We sent our Director of Virtual Exchanges, Erin Helland, to Tunisia to explore how we might increase YFU activities in the MENA Region. Here's what she found:
Pre-departure: “Tunisia?” It seemed nearly half the people I told about my trip asked this one word question with raised eyebrows and an uncertainty that translated to both “I think I know where that is,” and “is it safe for you there?” I routinely responded, “Yes! Picture Africa. From left to right it goes: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt – I’ll be fine.” And, then for a brief moment, when stepping out of the airport and into the dry heat of this small, yet influential coastal country, this tiny voice in my head asked, “what are you doing here?”
First Impressions: I felt genuinely welcomed and comfortable in Tunisia. Everything was both less and more exotic than I imagined. There was an approachable-ness to the people and the culture – which much like here at home, consists of a large middle class. As a woman traveling solo I braced myself for the conservatism that might be visible in a predominantly Muslim country. I found instead a rather progressive climate where head and arm covering is optional based on personal choice, where it is perfectly acceptable to dine in public or conduct business in mixed company, and where women are strong and vocal community influencers.
Perhaps you'll recall the Arab Spring protests that spread across North Africa started in Tunisia. Considered the “success story” of the region, Tunisia formed a democracy after the revolution and has not experienced the same severe levels of divide, armed conflict and displacement as its neighbors. There is an overarching sense that though some are challenged by change, many are open to experiment with the latest ideas and opportunities. It is hard to describe the essence of this combined tentativeness and enthusiastic energy – it resembles the “possibilities” felt with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the hope and anticipation following the historic 2008 US election. My general impression is that youth and adults alike exude a cautious hope for the future...and yet, according to multiple multinational government intelligence sources, this is the same country that sends—percentage-wise and in sheer numbers—the highest number of jihadists to ISIS.
Day One: The first day I was welcomed to the country by Yassine, the high schooler and YFU alum to Texas who introduced the concept of a virtual program to his teacher. We met in the courtyard of a traditional Arabic guesthouse in Sidi Bou Said, the infamous blue-and-white costal suburb where I was staying. In his exceptional English, he shared that his brother is now on exchange with his former host family, who put previous plans to visit Tunisia on hold due in-part to the terrorist incidents of 2015. We “nerded out” about the current state of affairs within and between our countries; like how, despite challenges and the long road ahead, he is proud of the strides Tunisia is making, and how he aspires to study abroad again and pursue a career path that will allow him to serve his people.
YFU On Ground: I was introduced via our global network to Pedro, a YFU alumnus from Spain whose exchange brought him to a farm in South Dakota in the early '80s. Now residing in Tunisia, he graciously stepped into the role of lead on-ground YFU volunteer and served as my guardian for the week. He conducted his own outreach to associations and educators—sharing about YFU, and arranging additional appointments in advance of my arrival. He acted as translator when necessary, drove everywhere so I wouldn’t have to bother with transportation, and even handed me a mobile phone pre-programmed with local contacts. Pedro is a world traveler, linguist, cultural enthusiast and family man, whose career has spanned from working for the UN in Yemen, to freelancing as an NGO consultant. He told me that he volunteers for YFU because it was one of the most influential experiences in the course of his life. I appreciate his friendship, and gained much from his insights before my arrival and during. YFU is fortunate to have him in our corner, passionately advocating for and representing us in country.
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Right Where We Want to Be: It was a rewarding and fruitful visit, and I’m so grateful to those who made it so. Indeed, along the way, this island of democracy proved that it is well positioned to act as our “home base” as we strategically develop a YFU presence across the MENA region. Our volunteer alumni, the teachers, and even the new friends I met on this trip have proven they stand ready to support our development within the country and beyond.
From what I can tell, the country’s stability lies in the continued creation of opportunities for the people—especially in providing a tangible, optimistic future for its youth—and perhaps our programming provides one avenue to supporting just that. YFU’s exchanges are beyond academic, more than fun pictures about food or holidays—they function as a means of engaging with “the other,” or that which is unfamiliar to us, helping to combat extremist views, and get youth engaged with the world. While sharing their own experiences openly, students have the opportunity to increase self-awareness, develop intercultural communications competencies, and learn for themselves that when you get right down to it, our similarities are greater than our differences.
Learn more about the Virtual Exchange Initiative at yfuusa.org/virtual-exchanges