Written by: Leila Ben-Gacem
When I was 4 and Hazem my brother was 3, my father decided to go back to University in the US, after working 10 years for the Tunisian government. Since then, Hazem never came back, but I made four home return attempts.
We grew up between UAE and USA, throughout my school years there was never another Tunisian in any of my classrooms, other than Hazem, my brother.
My first return was after my studies in the US, I got a Degree in Biomedical Engineering. I was 22 and Tunisia to me was a happy summer vacation in Beni-Khalled our home town, or the beach in Nabeul. Both were dream places, Beni-Khalled is the only place on the planet where my mum let us wonder in the streets without her, almost everyone was a relative somehow.
After Graduation, I felt the need to be home and serve my people, I wanted to work in the Ministry of Health, with a head full of medical technology, also wanted to work in the public sector like most of my family and my father. But I needed to get the ‘equivalence’ which took eight months. Until this day, I don’t understand why the Ministry of Higher Education would need eight months to process the equivalence of my studies and decide whether I am an Engineer or not; and in fact, they decided that I was not, and my degree was equivalent to ‘Technician de la Sante’ So I can’t work at the Ministry of Health, and since I was a technician, I accepted a job for 150 Dinars monthly salary. It was depressing, but I decided to work and make the best out of it.
I was in my 20’s and social life is important, but people my age consider perfect French an essential socialization factor, but my French was bad and still is. There was also social pressure, I mean coming back from the US with no green card nor a car or a husband… What a loser I was.
I worked very hard, because I wanted to fill my time and forget all the social, administrative and financial pressure. Then something Unexpected happened; since I worked so hard, I got headhunted by a multinational corporation based in Germany. I looked at the offer at the time, the salary had a few more zeros to my salary at the time, and the position was exciting… I said to myself, I am an engineer because of merit not the degree nor the ‘equivalence’.
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So, I moved to Germany, and it was a breath of fresh air… workwise I was at the for front of my field and financially, I can finally afford to go out in the weekends and had friends from all over the world. In the summers when I come back to Tunisia, I often visit CNSS, because I would like to contribute to my retirement in Tunisia; but the CNSS system does not allow it. So, I was paying social security in Germany, which I will not benefit from and can’t pay in Tunisia, where I will hopefully retire.
After 4 years in Germany, the company I was working for, sold our department; and all of us employees went through so much uncertainty; will they fire us or will they keep us… This uncertainty made me realize the importance of being home, at home no one can ask you to leave.
I decided to resign and go back home, so the first person I called was my mum, and when she learnt of my wish to return to Tunisia, she was very angry ‘what is there to return for? People are escaping and you want to come back?’
Her words shocked me, shook me and made me more determined to go back home, but also made me go into deep thinking… What are we lacking; here I am in Germany sorting my garbage, working in a multinational corporation; why can’t we have multi-national corporations?
I came back for good for the 2nd time, and social pressure was worst; I was a returning Engineer from Germany, with no car, no apartment not even a piece of land. This social pressure makes many compatriots stuck, unable to come back home, since they were unable to satisfy social expectations of returning nationals.
My 2nd come back from Germany, I felt less vulnerable with a much better CV, but I wanted to start my own business, but failed miserably… The administration, the banks, the clients… I felt I was on an unknown planet with unhuman codes that I was not able to fit in. I became broke, financially and morally, and that made me accept a job offer in Libya. My family did not like the idea of a single women working in Libya, but I so needed a new start, and financially I couldn’t reject a job offer.
I moved to Libya, and worked there for one year. The salary was peanuts, but I learnt something very important, and that is not to look for a system, every situation has its own rules depending on people involved.
I worked very hard in Libya, loved the people, they were survivors, but life was tough, and I did not accept renewal of my contract, and came back to Tunisia for the 3rd time.
By now people know what a loser I am, this frees you from social pressure… no one asking about the car the Dar and blue passport. And now I am going to give launching a business a 2nd try, now I will become a Social Entrepreneur, and only work on things that have meaning and impact, I will create a business that give hope to youth and give us all a sense of belonging that would make us all want to stay home.
I started a company called Blue Fish, and wanted to help small companies export – globalization and multinational corporation, started with small exports… Our country is small, you can’t grow a business with just the local market, you need to export to grow your business.
But the sad reality is that Tunisia is only successful at exporting people, but try to export a Margoum, and it will cost you an arm and a leg, and the probability of getting investigated for money laundering, when 100euro show up at your little bank account, make you want to abandon export all together. Small exports in Tunisia only support the banking system, not the exporter.
We need to free exports, so that any Tunisian can create a living for themselves, anywhere in Tunisia, instead of dreaming of the boats of death. Banks love it when our diaspora send money but it makes your life hell, when you live in Tunisia and receive money from abroad.
Today I am also an elected city councillor in Beni-Khalled, and it is not as magical as it used to be in my childhood… and by the way, I am also a loser politician… But I have learnt so much in my life journey, and want to give back to my little city… but even here there is social pressure… I keep on hearing ‘your ideas are not for Tunisia’ ‘that works outside of Tunisia not for us’ ‘your place is not here’…
To close, as long as there is Harissa and canned Tuna in Olive oil, Tunisians can live anywhere, but there is no place better than the land of Harissa, olive oil and tuna. My journey taught me that there is no loser, on the journey towards a big dream. Big changes are needed, its challenging but not impossible… let’s all be losers; most important Tunisia wins.
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Leila Ben-Gacem is a social entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow; founder of Blue Fish, a consultancy that works on improving the economic dynamics and social inclusion, of heritage and culture to improve its preservation. Leila also founded Dar el Harka, a creative industry hub; Dar Ben Gacem, a Boutique Hotel and cultural catalyst in the medina of Tunis. Leila is also a founder and president of M’dinti, Medina’s first economic interest group. Leila is an elected city council member at her native town of Beni-Khalled. Before switching careers, Leila held various positions at multinational corporations and has a BS in Biomedical Engineering.
Thank you for relaying your experiences. It brings into my life far away, the reality of living in Tunisia. I’ve done a very small amount of traveling in north Africa but I find it pulls me back strongly. I’m constantly asked, “What is it? What draws you back?” It’s the amazing ‘heart’ I find in the people there; so generous, so open, so colorful, so accepting. Yet I know, to a very small degree, there are such huge challenges, a very different side, also, that I do not face in my brief visits. Huge kudos to you to just go, stick it out, and make the difference you can.