In February I joined friends living in Tunis, Tunisia on a trip to Thala, one of the coldest parts of Tunisia to distribute petrol, mattresses, and blankets to families in need. Thala was a central place of revolutionary fervor last year at the start of the Arab Spring. On our way to there, we began to drive through snow-covered plains. Some fellow bus passengers told me that it never snows in Tunisia, that what they were seeing was like snow falling in Hawaii.

When we reached the town five hours later, the roads were not safe for driving to the individual homes of the families we came to visit. Unable to take the trucks any further, we stopped at a farm at the top of the road. As we stood in front of the barn, a man pointed out where the homes were. Each one was spaced out a quarter of a mile or so from each other across the snow covered field. The three trucks that were with us were filled to the brim with clothes, shoes, petrol and mattresses that were donated within five days of a post on a Facebook calling for goods. The trucks positioned themselves in the snow and mud. Our organizers tried to discern what to do.

Eventually we formed a human supply chain to move the goods from the trucks into the barn. Afterwards, as people left the barn to go outside, I stood behind the barn door trying to avoid the wind. Another guy stayed behind as well and sat on a bag of rice watching the people outside in the snow through the barn door. To my surprise he spoke English and I sat on the rice bag next to him and we talked. He was part of the local NGO that sent out the SOS on Facebook. I asked him about the snow. He told me it snowed 3-4 months out of the year every year in Thala. This was not like snow in Hawaii, as I had been told; this was like snow in Iowa. It dawned on me how separated Tunisians have been from each other.

A few leaders in the group wanted to take goods directly to the families, and a doctor with us wanted to check their health. We left the trucks behind and took a few cars to the nearest home. Almost half of the bus passengers walked into the mud home where 7 people lived with no heating, no electricity, and no gas for cooking. The family’s two girls, ages six and twelve, didn’t have shoes. They wore cotton shirts and pants. They had an ability to withstand conditions that no one among us could even for an hour. They looked confused about what we were doing there and why we were pointing at their feet and throwing clothes onto their backs.

The next afternoon I was sitting in traffic in Tunis, the capital, with a friend. He turned the news up louder on the radio when the broadcaster began talking about the conditions in Thala, where we had been the day before. Pipes were freezing, and electricity was off. “This is the first time we are getting the real news from the region,” my friend said. “Before this we would never be told what was actually going on. We didn’t know about these conditions.”

The doctor who was with us the day before us also mentioned that the previous regime in Tunisia would give official weather announcements that inflated the temperature, so as to not cause concern from the rest of the population.

Many of us couldn’t sleep the night after we returned from Thala. We were not only disturbed by the living conditions of the family we met, but also by how we approached them, how ignorant we were about their lives. This ignorance resurfaced throughout my stay in Tunisia as discussions about religion arose among secular minded people in Tunis. It reminded me of the many ways we willingly or unwillingly divide ourselves, either geographically, socially, economically or religiously. And the impact of this is only negative. Unchecked power can thrive for a long time when we choose to believe in these divisions. The same divisions that have caused Iran years of dictatorship, that have prevented progress in the U.S., were showing their ugly faces now in Tunisia. What we don’t know and what we assume about each other are the very tools that divide us to our detriment.

In Tunisia there is a newfound vigor for solving these problems. The sense of urgency and opportunity is real. At the end of my trip, I thought about how the separation of people in society increases the level of social injustice. I jotted down a few lessons I had learned from traveling and working in Afghanistan, Iran, U.S., and now Tunisia to help my friends who are actually trying to bridge these gaps.

Listen & Be Open

• When interacting with people across a religious or class divide, never use tools, language, or methods that highlight these differences. It’s similar to the vast chasm between secular and religious people in the U.S.; we just don’t ever emphasize what we have in common—our desire for jobs, for health, and individual rights. Our differences define us, but rather than fearing these, a discussion on what we collectively want could produce cooperation. Ask “What do we both want? And what don’t I understand?”

• Ask questions. If you go to a new neighborhood, don’t just talk to the people that went with you. Talk to the people who live in that neighborhood. Try to understand the motivations, dreams, challenges, and thought process of others.

• Assume every person has a long complex life story that you don’t know and can’t imagine. Try to get to know their story.

• Be transparent.

Don’t be Shy

• Always participate, never just observe.

• Treat poverty as an experience you haven’t had and knowledge that you lack. If you are welcomed, get to know people in poverty, in the homes of families, in their kitchens, make meals with them and wash up with them and be open to them knowing you and you knowing them.

Speak a Language Everyone Can Understand

• Be specific. Politicians talk abstractly, but people working with people should be specific, or goals can’t be achieved. Rather than broadly saying people need education, specify one problem and address it.

Not “We need to educate people,” but “In this school system, the testing and grading rewards quantitative skills rather than critical thinking skills.”

Not “People are lost,” but “There is no method or tool to distinguish the parties and positions.”

• Don’t use language that is politicized, e.g. “human rights” or “Sharia.” Instead, focus on the consequences of not having privileges and individual rights. Often times, I don’t know what the impact of a law is until I have to confront it. So it is with human rights and Sharia. In Iran we have seen that only in implementation does one find the practical problems of enforcing Sharia. Take the contraceptive debate in the U.S.—prohibiting the use of contraception leads to a whole list of health problems that are quite separate from the religious leanings of an individual. As it is with Sharia, being informed on the consequences of a law can shed light on the necessity of laws. FOR EXAMPLE:

• “We want the exact same rights as everyone. If I am in a situation that is not okay—domestic violence, abuse, neglect—I don’t want the law to prevent me from getting out of the situation.”

Give People Agency

• Accept that we are different in our lifestyles and choices. We always will be. Education won’t change the way people view God and religion.

• Don’t try to change people. Understand them. This is the highest form of respect, and the person with whom you’re working will feel it.

• Don’t judge people based on their personality, but on the choices they make.

Be Specific & Think Long-Term

• Ask questions of “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why” before engaging in a community project. “We are working with a population of 13-16 year-old boys who live in a village. Their families work in factories. They are educated, but they have few job prospects once they graduate from high school. We will work with them for 2 years to train them in computer skills so that they can perform data entry for the office of the factory. We can ensure the boys will be given a position if they have the skills.”

• Know which part of the problem you are trying to address.

o For example, rather than, “Little girls do not excel in sciences.” Instead explain, “Little girls in School X are pressured by their other peers not to take science classes.”

o Rather than “Young men are jobless in this town.” Be more specific: “Due to years of unemployment, many young men do not have the initiative or motivation to take advantage of opportunities.” The solutions will change depending on the exact problem.

• Think So What? If you do a training workshop, an awareness raising campaign, a volunteer day, ask yourself what will change as a result of the act.

• Consider sustainability. Always ask what will make your work last beyond the time that you are putting effort or money into it. If you create something that assists people in obtaining their aims, how do we make sure it lasts? Don’t create dependencies.

• Emphasize the practical and positive. Particularly when religion and rights collide focus on what is needed rather than what is not wanted Rather than “We don’t want Sharia,” instead explain “We want the right to divorce, right to be equal to men in the law, right to vote, right to inheritance, the right to child custody, the right to travel, to start a business. We want the exact same rights as everyone. If I am in a situation that is not okay—domestic violence, abuse, neglect—I don’t want the law to prevent me from getting out of the situation.”

Be Prepared

• Never come unprepared. Wear the right clothes, bring the right people, talk to all of the stakeholders, have the right approach, and have a plan,. Think three to four steps ahead, and try to think about how one action affects another.

• Understand clearly what exactly what the temperature, the task, the time, and the requirements of the outreach activity are.

Know Yourself, Good & Bad

• Be vulnerable. Acknowledge that you don’t know everything. Allow others to not know things. Don’t be certain. Don’t conclude. Wonder. Listen. Wait. Don’t have an answer.

• When you feel that you need to know more, that you are lacking skills and abilities to do the work that is required, write down what you feel is lacking.

• Know your own motivations. Why are you trying to help?

• Get to know your ego. It will often distract you. Most partnerships fail because of pride.

Maryam Abolfazli

Maryam Abolfazli worked in Afghanistan from 2003-2004 at the Ministry of Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment, and has traveled to Central Asia, South Caucasus, Southeast Asia and North Africa. She is now the Middle East and North Africa Director at an international development foundation based in the U.S.

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