Choucha Refugee Camp — Jewellery making is helping teenage refugee Abdel* cope with life in a Tunisian refugee camp, get over a tragic past and prepare for a future that is starting to look rosier to him.
"Today I'm discovering another world in Tunisia," the 16-year-old from Côte d'Ivoire told recent UNHCR visitors to the Choucha refugee camp, where he has been living since March last year. As an unaccompanied minor, he is a person of concern to UNHCR, which is working with the Tunisian government to find solutions for those still in Choucha before the camp closes in June.
For most of his time here, Abdel has felt totally isolated and simply bored in the camp, which lies in an arid area between the town of Ben Guerdane and the nearby border with Libya. "In Choucha we live in a world apart and you gradually become isolated from the outside," he explained.
But his spirits began to rise last month, when he started taking part in a pilot skills training programme organized by the UN refugee agency and the Danish Refugee Council with the help of the Tunisian Agency for Vocational Training. He opted for the jewellery making course conducted at the Centre for Handicrafts Instruction and Training in the town of Gabes, about 140 kilometres to the north-west of Choucha.
UNHCR's vocational training programme also includes courses in subjects such as plaster carving and moulding, assembly and welding techniques, and information computer technology. These are being held in Gabes or Ben Guerdane.
About 100 refugees living in Choucha and urban areas are taking part in these five-month-long courses, including 15 in the jewellery making classes attended by Abdel. "The purpose is to equip refugees with new skills and know-how so they can become self-sufficient," noted Nicole dos Remedios, a UNHCR programme officer based in southern Tunisia. The programme is also aimed at encouraging local integration.
Abdel and his fellow students, refugees and Tunisians, are learning how to both design and create pieces of jewellery. They eat at the centre and sleep in dormitories while the course is under way. They also get to form valuable new friendships with other refugees and Tunisians during their welcome break.
For some, like Abdel, the courses can also help them recover from trauma and give them more confidence and hope. His parents had to flee Côte d'Ivoire for unspecified reasons and they settled in Libya, where he was born. They lived in the coastal of Zliten, where his mother died when he was just five years old.
But further tragedy was in store. After the uprising against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi began in February 2011, sub-Saharan Africans living in Libya as migrant workers or asylum-seekers were often attacked as suspected Gaddafi mercenaries. Many were too scared to leave their apartments.
In May 2011, a gang of armed assailants wearing hoods broke into Abdel's home and raped his sister before killing her and their father, when the latter tried to intervene. The boy was dragged off into detention, where he remained for the next 10 months "There were about 30 of us crammed into a room. I learned that we were in [the city of] Misrata," he recalled, adding that some people left and never returned.
After 10 months, he was released and went across the border to Choucha, which at its peak in March 2011 held tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the unrest in Libya. Those unable to stay in Tunisia or return to Libya or their countries of origin remained in Choucha, though hundreds have been resettled in third countries.
As the months dragged on in Choucha, where climate conditions are difficult, Abdel decided he must do something to help himself. "I couldn't just sit idle in the camp, wondering what I'm doing here every day. Finally, I started thinking about something concrete and training is just the beginning," he explained enthusiastically.
Today, there are 1,358 people residing in the camp, including 1,123 refugees and 22 asylum-seekers. Some 400 of the refugees have not been accepted for resettlement and UNHCR is examining social and economic integration options. The vocational training courses are part of this initiative. In Abdel's case, UNHCR is also trying to trace relatives in Côte d'Ivoire.
Most of those taking part in the courses are young males, but a few women have also signed up. Danish Refugee Council project officer Gianmaria Pinto said the course has been a great success to date. "At the last session before the end of year break, the refugees did not wish to return to Choucha," he said, adding that more people had now started applying to take courses.
Abdel, meanwhile, has started to think about a life after Choucha. "This course gives me new hope and motivates me to continue my studies. For the first time in years, I'm sleeping well. My life is starting to improve and I hope it will continue like this. "
* Name changed for protection reasons