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.

Anis Mili/Reuters/File
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.

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.

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.

“Even seasoned aid officials said they had never witnessed such a reception by a host country during a refugee crisis,” Hoffman says.

Although the UNHCR referred to these arrangements as ‘rentals’, money rarely changed hands, she adds.

In a separate article, UNHCR staff say when Tunisian families were offered financial help with water, gas, and electricity bills, many took offense, saying they did not expect compensation.

The UNHCR subsequently arranged a contract with Tunisian utility companies to provide subsidies directly.

The UNHCR staff in Tunisia highlight other acts of kindness.

One doctor traveled hundreds of kilometres to offer his services. When he learned the Tunisian Red Crescent did not take new volunteers in the middle of a crisis he made a donation and then started picking up the rubbish left by all the people passing through.

There is also the story of a cook who arrived at Shousha transit camp with bread and rice. He only planned to spend one day, but was so moved by the sight of so many traumatized and hungry people that he returned the next day with friends. They put up a tent and started cooking with supplies provided by locals.

After two weeks the Red Cross began funding them, and from there the camp’s main kitchen was born, providing up to 28,000 meals a day.

This outpouring of generosity came without high-level orchestration – people simply responded with compassion, the UNHCR staff write.

Some contributors to FMR contrast the response in Tunisia to the reaction in Europe where the media and politicians fretted about the prospect of a mass influx from North Africa – a prediction that never materialized.

There is criticism of the lack of willingness among EU countries to accept refugees displaced by the violence. Those who fled Libya included many sub-Saharan Africans from countries like Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia who cannot go back home. Many are still in camps.

Other unresolved issues following the revolution include the future of people still displaced in Libya where property confiscations and redistributions during the Gaddafi era have complicated access to housing and land.

FMR also looks at the repercussions for the vast numbers of unemployed migrant workers who have returned to their home countries and the fate of other migrants who are detained inside Libya.

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, the world's humanitarian news site.

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