodge the police, run away from drug dealers, or figure out how to maneuver a medieval bureaucracy to get a work visa.

Surviving such pitfalls would be exhausting and frustrating if you had to do it on a daily basis. But that's just what the creators of "Border Games," an interactive video game want you to feel.

The game is based on the real-life experiences of young Moroccans here and allows players to put themselves in the shoes of the nearly 3.6 million immigrants living in Spain. To win, the player needs to get working papers and a job; failing to do so means getting deported, and losing the game.

"I want Spaniards and Moroccans to understand how we live," says Abdullah El-Araoui, 19, who works for "Border Games" and lives in the immigrant neighborhood Lavapies in Madrid.

Although one of the oldest quarters in the capital, it's where people converse in Arabic, Chinese and Hindu more often than in Spanish. Pakistani grocery stores and Moroccan tea shops line the narrow streets.

The Old World feel was jolted two years ago by a New World reality. Lavapies is where three people were arrested in connection with the March 11, 2004, bombings that killed 191 people and injured more than 1,500 in Madrid.

Nowadays, Middle Eastern music blares from kebab stores as police officers randomly stop teenage boys to check their ID’s.

3-D scenarios
Those same teenage boys can help Jordi Claramonte, who conceived of “Border Games” while studying in the United States and working with young Latino kids in south-central Los Angeles.

"People have to learn that young immigrants have the same rights as Spanish people," he said.

Claramonte and a team of graphic designers, animators and educational experts hold workshops where young Moroccans learn how to program, edit and produce 3-D scenarios which are later transformed into the characters and plot lines for "Border Games."

El-Araoui participated in one of the original workshops and now leads seminars to teach other immigrants how to play and program the game.

His own story is typical of the migrants in Spain. When he was 13 years old, El-Araoui hid underneath a truck to make the perilous journey from Morocco to Spain.

His motivation was simple. His mother had left home when he was 7 to work in Madrid, and he wanted to rejoin her and find a better life than in Morocco. He was surprised at some of the reactions he got in Spain.

"When people see us they think we (Moroccans) are all thieves."

During a recent stroll through the main plaza in Lavapies, El-Araoui pointed out where the drug dealers hang out and which policemen on patrol should be avoided.

But despite the heavy security presence in his neighborhood he can't imagine living anywhere else.  “It's just like back home," El-Araoui said as he gestured toward the fresh pita bread in his favorite grocery store. ¨I can buy the same tea, dates, and nuts I used to buy in Morocco."

‘Everything changed’ after 3/11
The neighborhood symbolizes Spain's transition over the past decade from a country of migrants to one of immigrants.

In the period 1850-1950, 3.5 million Spanish, mainly temporary workers, left for the Americas. Now Spain is a sanctuary for thousands of migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, an entry point to the European Union.

"After March 11 [2004] everything changed," according to Badr-Diu, a Moroccan immigrant who came to Madrid five years ago and works in construction. "Now people fear us."

Though there were few racial attacks after the terrorist bombings many people like Rashid, a Moroccan who refused to give his last name, complains of new more subtle racism. 

"Now when landlords know an immigrant wants to rent an apartment they charge double," he said, as he helped a customer in his halal butchery.

In Madrid and other urban centers, immigrants often work as waiters, cleaning houses and in construction. The salaries are low and the government does not provide housing or financial assistance.Immigrants can't vote in national elections until they become citizens, which takes approximately 10 years unless they marry a Spaniard.

Many newcomers complain of feeling alienated, according to Samira Oukhiar, who runs a resource center for immigrants. Oukhiar believes the distrust is partly related to Spain´s unique history with the Muslim world. "Many people are afraid of North Africans because they think we want to conquer Spain again."

Ruled by the Moors
Spain was ruled by the Moors for nearly eight centuries until 1492 when the Spanish re-conquered the country and forced Muslims to convert to Catholicism or face expulsion.

To some, the period when the Moors ruled represented a high point in Islamic learning and culture. Today the idea of reestablishing a caliphate that ruled over the entire Muslim world serves as a rallying cry for some fundamentalist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The radical group, banned in several European countries, seeks to establish Sharia law throughout the Middle East.

Yet, unlike other European countries, the tension has not spawned anti-immigrant national parties and hate crimes are rare. In 2005, the government granted amnesty to 700,000 illegal immigrants.

Richard Sandal who studies population and demographics at the El Cano Institute in Madrid worries that the goodwill Spaniards have thus far shown toward immigrants could run out if the government doesn't come up with a stronger policy of integration.

The riots in Paris last October were a wake-up call for all the European countries with large immigrant communities.

"You can already see the potential for segregation occurring in urban areas," he said. "A lot will depend on if the government can come up with an official policy of integration without negatively affecting the Spanish standard of living."

Abdullah El-Araoui, for his part, is hopeful, believing projects such as "Border Games" can foster understanding.

"I want people to know that we are here to make a living not make bombs," he says.