“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” or so the expression goes. There’s no better way to conclude a summer in Tunis. In the middle of the day when we leave the UNHCR offices, the sun is like an oven roasting our bodies, and I swear my heart slows down. The breeze feels as though I am standing in front of a hot campfire in the dead of August. Yet, there we are, all of us, locals and foreigners alike waiting for our collective taxi at the side of the road like we do everyday, rain or shine (or should I say, shine or more shine). It’s not just the heat, but there’s something about life here that has shown me a certain tenacity that people have that really unites us all. I could instead say, “when the going gets tough, everyone still gets going.”
This train of thought provided the base upon which I was able to reflect on my summer at the UNHCR as an intern and an observer in this complicated place. Tenacity is a real necessity here – for strangers on the street, for asylum seekers arriving in a new place, or for our colleagues that work each day assisting these arriving refugees. During my internship and throughout my legal studies so far, I have likewise thought that it is not doing human rights or legal work that makes someone remarkable, but it is how that work is done that defines it as impactful. There is a gentle balance between understanding one’s position in this world and also one’s role as just a human on this earth that is both uniting and complex. This balancing act was felt even more potently during my time this summer.
One of the main issues I worked on throughout my time at the UNHCR was the 2023 conflict in Sudan. Due to the political crises earlier in the year, Sudanese residents have been forced to flee (as they have been for years) and they have taken and are taking perilous journeys to Tunisia by way of crossing borders through the help of smugglers and facing imprisonment and torture along the way. Projects I worked on during my internship tried to address direct needs for Sudanese refugees including cash assistance and homelessness when they arrived, psychological and physical strain, and most recently, the expelling of Sudanese asylum seekers, amongst other refugees, from Tunisia.
When we see the difficulties these individuals face and their protests in front of the UNHCR asking for immediate assistance, one tends to think they should be helped based on our role as humanitarian workers. While that is true, I do not think it is just this position that should drive us. Instead, the driving force should also be the principle that one day, you might need the help of others too. Perhaps at some point, years from now, the tables may be turned, and our own country is in crisis. This type of work sometimes appears to be affected by an “othering” – as in, there is us and there are those who we help, establishing an imaginary border between our communities.
Yet, it ought to be the values and the principles that we formulate based on shared difficulties as “humans” rather than our experiences as “humanitarians” that should establish the dialogue of our everyday lives. This brings me back to the collective taxi. Waiting in the heat together, locals and foreigners, we are all trying to do the same thing: get a ride home. Getting a taxi might usually be a hectic process, but during harder and hotter times of the day, taxi riders slow down and help each other. Why can’t the immigration process be the same? Although immigrants and workers have different conditions and backgrounds with regards to immigration, we are all in need of comfort, safety, and assurances.
During my work this summer, I saw admirable examples of breaking this “othering” barrier and a way to look at human rights work as simply “human work,” especially regarding the help provided to Sudanese nationals. For example, my supervisor, sitting on the ground in her work clothes for two hours to speak with Sudanese protestors in a neutral location of their choosing. She acknowledged their thoughts no matter what they had to say about their journeys, about their problems and even heard their opinions on UNHCR, making this process more humane. There was the circle of chairs we made for our LGBTQI+ (the acronym used by UNHCR Tunis) discussion, interspersing staff between asylum seekers so we could share jokes with them, or they could look at different faces while they expressed their difficulties aloud. There was no hierarchy, simply a discussion where the holder of the item at hand was the speaker.
It is not that the experiences of workers and refugees are on equal footing or that we can truly empathize with everything we see or hear. It is just that when things are hard, we help each other simply because they are so hard. What can actually be done is highly limited in the Tunisian context by international law, partnerships, the government, and of course, money. Yet, somebody has to at least try. It is the action of trying that is both frustrating for and admirable about the doer of these actions.
I walk away from this internship with a U.N. vest and badge, but it is not the vest or the badge that gives me or anyone their legitimacy (in fact, I never wore that vest). It is what one does and how one does it that really matters. I look at my colleagues and the individual refugees we work with, and I see everyone for their journey and their tenacity. We cannot approach each moment in our work with the sympathy it probably requires, for that is normalcy. But it is up to each individual to note what about their work or their journey makes it so “human” and thus, drives us to hold onto that “toughness” that helps us to relate to each other in the way that we all deserve.