Influx of Libyan Refugees in Tunisia Seen as an Opportunity

The World
By Marine Olivesi Fauzia throws green peppers into a frying pan. A few minutes to sear and they will crown the couscous plate that her friend Fathia is making for dinner. The two young women could pass for sisters, and Fathia's mother, Messouda, said that's just how they're treated; they eat together and share everything, like one family. She never uses the word "refugee." The father of Fathia's friend, Fauzia, is a retired school teacher named Ali. He sets up a rug and cushions in a small courtyard outside the house. He brought them from his home in Libya. The rug and the cushions are among the things Ali packed in the car before his family fled across the border. Ali said he left with his wife, his daughter and his two younger sons last month after rockets landed close to their house. He said Tunisians lined up to help when he and his family crossed the border. "They gave us everything: food, clothes, cash and also some nice words to cheer us up," Ali said. "They opened their hearts. Then they opened their doors and they've never asked for a dime. You couldn't find that in Libya." Ali's Tunisian host, Messouda, used to work as a cleaning lady. She now lives with her elderly mother and her daughter in the same house where she was born in the outskirts of Tataouine. She said wealthy Libyans are renting villas in towns along the Tunisian coast, but scores of others couldn't afford to and were sleeping on the street. Messouda said she will put up Ali's family until the war is over, whenever that is. This household is hardly an exception around here. About 30,000 Libyan refugees are living with locals around Tataouine, one of Tunisia's poorest regions. Kamel Deriche, with the UN Refugee Agency, said he thinks this is the first time refugees have had so much help from the local community. Deriche added that this generosity has helped authorities cope with the refugee crisis. "Imagine if we had to deal with 20,000 or 30,000 refugees stranded in camp. That would have been really difficult to handle, especially with the harsh weather conditions here," Deriche said. "Instead, scores of Tunisian families with very little opened their doors it makes our mission here much easier." Now, the UN Refugee Agency is trying to help host families. It has started to pay part of their gas and water bills. These families can also count on the help of homegrown Tunisian charities. Dozens have sprouted up during the past couple of months. One of the largest local charities is based in what was once a furniture store. Rolled-up carpets are still lying around among cardboard boxes full of jam and cans of tomato paste. Abdesslem Bengueid, a Tunisian businessman, runs the charity. In April, he turned this store into a food pantry. Bengueid said he took $4,000 of his own money to start the charity. Now most of the funding comes from his business connections in Kuwait. Tunisian farmers and small donors provide the rest. The charity caters to more than 2,300 Libyan families with an average of six or seven children to feed. Mahmoud, a volunteer, said he's proud that local Tunisians have organized themselves on their own and that wouldn't have been possible under Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – the authoritarian President that Tunisians ousted in January. On Monday, Ben Ali was convicted in absentia on embezzlement charges and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Mahmoud explained that only Ben Ali's regime could run charities then, and government officials stole most of the money. Mahmoud said he hopes the goodwill organization will turn to helping destitute Tunisians once the Libyans go home. That's if the charity survives the summer. Three similar food banks in town ran out of cash and had to shut down in the past few weeks. Mahmoud notes that Ramadan is coming up in August. During the holy days, the demand for fruits and vegetables generally goes up and so do the prices. That could make it harder to keep this food pantry fully stocked. On the other hand, Mahmoud said Ramadan is also a time when people go the extra mile to help others. He can only hope Tunisians and Libyans will continue to share whatever is on their plate.
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