Tunisians open their doors for Libyan refugees | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 21.06.2011
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Tunisians open their doors for Libyan refugees

More than half a million people have fled from Libya to Tunisia since February. But only a few hundred are actually staying in camps. In Tunisia's southern region of Tataouine, tens of thousands are hosted by locals.

Lybian refugee hosted by Tunisian family

Thousands of Lybian refugees are hosted by Tunisian families

As Fauzia is throwing green peppers into a frying pan, Fathia is preparing the rest of dinner. The two young women bond over some kitchen talk. They could easily pass for sisters. "We eat together, we share everything, like one family," says Fathia's mother, Messouda. She's careful not to use the word 'refugee' when she talks about her guests.

Tunisians lined up to offer their help when the Libyan refugees crossed the border, recall those who needed help at the time. Fauzia's father Ali is setting up the rug and cushions he brought from the family home in Libya outside Messouda's house in the small courtyard. It's one of the few things he packed in the car before the family fled across the border. Ali and his wife, daughter and his two younger sons left Libya in early May, after rockets landed close by their house.

At the border town, Tunisian families were ready and waiting. They supplied the refugees from the neighboring country with food, clothes and cash, Fauzia's father Ali recalls.

"They opened their hearts. Then they opened their doors. And they've never asked for a dime. You couldn't find that in Libya."

Until the war is over - whenever that is

A woman carries a bowl of food in a Tunisian home

Sharing meals and a home

Ali's Tunisian host, Messouda, is a retired widow who made a living as a cleaning lady. She lives with her elderly mother and her daughter in the same house where she was born, in the outskirts of Tataouine. Wealthier Libyans can rent houses or even villas in Tunisian towns along the coast. But others don't have that option, and have to sleep rough. Messouda's decision was clear: She will put up Ali's family until the war is over, whenever that is.

This household is hardly an exception around here. Tunisia - long ruled by an authoritarian regime itself - has become the country of shelter for many Libyans since February. Migrant workers, asylum seekers and more than 200,000 Libyan refugees have escaped the violence so far. Around 30,000 Libyan refugees are living with locals around Tataouine, one of Tunisia's poorest regions. Fauzia's family is one of them.

Such an outpouring of generosity is one for the books, says Kamel Deriche with the UN Refugee Agency.

"Imagine if we had to deal with 20, 30, 50 thousand Libyan refugees stranded in camps. It would have been a really difficult situation to handle with the harsh weather conditions here."

The UNHCR's mission here has become a lot easier, he says, simply because many Tunisian families with very little means themselves opened their doors.

Reward unparalleled generosity

The UNHCR wants to help host families and has begun paying part of their gas and water bills. The families can also count on the help of homegrown goodwill organizations. Dozens of charities have sprouted up over the past couple of months, such as Ihsen. The organization feeds up to 20,000 Libyan refugees every day.

A pile of loaves sits on a table at a food distribution center in Tunisia

Bread distribution in Tataouine

Their food pantry is located in what used to be an outlet of Abdesslem Bengueid's furniture business. Rolled up carpets are still lying around cardboard boxes full of cans of tomato paste and quince jam. Bengueid owns several stores - in April, his Tataouine outlet became a place where teenage volunteers now bag crunchy baguettes. Each family gets about half a dozen a day. On average, they have six or seven children to feed.

Bengueid started his charity with 4,000 dollars of his own money. Now, most of the funding comes from Bengueid's business connections in Kuwait, where he worked for 15 years. The rest is provided by Tunisian farmers and small donors. Mahmoud, a volunteer, is proud that locals have organized themselves on their own.

"Under Ben Ali this wouldn't have been possible," he says. Mahmoud explains that under the authoritarian president who the Tunisians ousted in January, only the state could run charities and government officials would steal most of the money.

Time for sharing

Mahmoud hopes Ihsen will turn to helping destitute Tunisians once the Libyans go home. But will the charity make it through the summer? Three similar food banks in Tataouine ran out of cash and shut down over the past few weeks.

With Ramadan coming up in August, Mahmoud says, the price of fresh vegetables, a staple of fast-breaking meals, will likely soar, and supplies dwindle. Ramadan is also a time when people go the extra mile to help others. Mahmoud hopes Tunisians and Libyans will keep sharing whatever is on their plate.

Author: Marine Olivesi (nh)
Editor: Sarah Steffen

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