Post-revolution Tunisians mobilise to aid refugees

2011-03-09 11:04

Tunisia – Their own revolution successfully completed, Tunisians are now mobilising to help those fleeing the upheaval in their neighbour, Libya.

At the frontier post of Ras Jdir, students offer water and reassurance to two Somalis who have arrived exhausted from across the border.

Every morning, as haggard knots of migrants cross the border, Wahid Abbes, 29, offers his services to the Red Crescent, whose stand is teeming with volunteers.

“Helping refugees, for us it is a test of the principles that guided our revolution: dignity, respect for the human person,” says English language student Abbes.

He is a veteran of the Kasbah, the government centre in Tunis, and focus of the demonstrations that led to the toppling of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January.

“It is a demonstration of citizenship,” he declared standing in front of a little tent in a camp shared with friends met in Tunis during the sit-ins organised to overthrow the Ben Ali regime.

They have been there for several days, all skipping their courses, but “it is for a good cause”. Since February 20 more than 11 000 people have left Libya for Tunisia.

“We study to serve our country. It’s what we are doing here, too,” said Ibrahim Moussa, 21, an aquaculture student from Bizerte in northern Tunisia.

A few kilometres away at the camp at Choucha, other young Tunisians are erecting tents and handing out hot food to the endless lines of refugees.

It is invaluable help to the Tunisian military and the United Nations, which run this camp of 16 000 people, most of them Bangladedshis stuck for a lack of means to get them home.

“I’ve been here for 10 days. The locals pay for our hotel room,” said Oussama Mrassi, 28.

His group of volunteers was waiting for reinforcements that evening to help clear up the masses of rubbish heaped on the ground.

Thirty young people arrived from Tunis, armed with spades and brushes.

During intervals of clearing up, they filmed videos to post on Facebook “to show the efforts of Tunisians” and counter the “false information” carried by the Saudi television channel Al Arabiya, which they accuse of denigrating humanitarian efforts at the frontier.

People are even more generous than is needed, said the volunteers.

“Local bakers give so much bread that some is left over. The people from around here collect it to feed to their animals,” said a volunteer busy peeling carrots.

At Ben Guerdane, the town of 80 000 inhabitants closest to the frontier, Salah Jennifen’s two garages were bursting with boxes of milk, pasta, diapers. Mattresses were piled ceiling-high.

“A bedding manufacturer in Monastir sent them in an articulated lorry,” said Jennifen, 61.

He has chipped in, too.

He has made his premises available to store some of the gifts pouring in from all over the country.

Upstairs he has lent four apartments to Algerian Red Crescent staff.

Even the poorest play their part.

“In a box of goods collected in a village nearby there was a tiny little plastic bag of flour,” he said.

“It came from a poor woman giving what she could.”

Since the end of February, the Ben Guerdane Red Crescent has received dozens of tons of humanitarian aid and collected as much in donations in three weeks as in the two previous years, officials said.

“The Tunisians are showing a fantastic outburst of solidarity, though the country isn’t used to humanitarian crises,” said Gerard Lautredou, an official of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in North Africa.

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