Tataouine: volunteerism at work

Publié: 13 juillet 2011 13:43 CET

By Catherine Lengyel in Tunisia

Tataouine, in the south-west of Tunisia, is Star Wars country. The landscape is harsh, unforgiving, other-worldly – which is why the space epic was filmed here many years ago. Yet this very starkness also makes one feel inconsequential and powerless.

However, local character proves otherwise. Dr Mkadmini Taha is a one-man whirlwind of energy. He is the Medical Coordinator of the Tataouine Regional Committee of the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC), and in charge of its newly-established clinic, set up in April to provide medical care to the thousands of Libyans fleeing across the nearby border at Dehaba. The clinic provides an average of 2,000 consultations per month.

It is 9am on a Monday morning, and the two adjacent waiting rooms are packed: veiled women in one, robed men in the other, children clutching their parent’s legs in both. Dr Taha dashes between the two rooms, organizing newly-arrived consultants, checking on stocks in the pharmacy, adjusting the weekly schedule, and then taking time to walk down two flights of stairs in front of a man with his leg in a cast.“I want to make sure he doesn’t fall,” he says, grinning.

The clinic itself is a testament to the local can-do spirit, combined with the best of what the Red Cross Red Crescent stands for.

“We realized early on that the regional medical facilities would be unable to cope with the influx of displaced Libyans, and decided we had to do something,” explains Dr. Taha. In close coordination with the Tunisian Order of Doctors, and the Council of Pharmacists, the clinic was formally established. It is staffed by volunteers – local doctors, nurses, pharmacists and general assistants – and everything it has, from examination tables, to medicines, and its newly-received sterilization machine, has been donated. The rent for the two adjacent apartments that make up the clinic was paid for by the President of the Regional Committee, himself a pharmacist, up to the end of July. There is even a flat-screen television in the waiting room. “It was a donation,” shrugs Dr Taha. “Otherwise, I would sell it. We desperately need insulin.”


A no-nonsense woman is setting up for the daily consultation in an adjacent room – the only one with air conditioning. She has just driven the seven hours from Tunis, after flying in from Benghazi, at her own expense. Dr Jamila Issawi is an oral pathologist, and she is horrified at the lack of dental care for the displaced Libyans. “At the refugee camp at Dehiba, I saw a woman whose cheek was swollen out to here,” she gestures. “She needs an extraction, but they have no equipment and no anesthetic.” When asked why she is here, she merely smiles. “If we put our hands together, we can do it,” she says simply.

Dr Issawi is not the only Libyan volunteering at the Tataouine TRC Clinic – a whole network of Libyan doctors work alongside their Tunisian colleagues. A non-descript room at the Hotel Mabrouk on the outskirts of town is the ‘coordination centre’ for the Libyan medical diaspora. Every couple of weeks, Libyan doctors from the UK, Canada, the United States, and Libya itself, fly in with their portable equipment to provide the much-needed specialist services – gynecology, cardiology, pediatrics, etc. They stay for up to two weeks, and then the next rotation arrives. A neatly printed schedule is taped to the entrance of the clinic every Monday morning, informing patients of the coming week’s rota.

It is indeed a testimony to the unity that Dr Issawi refers to.

And there are others. A thin, soft-spoken young woman is busying herself in the narrow room that has become the pharmacy. She is herself a refugee from Libya – a general practitioner, now staying with a Tunisian host family in Tataouine. She comes in daily, to lend a hand with prescriptions.

From far afield

Across the waiting room from the pharmacy, a line of people snakes from the tiny cubicle that acts as distribution point for baby milk and other necessities for mothers and children. Wedged in behind a small registration table, amongst teetering boxes of nappies and Cerelac, three young women work in close harmony. Manela, who used to work in a library, neatly registers the beneficiaries in a large notebook. She compiles the weekly statistics at home, on Sundays. Her sister is also a volunteer, speaking softly in Arabic to the women and children, as she hands over the relief items. Next to them, Dorothee is tearing apart a package, so that she can use the bag to conceal hygiene pads. “We really need bags to hide these items. The women do not want to be seen carrying them. But we have none, so we make do with this for now,” she explains.

Dorothee is from France. She is a lawyer, in between jobs. Listening to the radio at her home in Nantes, she was touched by the plight of the refugees, and decided she wanted to come to help. She went on-line, and offered her services via the Facebook page of the TRC’s Tataouine Regional Committee. Two weeks later, here she is, staying with Manele and her sister, and volunteering at the clinic.

“It just shows how interconnected we are,” she observes. She has only been in Tataouine for a week, but already seems completely at home. It is the dedication of the volunteers that impresses her the most. “They come in every day, from morning until late. They work like professionals, as if they were staff,” she says. “But there is a difference with volunteers back home, who have other means of supporting themselves. Here, the volunteers have no work, and yet they cover the costs of coming here every day, day in and day out.”

This is an issue which is also very much on Dr Taha’s mind. “We ask a lot of our volunteers, and they give a lot. But we cannot go on like this indefinitely. We have no car to transport people, no means of getting goods from our warehouse. We lack certain essential medicines. The rent is covered only until the end of this month.” The message is clear. The clinic needs support from the international community if it is to sustain its activities.

The forces of good, here in the barren landscape of Star Wars country, have shown what they can do. It would be a shame if indifference were to beat them in the end.

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