TATAOUINE, Tunisia, June 22 (UNHCR) – When Akim and his family fled their home in Libya’s Western Mountains region in mid-April, they had no idea what they would do when they crossed into neighbouring Tunisia.
“We escaped from Nalut in the midst of shelling and fear,” he said, holding his five-year-old boy to his chest. “We had no plan on how to get by in Tunisia.”
After a four-hour drive, they arrived in Tataouine in southern Tunisia. Akim, 42, stopped to buy breakfast for his wife Dina and their three children, and met Tunisian couple Anwar and Samira in the pastry shop.
Akim recalled the encounter: “He told me, ‘If you have no place for the night, you are welcome to stay at my home.’ We are lucky. Since the very same day that we arrived in Tataouine, we have got a roof over our heads to protect us from the sun and a bed for the night.”
He was expressing his relief to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, during a visit to Tunisia last week ahead of World Refugee Day.
Since the start of the conflict in Libya, over 300,000 Libyans have crossed into Tunisia through the official border points at Ras Adjir and Dehiba. Many have since returned. Currently, some 1,500 Libyan refugees are living in camps managed by UNHCR and the UAE Red Crescent in Remada and Dehiba. Many more – an estimated 60,000 – have found refuge with host families in Tunisia’s southern regions, mainly in Tataouine and Medenine.
“This is an extraordinary example of solidarity,” said Guterres. “There would be no major refugee crisis if refugee-hosting communities were as generous and hospitable as the Tunisian people.”
Anwar, who is the Director of Tataouine’s Informatics Centre for Children, was deeply affected by the mass influx into his town. “Hundreds of Libyans have been sleeping with their families in their pickups on the sides of the main road in the outskirts of Tataouine,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “Compassion and empathy are not enough to help my Libyan brothers.”
Like thousands of other Tunisians, Anwar and Samira actively engaged in a community-based network to support Libyan refugees in Tataouine. He registered with several local relief associations for his house to be shared with needy Libyan refugees, while Samira started volunteering with UNHCR to help identify those displaced among the local community.
“We are happy we could help by opening the doors of our home to Akim and his family,” said Anwar with pride.
UNHCR has committed over US$3 million in agreements with the Tunisian Ministry of Social Affairs, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Women’s Affairs to support the development of the host community and enhance the reception capacity of existing community services and health infrastructure.
Some 8,000 food packages have been distributed to Libyan refugees living with host families in southern Tunisia. In Remada and Tataouine towns, UNHCR has launched a pilot project with local authorities to contribute approximately $36 every month to help each Tunisian host family cover the additional costs of water and electricity.
By Rocco Nuri in Tataouine, Tunisia