I shall remember you
when you're gone
The sun is hot today and I can hear the voices of women shopping at the local market in Zarzis from the hotel room. There is something familiar in the way their voices sound, a somewhat acute and interrupted rhythm that reminds me of the women back home in Sicily. As I pull the curtains aside to peer out the window and watch them, my phone rings. “Bonjour Eileen, ça va?”. It’s a call from Mouhamed, I have an appointment with him later today to talk about his activity within the TRC (Tunisian Red Crescent), a national humanitarian organization that has since 2011 provided considerable support to migrants coming to Tunisia.
“Nothing is truly impossible if you work to make it happen”, he tells me during our meeting. He is a tall man, tireless and extremely well organized, who divides his time between the mechanic’s workshop he runs in the morning and the job at the TRC in the afternoon.
“We are not the only humanitarian organization in Zarzis. However, unlike others present in the territory, we do not get financial support from either the government or other centralized body. Everything we do, from paying for accommodation for migrants to providing medical and social assistance, is self-funded. Like me, most of the other men and women you see here are volunteers”- Chams-eddine, chauffeur and volunteer for the TRC in Zarzis.
Mouhamed’s latest idea concerns the
construction of a dormitory within the TRC bureau which, according to his calculations, could host approximately 25 migrants.
“I have thought of everything, considering all potential limitations of this project. The hosts would have their own private access to the dormitory, so that the activities of the TRC would not be upset by people coming and going.
I have presented the idea to the town hall several times already this year, but I got no response. I also contacted MSF and UNHCR seeking their support, but everyone keeps saying they will do something about it in the future. Why does everyone like the future so much but does nothing to help now?”- he tells me.
As Mouhamed explains to me, once migrants reach Tunisia, they are first received and registered by the TRC which conducts basic medical examinations. Those categorized as asylum seekers are then directed to UNHCR, which later carries out interviews and investigations to either confirm asylum requests or turn them down. Those who, on the contrary, are not listed as asylum seekers or refugees (i.e. migrants as per international humanitarian law), are asked by IOM whether they voluntarily wish to return to their home country, in which case the organization takes care of the repatriation process. If, however, migrants prefer to stay in Tunisia, the TRC is most often the only organization they can rely on for further assistance.
“I was desperate when I arrived, I couldn’t talk to anyone because I was still shocked. Smugglers in Libya held me for almost two months because they wanted money from me. When I finally managed to escape from the building they were keeping us in, a man drove me near the border with Tunisia and I eventually got to Zarzis. I live in a nice house now, and I also have a job. I know I can always count on the TRC, and it’s such a comforting feeling”- Sidu, from Senegal, tells me in Mouhamed’s office.
He reached Zarzis in February 2014, after traveling from Senegal through Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Libya. Like Adama, Bassour and Dousu, he was assisted by the staff of the TRC. Unlike him, however, many migrants do not reach the coasts of Zarzis alive.
The corpses of dead migrants are often brought by currents to Tunisia. Here, neither the government nor other humanitarian organization except the TRC take care of them. Bodies are not identified, families are not informed, and buried corpses never find a name.
“What we do with migrants who get here alive is only one part of the emergency response. I am trying to raise awareness about the importance of employing our resources for the corpses of migrants who reach our coast as well. It is a matter of human dignity to offer a respectable burial and to inform families about the death of one of their relatives. Up until recently, two categories of rights were consistently violated here: The right to be buried with dignity, and the right to mourn. Tunisian government does not even send medical staff for the identification of corpses, based on the excuse that these people did not die within Tunisian territory. It is absurd, not to say inhuman”- Mouhamed Trabilsi.
“The first months of 2015 were awfully difficult. We kept getting all these dead bodies and had no idea of what to do with them. We get no support from either the
government or the international community, and all we do comes from the precious contribution of our volunteers. Do you imagine the risk of handling corpses without the required equipment? Not to mention the psychological repercussions. I am proud of being part of this team, every time I see how the people we have helped are safe now, I am reminded of the importance of my mission”- Chams-eddine.