At a refugee camp in Tunisia, it’s showtime

Aspiring playwright Abdirizak at Choucha Camp in March. Photo: Jesse Hardman

Back in March I met a young writer named Abdirizak. Well, to be fair, his career was just getting going, but he listed writing as his “favorite,” and he seemed pretty dedicated.

And by dedicated, I mean despite the fact that he had just fled for his life from Libya, where he was working as a day laborer, and before that fled his home country of Somalia as it descended into chaos, he still managed to write every day in a little paper notebook.

Abdirizak (who wouldn’t give his last name) and I first talked at the Choucha transit camp, which sits on the Tunisian border with Libya, near a small town named Ben Gardane. In March, I spent a week at the U.N.-Tunisian military co-assisted camp assessing the information needs of the tens of thousands of foreign laborers who had become stranded in the Sahara, briefly refugees on their way back to their countries of origin. Over the first few weeks, Choucha took on the qualities one might expect of any summer camp. People got fed well, organized activities like soccer and movies at night, called home from donated satellite phones, and slept a lot. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis, Nigerians, Ghanaians and others were eventually put on buses, and then planes home.

But for Abdirizak, his fellow Somalis and a few thousand other mostly Eritreans and Sudanese, home no longer exists. Home is a war zone, or a political nightmare, which means they are men, and in this case mostly boys, without a home. The solution to this problem does not seem complicated: getting foreign governments to offer up resettlement opportunities to a few of these refugees at a time.  Simply put, give them a peaceful place to live and work.

When I met Abdirizak he had only logged a couple of days at Choucha, and his smile was still one of optimism. He lived in a small section of the ballooning tent city, surrounded by the thousand or so other Somalis. While his friends incessantly asked me how long I thought they would be stuck in the desert, and whether the rumors of being repatriated to the Sudan instead of Somalia were true, Abdirizak remained calm. He was busy working on something. Something big.

A home at Choucha Camp, provided by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Photo: Jesse Hardman

With the help of a famous Tunisian filmmaker, Salma Bacar, who had come to Choucha to offer some creative distractions, Abdirizak had started writing a play. Tucked into a corner of his green canvas UNHCR (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) tent, he worked for days putting together what turned out to be a musical documenting his exodus from Libya, his arrival in Tunisia and the gratitude he had for his current hosts.

He told me he was going to call his play “A Message to the World,” and his friends gleefully repeated the title as they gathered around him. “YES, a message to the world!”

I asked him to explain this “message” further. Here’s what he said:

“Because we haven’t really a life here. Because the most people here are teenagers, and they need futures, and how to get education. And how to get what I can call developing themselves. We are truly refugees here. And we don’t hope to stay here a long time. We hope to go here soon.”

Although the general advisory by the international aid crowd was not to stay at Choucha past dusk, I left that afternoon but returned a few hours later. I had promised Abdirizak I would. That night was his big debut. Bacar, the filmmaker, had erected a makeshift stage in the center of the camp and hired a public address system. Broadway in the Sahara was about to commence, and “A Message to the World” would be its first production.

Abdirizak was focused, making sure his actors were ready and knew their lines. He was a pro. “I’m very happy. Because tonight is the first night that the many different nations are waiting for my production.”

I can’t say that I understood Abdirizak’s play. It involved a lot of patriotism and some Somali men in drag, and it invoked a lot of laughter, mainly from the other Somalis. But everyone was there that night. Tunisians, Bangladeshis, Ghanaians, Malians and more. A diverse audience by any standard.

Broadway in the Sahara: The Choucha Camp performance. Photo: Jesse Hardman

What stuck with me was that Abdirizak, the refugee, and one of his hosts, a filmmaker, had come together and created something out of nothing, with no assistance from the United Nations or any other international organization. There were answers and solutions inside of them. Indeed, given some creative space, they brought the camp together in a way that no agency had, through a play about humanity and a reminder that everyone at the camp wanted the same thing — peace and the ability to explore their futures.

A few days later I said my goodbyes at Choucha and headed home. I felt a little guilty, partly because I had the luxury of leaving, and partly because I knew Abdirizak and his friends would likely be stuck in the Tunisian desert for a long time. I was right. Three months on they are still braving sandstorms, waiting for a visitor to their tents to tell them where and when they will be able to resume the lives they had hoped for.

The other night I received an e-mail from a U.N. contact explaining that a fire at Choucha had resulted in the deaths of four Eritreans awaiting resettlement. Shortly afterward, I received another e-mail: Some of the remaining camp residents, down to about 4,000 from a peak of about 18,000, had blocked the local road in frustration. They were met by the military. Fighting ensued, and shots were fired. Two were reported dead and 16 injured. Tents were destroyed. News reports say the protesters were mostly Eritreans, Sudanese and Somalis.

The civil war in Libya has unofficially claimed the lives of four, and possibly more, foreign workers who fled to the Tunisian border.  When they died, they were nowhere near the fighting. They would have gladly been at their jobs in Libya, sending money home to their families.

A few lives may not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of the upheaval that is North Africa and the Middle East. But these deaths were preventable. They were the lives of people who did the right thing, fleeing to safety in Tunisia. They were asked to be patient, to spend long days in the hot desert and told that eventually things would get better. Things got worse.

On Monday violence erupted again at the camp as refugees threatened U.N. staff and each other, and were threatened themselves by frustrated local Tunisians.  By Wednesday two-thirds of Choucha had been burned and looted, leaving many of the camp residents living out in the open in the harsh desert climate.

As I take in this news, I wonder what Abdirizak might have witnessed. I wish it were as simple as calling him up and checking in. I imagined him hiding behind a tree with his notebook, observing the events of this past week — the acrid smell of smoldering canvas tents or a stampede of a thousand bodies running from shots fired by the Tunisian military. Part of me wanted to get on a plane, head straight to the Sahara, sit down in Abdirizak’s tent and help him start writing a new play. But even if we could recreate that beautiful night, when Tunisians and refugees came together to enjoy a play most did not understand, it might not have the needed impact. The reality is that Abdirizak needs a new audience, one that includes foreign leaders who can actually pave the way for he and his brethren to escape the desert that has begun to swallow their futures.

Jesse Hardman visited Choucha Camp as part of an information needs assessment for Internews, an international nonprofit organization.

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