After Search, young Tunisians become leaders against extremist violence

by Hana Khaldi, Wissem Missaoui, Blake Kraus

on December 17, 2017

Since its foundation in 2011, Search – Tunisia has touched the lives of thousands of young people. Our projects helped them find a voice in the political arena, learn how to use art to shift cultural norms, and prevent radicalization into violent extremist groups.

But what happens once the projects end? How do these Search alumni continue on the peacebuilder’s path in their own lives?

Read the testimonies of four of them who participated in the Bottom-Up Approach to Countering Violent Extremism in Tunisia project.

(These testimonies have been slightly edited for clarity.)

Afef Heni, 24

Afef participated in the Bottom-Up Approach to Countering Violent Extremism in Tunisia project and worked on the small grant of the Youth and Skills civil society organization in Bizerte. Her short film Who Am I? addresses the struggle of a suicidal young man who is tempted to succumb to violent extremism.

“I was born with a serious health condition and was expected to die just days after my birth. My parents left me with an old woman they knew in Kairouan. She was like a grandmother to me and took care of me until her last breath.

When she died, I was so shocked that I couldn’t speak for a few days. My father came to the funeral and took me to live with him in Tunis. It was difficult for me to start a new life in a big city. Students in my new high school didn’t accept me. I felt like a stranger.

Afef Heni, 24

This feeling of isolation led me to focus on my studies. To meet people, I started participating in my school’s art clubs, where I developed a passion for photography and video making.

My best friend’s brother went to Syria to fight with the extremist groups. He left his sick father and heartbroken mother behind. After a few months, I tried to reach him through social media so that I could make a short movie about him. The idea was to raise awareness among youth of the consequences of radicalization. He told me that he was desperate, that he wanted to wake up and find that this was all just a dream. I tried to convey his sense of remorse through film, so that young people would think twice about making the same mistake he did.

I made this short film with the help of the Youth and Skills Organization located in Bizerte, where it also premiered.

Making the film helped me believe in myself and pushed me to continue pursuing this path. Because of its support, I decided to join the Youth and Skills Organization and participate in its activities. I’m happy to travel from Tunis to Bizerte whenever the organization calls me because I appreciate their efforts and want to continue to make a difference.”

Lotfi Abdelkbir, 24

Lofti participated in the dialogue sessions of the Bottom-Up Approach to Countering Violent Extremism in Tunisia project and in the Preventing Violent Extremism: unemployed youth as a model initiative held by a local civil society organization in Ben Guerdene.

“When I was 15, I saw a poster for a first aid training session with the Red Crescent. It was a chance for me to discover the humanitarian work that they do. I made the best decision of my life that day and signed up for their seminar.

Participating in the National Youth seminar with the Red Crescent was my first opportunity to meet people from outside of my town, Ben Guerdene. I was lucky to hear about their experiences. The Red Crescent became my passion and I decided to turn working in civil society into a career.

After the revolution in Libya, many refugees crossed the Tunisian border and settled in Camp Choucha, in Ras Jedir. It was only 25 kilometers away from me and I went to help. For the first time, I was asked to provide logistical support and humanitarian assistance in a refugee camp. I was responsible for a depot full of food, clothes, and medicine. I prepared more than 1,700 deportation and re-integration files in coordination with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It was a challenging and life-changing experience for me.

I was thrilled to get a job with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in December 2016 . One day, while I was wearing my ICRC uniform at the camp, a bearded man approached me and said that I was not allowed to enter because I was dressed like a Christian. I wasn’t surprised, as Ben Guerdene is known for very conservative — sometimes extremist — attitudes. Over the years, many people from Ben Guerdene joined violent extremist groups in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Mali. I have friends who joined groups in Syria in 2012 and 2013. Before one of my friends traveled to Syria, I tried to convince him otherwise, but, unfortunately, I failed.

Things changed in Ben Guerdene on March 7th, 2016 when a violent extremist group tried to invade the city and declare it an Islamic state. People started to reject violent extremism. The city was militarized after the incident. Checkpoints were at every major intersection and in front of the important institutions.

On those days, I saw horrible violence myself. The sound of bullets and the bloody clothes on dead bodies still haunt me whenever I walk around the city. I cannot erase the memory of my best friend dying in front of me in the hospital. I was emotionally devastated, but it didn’t stop me from coordinating with the Red Crescent and other local hospitals to get blood where it was needed for the injured.

‘I want to live like normal people do, so why should I be constantly in fear of extremist violence?’ I thought. So, a few days after the attack, me and a few friends posted positive messages on Facebook and shared pictures of us playing soccer and drinking coffee in the city’s coffee shops. It was a simple act to show that we are still resisting and surviving. Violent extremism was not going to stop us from doing the things we loved to do. It was not going to stop us from living our lives.

When I heard about Search for Common Ground’s Countering Violent Extremism Project, I immediately decided to participate. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss the reasons pushing youth to join extremist groups.

I believe that all the efforts to prevent and transform violent extremism should be encouraged. The most important thing is that we work in Ben Guerdene together, as a collective of local organizations. Collaboration was successful in the past and I hope it will succeed this time too. When this project ends, I will continue this work. All of our efforts will be wasted if others in the community don’t stand with us in the fight against extremist violence.”

Abdelmonam Azaies, 24

Abdelmonem participated in the dialogue sessions of the Bottom-Up Approach to Countering Violent Extremism in Tunisia project and in all the activities of the local organization Jeunesse de la Culture et du Dialogue in Sahline, Monastir.

“When I was 14, I met a group of religious extremists. I was captivated by them because they provided clear answers to my questions — something I couldn’t find anywhere else. Because of that, I had troubles with my family, especially my father, who always disagreed with what I had to say. When I started to research what the extremists told me, I found that they followed religious quotes literally word for word.

I consider myself lucky because I separated myself from their group. Some of them went to fight in Syria and died. I could have been one of them.

After the Revolution in 2011, that very same extremist group tried to recruit non-practicing youth. My town, Sahline, has lost 12 good young men who were radicalized and died in Syria. By virtue of its proximity to Sousse, Sahline was also affected by the terrorist attack in June 2015. It caused economic harm to the hotel workers, who were left unemployed. Many local handicraft shops were closed. I was anxious and worried about the future of my country.

Abdelmonam Azaies, 24

Because of the increased number of radicalized young people, we founded the “Youth of Dialogue and Culture” organization in Sahline. The organization offered a space for dialogue and transforms the religious discourse among youth. Our projects combined art activities with religious narratives. One of my roles was to organize theater plays. Additionally, I ran training sessions and seminars about violent extremism.

There, I learned that art can influence everyday behavior. It can give youth good role models that steer them away from violent extremism. I use these teachings in my work with the organization and in my own personal efforts to make a change in my community.

The organization’s projects motivated young people to seek solutions to violent extremism. I think that the increased number of young people in our organization and the growth of our activities will benefit our community. Hopefully, we can reach the majority of youth in Sahline. I want people to know that each and every one of them has a role to play in preventing violent extremism, not just the government. I want them to believe that they can make a difference.”

Ala Ferchichi, 28

Ala participated in the dialogue sessions and shared learning lessons of the Bottom-Up Approach to Countering Violent Extremism in Tunisia project and worked in the small grant of the local organization Ibtikar Masrahi in Siliana as a volunteer teaching theater to youth.

“Growing up, I was shy and introverted. At school I was bullied. I spent a lot of time alone in my room, watching cartoons and reading books. Inspired by these activities, I gained a creative imagination and started writing my own stories. I decided to use my creativity to entertain children so they don’t have to go through what I faced.

A normal day for me is divided between my work at the local Youth Center and supervising theater clubs in schools. As of now, we have involved over 60 students in the various clubs. Each club is working on their own play that will be performed at the end of the school-year ceremony.

I was shocked by the terrorist attack that happened in Sousse back in June 2015, not only because of the tragedy itself but because the extremist who did it was from Gaafour, where I work. I didn’t know him personally but he was a dancer at the Youth Center. When news of the attack came, everyone couldn’t believe that it had been committed by a seemingly normal young man from Gaafour. It was hard to accept it because we didn’t notice any signs of radicalization in his behavior. We still don’t know what changed him and caused him to harm to innocent people.

Ala Ferchichi, 28

At the same time, the attack served as a reminder that we need to understand the reasons for radicalization if we are to prevent young people from pursuing the same path of violent extremism.

Thus, I have made it my goal to prevent youth from radicalizing by teaching them values like love. Whenever I find an opportunity to talk with people, I always talk about love and what it represents. I deeply believe that only through spreading love can we build a strong, nonviolent society. That’s what I try to share in the theater. We chose violent extremism as a theme for the sketches performed by the students because art is one of the best means of spreading love and tolerance.

This project also motivated me to continue working on my upcoming book on violent extremism. Until then, I will continue to organize cultural festivals and performances in schools. I want to make the population of Gaafour aware of the importance of these projects and encourage them to volunteer!”