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Tunisians opened their homes and hearts to people fleeing Libya

The outpouring of generosity came spontaneously – people simply responded with compassion, a new report says.

By Emma BathaAlertNet / June 20, 2012

A Somalian refugee girl sits in a refugee camp near the border between Libya and Tunisia after fleeing unrest in Libya in March 2011. The warm response from ordinary Tunisians who aided those fleeing the fighting in Libya was 'remarkable,' a UNHCR official says.

Anis Mili/Reuters/File



Tunisia had barely drawn breath following its revolution early last year when tens of thousands of people started arriving on its borders as an uprising in neighboring Libya gained momentum.

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The amazing generosity of Tunisians who opened their homes and hearts to people fleeing Libya is revealed in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR), which looks at last year’s Arab Spring revolutions in North Africa.

“The response from ordinary Tunisians was remarkable in its altruism,” Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), says in an introduction to the FMR report published on the eve of World Refugee Day.

IN PICTURES: Libya: Daily life after Qaddafi

“I witnessed villagers sharing their homes and land while others drove for miles to provide sandwiches for those stuck in the crowds at the border.”

The first people to arrive in southeast Tunisia were migrant workers who had been employed in Libya’s huge oil industry, agriculture, and elsewhere.

Tunisian villagers organized cooking crews and took food to Djerba airport as the migrants waited for flights home, writes Katherine Hoffman, associate professor of anthropology at Northwestern University in the United States.

As the civil war escalated, Libyan families also began pouring into Tunisia.

"We helped the Egyptians, we helped the Chinese, we helped the Bangladeshis. So when the Libyans came to stay, how could we not help them too?” one man in Djerba, Tunisia, is quoted as saying.

Another describes how he and his friends raised money for food, diapers, and mattresses, piled it into 20 trucks and headed to the border where tens of thousands of people were massed.

Some 60,000 to 80,000 Libyans arrived in Tunisia during the revolution, which erupted in February 2011 and which eventually toppled strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Some went to camps, wealthier families rented hotel rooms or properties, but many Libyans ended up living with Tunisian families.

In addition, Hoffman describes how one person in each village or town took responsibility for collecting keys for abandoned houses, emigrants’ summer residences, and other empty housing.

Villagers cleaned and refurnished homes, put in stoves and fridges, and turned electricity and water back on.

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