Story 17: Smiles That Ignite Passion

AYA CHEBBI

Dense rows of white tents and long lines of listless people that are queuing for a small portion of food and water, of which there is never enough quantity to reach everyone. This was the daily image of Ras Jdir refugee camp in Rmeda where I volunteered during the Libyan Civil War. When I first arrived to the Tunisian-Libyan border in June 2011 the total number of refuges reached almost one million.

With the organization that I volunteered for, we organized caravans brining donations from Tunis (the capital city of Tunisia) to the camp – despite all the conditions of insecurity of the trip caused by the Tunisian revolution and its aftermath. Beside our typical cargo – toys, food, water and covers – we also brought joy and hope to the refugees. Though our main targets were the young refugees, we indirectly sparked the solidarity in the Tunisian society that resulted in the collection of huge donations for weeks to come.

When I first arrived, the one mission I had for every single activity I carried out was to draw smiles on the children’s faces. Just after a few hours on my first day I realized that such a mission in the midst of the crisis is not just about giving joy to other people but also about giving a special meaning to my own life. These children that I was trying to help opened my eyes on what my passion in life is.

One day, while I was gathering the kids for the afternoon activities, a five-year-old Libyan refugee asked me:

“Why are these people fighting?”

I followed his gesturing hand, as it pointed to the queue of refugees waiting for lunch. That image – of a dispute over food – was one of many daily conflicts in the camp. “They are not fighting, they are asking for lunch in different ways because they come from different cultures” – I answered. It was this singular experience that taught me the importance of peacebuilding, coexistence and intercultural dialogue among the cultures.

Behind these daunting scenes of suffering in a refuge camp, I was also inspired by life-changing stories of African migrant workers in Libya. I learned about the traditional African beat and dance from Mali, special naming rituals from Ghana, slave trade that is still practiced in Ethiopia, the colonial creation of Gambia out of the Senegambia, the Somalian Civil War, and other stories that set me on my current path as a peacebuilder. These stories also influenced the process of shaping my own character. This exploration of African historiography, opened channels for understanding the continent that I had previously not thought much about. Since then, my compass has pointed me to explore even more about peace and conflict dynamics in Africa.

A few months after my experience at the Libyan borders, I took a trip to Kenya where I launched a project called Africa Inspire Project with the help of a wonderful Kenyan team.  I had keenly followed the democratic rise in Kenya especially after the historic elections in the year 2002. Following the peaceful 2013 general elections, I decided to explore and highlight the role of youth in the peacebuilding process that had participated in the previous 2007-2008 post-elections outbreak of violence. Having experienced the 2011/2012 post-elections frustration in Tunisia and Egypt when monitoring the elections, I had a desire to learn more about Kenya’s experience and promote its model of choosing peace over violence. Thus, I decided to produce the documentary, Kenya’s Conscious Transformation.

I have been challenged with the idea that conflicts in Africa are too complex to deconstruct or understand; however, I refused to give up my quest for searching for proactive solutions. I interviewed Kenyan community workers and youth leaders at the grassroots level as well as government officials, lawyers, award-winning journalists and electoral officials at the national level. Unlike what I had seen in the international media – which portrays a situation of tension and potential violence – what I found in Kenyan society was instead resilience and commitment to make peace possible. After that discovery, my quest for combining art with the usage of alternative media to change this negative portrayal of Africa has only intensified.

Coming from a region where we have been going through many uprisings and revolutions… where everyone around me has lost hope in peace because of the rise of terrorism on a precedential scale… where young activists are falling into depression, desperation, breakdowns, and many times are completely burned-out… It was not a surprise that some of them turned to the usage of violence as the only language that could be heard. I believe that making peace starts from believing in the existence of peace and the sole belief that peace can be sustained. Young people need to see successful models and positive stories to reflect on their understanding of violence and its impact.

My blog, my documentaries and everything else that I do are only the first steps in achieving the ultimate goal of building peace and understanding by raising people’s awareness so that they can rethink their perceptions of each other. Contributing to peacebuilding in Africa defines what kind of a human being I want to be and at a same time gives me a motivation to serve others like I did at Ras Jdir refugee camp – uplifting others with positive vibes and voices, and inspiring them through what I capture and deliver with the lens of my camera.


Story: Aya Chebbi is a 27 year old award winning Tunisian blogger, women’s advocate and peace activist.

Artist: Aya Chebbi

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