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Leila Ben Gacem. (Tarek Marzougui/Goethe Institut Tunis, 2015)
Leila Ben Gacem. (Tarek Marzougui/Goethe Institut Tunis, 2015)

Hope for Tunisia

Meet the woman who fights extremism by creating job opportunities

By Lisa Desai and Yasmeen Qureshi on May 2, 2016

In 2011, the small north African country of Tunisia became a beacon of hope for the Middle East. It was the birthplace of the Arab Spring, and Tunisians, 11-million strong, rallied together to successfully topple a dictatorship relatively peacefully.

Leila Ben Gacem, 46, was one of millions of Tunisians who hit the streets in protest during the Arab Revolution. It’s a time she looks back on fondly, when the country was united and hopeful that change would come. “It was magic but it was scary. Most of us were super excited and super scared, it was like suddenly we decided we’re not going to be scared anymore, we’re going to be outspoken about what is wrong,” she said.

Five years later Tunisians are growing increasingly embittered by unfulfilled government promises post revolution. Terrorism remains a serious threat, poverty is on the rise, and some estimates suggest that nearly 40 percent of Tunisians can’t find a job. Earlier this year, violent riots swept the country when an unemployed man committed suicide after he was refused a government job. Tunisia has also exported more foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria than any other country. According to the U.S.-based Soufan Group, which tracks foreign fighters, approximately 6,000 people have been recruited from Tunisia. “We have people who are fed up with their lives in Tunisia, fed up with the economic situation, fed up with the Tunisian state and Tunisian society as a whole,” said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst who was part of the Arab Spring.

Gacem is now one of many entrepreneurs determined to revive Tunisia’s struggling economy and counter radicalization by offering employment opportunities. The capital, Tunis, is nicknamed the “Silicon Valley of Africa,” and has recently seen a return of the Tunisian diaspora. Many are launching start-ups, creating business ‘brainstorming events’ and spearheading new initiatives, with one common goal, to repair Tunisia and restore hope to the country.

Gacem’s company, Blue Fish, hires young artisans, designers and artists to create modern products with a traditional spin. One of her current projects focuses on the protection of the Medina, a historical district in the capital of Tunis, where locals can sell anything from essential oils to jewelry. She works closely with shoe and hat makers to bring their products, traditional shoes and hats, to market. “There is so much culture and heritage that has not been invested as an economic opportunities. That was really the goal to work with artisans and see how their business can be more sustainable”, she said.

Tunisia has long depended on a vibrant tourism industry to create jobs and stimulate growth. The country has plenty to offer tourists, from a bustling capital city to white sand beaches. But after the revolution and a string of terrorist attacks in 2015 that killed over 60 tourists, Tunisia’s tourism industry has been hit hard, contributing to the country’s chronic unemployment problem. “Before the revolution, the government … encouraged, sun, beach, tourism. This created a lot of jobs but they left us with hotels that left their back to their people,” Gacem said.

Gacem’s vision is that by opening doors to economic opportunity, she will do more than just create jobs. Her goal is to restore pride in Tunisian heritage and most importantly, foster hope among Tunisians who are so fed up with their country.

“I saw the impact that the work has in improving their livelihood. Their mood, their sense of entrepreneurship in creating new products and creating attracting new markets, in creating jobs. Even if it’s just on a micro level, it has has a big income impact on the people and on the society.”

This story was produced with support from The Kamel Lazaar Foundation.