Tunisia: Faced With a Life in Limbo

Photo credit: NY Times
NATO's five month bombing campaign in Libya under the guise of protecting civilians has not only caused major disruptions to the lives of thousands of Libyan civilians but it has also taken its toll on countless numbers of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa who took up refuge in Libya after fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries.

In this two part series I'll introduce two young women whose lives were turned upside down when the "Arab Spring" reached Libya, and explore how they've managed to overcome their obstacles while faced with a life in limbo.

Twenty-year-old Eiman and her family was living a fairly good life in Libya before the war hit. Her parents, originally from Darfur, fled to Libya where Eiman and her brothers and sister were born.

At the time of the conflict, Eiman was in her third year of university where she was pursuing a degree in agronomy and nutrition but those dreams had to be put on hold as the situation worsened.

"We were so scared when fighting erupted between pro and anti-Gaddafi forces on my street because we could hear the guns, people were shouting and everyone was running from one area to the next trying to find safety," explains Eiman in an interview with Her Blueprint. "The security situation became unbearable when NATO started bombing and eventually we fled to Tunisia. My father who was in Benghazi working at the time of the fighting had to flee to Egypt and we're waiting for him to join us here in Tunisia."

Located in the middle of the desert along the main Libyan coastal highway leading to Tripoli just east of the southern Tunisian border crossing of Ras Ajdir, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) run Shousha camp has become home to thousands of refugees like Eiman since the outbreak of the Libyan war.

For most inhabitants of the camp, daily life has become difficult.

"The food is bad and there are scorpions in the desert but we are trying to stay strong and support each other," adds Eiman. I'm just waiting to be resettled in a safe place so I can finish my studies and work towards obtaining my masters and PhD."

With no future in sight, thousands of sub-Saharan Africans - mainly from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria - wander back and forth in a cycle of uncertainty that has led many into a state of depression. For women, this new life of limbo has added even more headaches as they are submerged in a sea of men.

"Hygiene facilities are inadequate for women who have to deal with menstrual cycles and require certain maternal health needs," Genet, a female migrant worker from Ethiopia told Her Blueprint. "Sometimes we feel unsafe living here because the men greatly outnumber women."

Sitting inside the UNHCR headquarters at the Shousha camp, Eiman fumbles around on her laptop checking out the latest updates on her Facebook with other young people who have found themselves in the same boat as her.

Eiman's ability to speak English and Arabic landed her a job as a translator with the UNHCR, which relies heavily on young people like Eiman to communicate with community leaders about problems, changes or the bureaucratic process of obtaining refugee or asylum status to the hundreds of individuals that line up along the UNHCR's secured fences daily.

"I was lucky to get this job because by working I'm able to not only make money but also I can keep busy because for most people the difficulty is boredom, eating the same food everyday and restrictions on freedom of movement, which causes many to fall into a state of depression," Eiman says. "Because I have a bit of income I usually go to the nearby town of Ben Guerdane and shop in the local souk for fruits and sometimes clothes."

I met Eiman randomly while speaking with a Tunisian doctor who was working inside a makeshift health facility that catered to Shousha residents. She wandered by on her way to visit a female friend from Somalia during her mid-day break from translation work. We crossed paths as we were both heading to our separate directions and she stopped me and insisted that I come to meet her new found friends at the UNHCR who were also doing similar work.

During that first day while meeting with the others, one of the male translators from Sudan emerged into the tent with a smile and a paper that indicated that he was officially recognized as a refugee, which would mean that he's eligible to seek resettlement in the west.

Luckily Eiman and her family were also greeted with similar news as their claim for resettlement was accepted by the Norwegian government.

"I've tried to stay positive throughout this whole ordeal and I'm really excited to settle in Norway, resume my studies and try to rebuild a life of normalcy but the reality is that although we've been accepted we still have to wait for security checks and other procedures before we can actually leave this place so it could take some time but just hearing the news keeps our spirits high," Eiman said.

Unfortunately the plight of the thousands of other refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants stranded on the Libyan-Tunisian and Egypt-Libyan border remains dire as those fleeing violence have become the hidden victims of this war.

Prolonged stay in substandard conditions has forced many to risk their lives again and return to Libya via smugglers with hopes of boarding a rickety boat heading for Europe. More than 30,000 migrants and refugee from Tunisia and Libya have opted for the treacherous journey to the Italian island of Lampedusa in the last year but with the recent deaths of twenty-five refugees aboard a boat carrying 271 passengers, including 36 women and 21 children, highlights a reality that many will perish while trying to flee violence for a second time.