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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Aid worker diary: Supporting refugees crossing into Tunisia

Islamic Relief aid worker Salah Aboulgasem (not pictured above) is currently in Tunisia, delivering aid to refugees escaping the violence in Libya. Below is an excerpt from his latest diary entry.

2 March 2011

Today we arrived in Tunisia, and even after traveling all night to catch our flight from Egypt, we still had a long journey ahead of us. Within 24 hours, we had been to three different countries.

When we arrived in Tunisia, we were greeted by dedicated volunteers, willing to give up their time for the cause. They offered to drive with us on the six-hour journey to help with the work and to deliver the aid we had prepared. We headed in the direction of the Libyan border to an area named Ben Gardane. Even though I had never met these volunteers before, after traveling with them across the Tunisian roads, we discovered that although we lived completely different lives, we all took pleasure in serving others in humanity. We ended the journey feeling the unity of brotherhood, almost as if this was simply another journey of many that we had previously shared before.

As we began to drive closer to the border, from approximately two miles away, the signs of the numbers of people affected started becoming clear. People have constructed makeshift shelters for the time being until they figure out what their next move will be. I wouldn’t describe these as tents but literally just shelters to keep them dry from the rain and shaded from the sun. Some were made from plastic sheets, whereas others used whatever resources they could find around them, such as canvases or trees. The nationalities of these people vary: Many are Egyptian but there are also other Africans and East Asians amongst them. All these people were not prepared for these events and literally have nowhere else to turn. All they can do is sit and wait for the events to unfold.

Closer to the border, in every direction we looked, thousands were sitting and waiting for their next point of action. No matter what direction you looked all you could see was an endless sea of faces. Those on the Libyan side were just praying they would be of the next group allowed into Tunisia, whereas those on the Tunisian side were looking around trying to figure out where to go from there. The business of the area was clear to see. Everyone had their own direction to sail, but they were all on the same boat.

We stopped to speak to some individuals, asking them to explain their situations. It came as a great shock to all of us on the Islamic Relief team when some explained that they had been there for days; one man even told us that he had been there for nine days and had nothing but the clothes he was wearing. The basic essentials were all that was around them.

Personally, I am used to planning days, weeks and even months in advance to make arrangements. I could not imagine having to pick up and go, leaving everything I had worked for behind, because it was the safest thing to do. I am sure you can imagine and understand the anxiety that must accompany this kind of disturbance to everyday life. And on top of that, the lack of comfort psychologically as well as physically just intensifies the tension. Although some take things day by day to keep their spirits up, the atmosphere is tense.

As night falls and the temperature begins to drop, we start to see small fires being set up to keep people warm. After the heavy rainfall over the past few days, the sand and dust has simply turned to mud. The mud is evident on the clothes and faces of the people around, and with very few hygiene facilities, people do not get a chance to shower and wash it away but simply have to live in the dirt for another day. As there are so many people and a fully functioning trash-collecting system hasn’t been set up, the evidence of the numbers can be seen by the waste filling the area.

The entrance of the people coming in from Libya -- a constant flow being let in, small groups at a time -- shows tired and exhausted people, some injured from the violence, many in pain from the amount of walking they have had to do. Although there are already thousands that have crossed the border, little by little, more people are granted access to join them. It is surreal to know that just in front of me is the country of Libya that so many are trying to leave, and only a few yards away is the country of Tunisia, where so many have fled and still so many more are trying to get into. Across the border you can hear the chants of those praying to leave getting louder and louder as they call “Ya Allah,” and as more and more people in the distance call out as well, the echo begins to travel.

As we observe the people who have made it across, we see that all those around us are hungry, tired and disgusted by the smell in the area. The smell is a mixture of dampness, garbage and evidence of lack of washing facilities. The combination of all these small factors continues to strain people. It is difficult.

Islamic Relief has begun distributing individual food packs and hygiene kits. Today these have been delivered to more than 3,000 individuals. The joy that you receive being able to deliver this type of help to people who really need it is indescribable. There are more than 20 Tunisian volunteers with the Islamic Relief staff who have really demonstrated their abilities and proved the importance of neighbors. They have been working alongside us to ensure as much aid can be given as possible. Even though the food packs, hygiene kits and assistance with carrying bags and carrying injured people to ambulances -- all the services we are providing -- are very basic, we are also giving the people hope. They don’t know how drastically things can change -- they don’t even know where their next meal will be from -- but at that moment when they are given any kind of gift, they know they can still continue.

When they see that there are people outside of Libya who know about them and care for their welfare, they continue to believe that they can get through this. Even
though there is hardship and difficulty -- people sleeping on the hard floors, people soaked by the rain, people with no clothes to change into -- they still manage to smile. The hadith of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that “even a smile is charity” really becomes proven in situations like this. When you receive a smile from someone, that means that they are still believing, and when you share a smile with another, you give them something to believe in.

Tomorrow we hope to insha-Allah set up a camp at the site and continue to distribute food packs and hygiene kits to those who have not yet received anything. We can only pray that the weather works in our favor and that the rain does not continue to fall as heavily has it has been. It’s a difficult situation to be in for all these people.

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Read more about Islamic Relief's response to the crisis in Libya.

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