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Rice and baguettes: dispatches from a Tunisian refugee camp

Boys from across Africa are fleeing Libya, but don't wish to return "home." Photo: Jesse Hardman

There is a line that stretches for miles in the desert. A line thousands of people long. A line for food, a line for work, a line for humanity, a line for home. But where and what is home? Being born in a single place no longer satisfies a lifetime. People leave as soon as they are tall enough and strong enough to work. That’s why tens of thousands of Bangladeshis are sitting here, with me, in the middle of the Tunisian desert, looking for rice because they can’t stand the baguettes the locals keep bringing them to eat. And that’s why it’s silly to send them back to the place of their birth, Bangladesh, because that place means nothing to them now — there is no home for them there. Within a few months they will leave again for India, or wherever they can find a job. They were born there, but Bangladesh has provided nothing for them since they became 13-year-old adults, so they left, and they moved to Libya to work for the Chinese, the Koreans, the Europeans.

And don’t tell a Somali he is going home. He has no interest in home, as he can articulate quite well in English. In fact, he can speak four languages if you press him a little (how many can you speak?). Home is not Mogadishu, or Somaliland anymore. Home is a Kenyan refugee camp as a teenager, or in Sudan for a job, or in Tripoli for a slightly better job, and now a U.N. tent in the desert. These Somalis smile, are polite, play soccer at the camp and pray. They are basically stateless right now, and they want to go to Paris, not Khartoum. Minneapolis, not Mogadishu. They are told by the U.N. that that’s not how the world is set up — the world we recognize as governments and international regulations, anyway. But their world is not run by those rules. Their world is based on how much money it takes to get around those rules. Their smiles while they walk hand-in-hand around a growing encampment filled with discarded orange peels, plastic spoons and dusty blankets tell me that they know something I don’t. They are planning something. They will get to Paris or Minneapolis eventually.

Photo: Jesse Hardman

Angry about a proposed move to another refugee camp being constructed by the Emirates, the Sudanese stage a revolt at the massive garbage bin next to the border highway. Hundreds strong, they raise their flag (where did they get a Sudanese flag in the middle of the Tunisian desert?) and sing a song in unison, and march around in a massive push as the rest of the camp watches carefully. This is how information spreads, how voices are heard in this tent city. There is no TV, no radio and no simple announcements giving people the information they need to make it through this tough time.

Eventually the protest peters out; marching in the desert can be exhausting. First the Bangladeshis marched to go home, and then for rice, not baguettes, and then the Somalis marched for a return to anywhere but Sudan or Somalia, and according to one protester’s sign, “more air.” Now it’s the Sudanese’s turn. Tomorrow it will no doubt be the Ghanaians’, whose ranks have swelled to thousands over the last few evenings.

But after a few days, this convergence of nationalities begins to bleed together and become a convergence of humanities. The Bangladeshis make the Ghanaians laugh, the Malians join forces with the Somalis on the soccer field, the Tunisian volunteers try to calm the Sudanese. I walk through the camp to get away from the blue tents where the U.N. plans its rescues of these transmigrated souls, and as I walk I am greeted with “Salam Alaikums” from tiny Bangladeshis, quiet smiles from tall Mali boys, and “How are yous” from grinning Somalis. A young Ghanaian, trying to avoid an angry mob of Sudanese, pulls me aside and asks where he can give his passport to International Organization for Migration, the agency that will hopefully take him home. I help him out, and he breathes a sigh of relief.

Photo: Jesse Hardman

In a few months, hopefully, this camp will become a desert again, and these boys (there are few real men here), will be somewhere safe, working, making money to send to their families.  Maybe they will make it to the promised land, somewhere near where you live, a place where they can work at 7-Eleven and have a small apartment, watch football matches and hopefully find a restaurant that will serve their food. That’s what they want. And if they do make it, I suggest that you treat them like your brother, because the only difference between them and you is where you were born and whom you were born to. That’s a lottery. One that I can’t explain. But I think about it as I walk through the desert, and wonder how it is that I arrived here and why it is that I get to leave when darkness falls.

Jesse Hardman works for Internews, an international nonprofit organization. He recently returned from an assessment of information needs on the Libya/Tunisia border.

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