While much media attention is on Libya as a country of transit for migrants and refugees, a stepping stone on the way to Europe; there seems to be little focus on displaced Libyans themselves. The descent into chaos of this desert land has forced many of its citizens into leaving its territory to seek safety, the majority settling in Tunisia. Numbers are hard to gauge since most do not seek refugee status. The more privileged, some of whom already owned businesses in Tunisia, tend to settle in urban or touristic areas whereas those with fewer economic resources mostly stay in the Tunisian south, where life is cheaper. The arrival of Libyans in Tunisia has had varying consequences. Added pressure on hospitals, an inundation of black market petrol, and heightened security fears of a proliferation of arms and extremists (including Tunisians) has given the Tunisian state cause for concern. On the other hand, at a time of a steep drop in tourism receipts, the Libyan spending has been a boon for the local economy.
In Tunisia, Thrǣdable met Aya*, 23, a Libyan student forced to continue her studies outside of Libya due to its collapse. She gave us her time to give us an insight into the predicament of Libyans in Tunisia, a neighbouring country many Libyans have migrated to.
Why did you leave Libya?
I left my country for Morocco after the French Lycée (High school) of Tripoli was closed following the attack on the French embassy. Currently I am in Tunisia to continue my studies. What is happening in Libya is very complicated. Libya is seriously affected by an economic, political and social crisis. Many Libyans emigrated to Tunisia for medical reasons, and because of the security issues that exist in certain parts of Libya, others are now emigrating to Europe.
At the same time, many Libyans decided to return to their country hoping that the situation improves one day. In fact, many Libyans used to benefit from indemnities from the ex National Council, insurance companies and even oil companies with the purpose of helping the rebels – victims of the revolution. They then used this money to receive medical treatment abroad. However the Libyan Dinar dropping massively in value against the Dollar, as well as the disorganisation of groups, led to a fall in the number of Libyans who received payments or had treatment in Tunisia or further afield due to their new precarious financial situation.
Libya’s neighbour, Tunisia today hosts approximately 350,000 Libyans according to Mahmoud Ben Rhomdane, the Tunisian Social Affairs Minister. The Interior Minister estimates much more than this. How has Tunisia welcomed you?
To my knowledge, Tunisia is a country that is facing an economic crisis. Despite this, Tunisians are a hospitable people and accepted to receive Libyans due to our living conditions. Libyans live and cohabit with Tunisians, who themselves have set up organisations to help us find our feet in Tunisia. There are quite a few Libyans who work and study here. Personally, I have been offered the possibility of participating in an international day, during which I represented my nation, thanks to my participation in civil society. I have spent wonderful moments here and I haven’t had any difficulties in integrating despite it being normal to feel as an outsider during the first few days in a country that is different to your own. So I can say that despite its challenges, Tunisia has succeeded in integrating Libyans because we are Arabs and the people who know me tell me that we are all brothers and sisters and that it is the least they can do.
Being an Arab-Muslim migrant in an Arab-Muslim country do you feel closer to the Tunisians rather than sub-Saharan migrants? Out of curiosity, have you ever suffered discrimination in Tunisia?
As a Libyan in Tunisia, I have never been discriminated against. In fact, I have visited many countries and Tunisia is the one I appreciate the most, its people too. Psychologically I feel great here, I have made friends and also have family here. At the start, I met many students who come from sub-Saharan Africa and after I started to meet more Tunisians. I am part of an organisation which brings together many migrants and had the chance to take part in many of their meetings. I find it is amazing to know people from various nationalities and backgrounds. So in sum I can say I am close to both groups.
There are those who say that the fact that Tunisian education is francophone renders the schooling of Libyans – more arabophone – more difficult. Is this reality, and if yes, how is it overcome?
Certainly! French-speaking Libyans like myself are only a minority, even if there are Libyans who benefit from a French education system via long-distance teaching or African schools. As you said, whatever the level of schooling, in Libya the majority of subjects are taught in Arabic. Private schools are the only ones to offer teaching in English. But it goes further than school. Libyan migrants in Tunisia encounter difficulties in understanding French daily because French is effectively considered an official language in Tunisia. For example, in some restaurants, the menu is written in French. It’s just one of the difficulties that they face. I have recently met a Libyan who was interested in a particular training programme but couldn’t apply because he is an anglophone. So yes it is a reality. For me this challenge can be overcome by pushing organisations that seek to help migrants and refugees to offer lessons in French (or even simply communicating in French) because there are numerous Libyans who are very motivated and want to learn this language in any way possible.
Do you think that Libyan students have the same chances of finding employment at the end of their studies in Tunisia as the Tunisians? Is there any employment discrimination?
The fact of finding a job depends on the acquisition of a number of skills. The most important is that of languages. Keeping in mind the fact that most Libyans are arabophone and anglophone, they have some trouble in entering the Tunisian job market because French is used extensively in professional communication. It is not a question of discrimination, Libyans who speak multiple languages and have a good academic history as well as professional experience have a higher chance of being employed in Tunisia – just like Tunisians.
How do you see the future of your country?
My point of view might be different to that of other Libyans. I think the future of my country depends upon the future generation and especially the Libyans who will have studied abroad. Libya is a resource-rich country with a varied culture and rich history. However, the education system needs to be reexamined and restructured. It will certainly take a lot of time, as was the case for the French revolution. In fact, many Libyans were inspired by this and still maintain some hope. We need 20 years at least to restructure Libya.
*The name has been changed to protect her identity.
The views expressed reflect those of the interviewee and not necessarily those of Thrǣdable.
This article was originally posted on Thrǣdable.