Olfa, 27, was able to start her fashion business thanks to a loan from Mercy Corps that helped her buy materials. All photos: Corinna Robbins for Mercy Corps
Each dress that Olfa carefully sews by hand takes about 3,500 Tunisian dinars — about $1,700 American dollars — of delicate satin, crepe, tulle, sequins and rhinestones to create. To make a single dress for a client, Olfa works day and night for a full week. But in the end, it’s all worth it.
“It’s indescribable. I get very happy,” she said of the feeling she gets when she sells a dress for a wedding. “Most of all, I want the bride to wear my dress.”
Olfa, 27, runs her own high-end dress shop in the town of Medenine in southern Tunisia. She’s quickly become a successful entrepreneur, thanks to her talent, training, determination, and a little help from Mercy Corps in the form of a loan.
Just a few years ago, Olfa’s success story would have been unlikely, if not impossible.
Before Tunisia’s recent revolution, starting a small business as a young person was a challenge in patience and bureaucracy. Unless you were connected to the right people, you had to submit your business idea to a government agency and wait for approval — often a very slow process that was full of restrictions.
Arab Spring brings democracy, and a struggling economy
In late 2010, after nearly three decades of dictatorship under President Ben Ali, protests turned to revolution in Tunisia and the Arab Spring was born.
Several months of demonstrations against the corrupt Ben Ali government eventually led to its downfall, but hundreds of people were killed in clashes with officials as the protests gained momentum.
After the government was reshuffled several times, Tunisia finally held democratic elections in March 2011. The protests sparked uprisings in countries from Iraq to Libya — collectively referred to as the Arab Spring — that are still transforming the region today.
While Tunisia is seen as a success story, in reality, the situation is complex. The country’s new freedom has opened many doors for people like Olfa — there’s less corruption, more freedom of speech, and an opportunity for organizations like Mercy Corps to help people find their own economic success.
But Tunisia’s revolution also had consequences. Creating a fair democracy with proper social services after an era of dictatorship isn’t easy, and a rise in violent extremism led to a significant fall in tourism — one of the country’s most profitable sectors. The longstanding issue of economic disparity has yet to be resolved.
Now, five years after the protests began, the economy is struggling. Making a decent living outside the capital of Tunis is difficult and unemployment is staggeringly high. The country still lacks access to good jobs and the social services needed for young people to start their own businesses.
Mercy Corps is working in Tunisia to support local community organizations, promote peaceful conflict resolution, and empower women and youth to play a leading role in resolving Tunisia’s economic challenges.
In a complex crisis, where political unrest and dysfunction collide with humanitarian needs like access to financial services and economic support, it’s critical that we address these issues with an eye on the long term.
Our work there with young entrepreneurs is designed to create change in one community at a time and build more economic stability. Tunisia is on the road to recovery after revolution, but we must help people, particularly youth, learn how to succeed in this new environment.
New freedom, new opportunity
Young people make up half of Tunisia’s population and played a leading role in the protests that led to Ben Ali’s demise. But even in the new democracy, there is little in the way of economic opportunity for youth, particularly those who live anywhere outside the capital.
The prospects are dire even for young people who’ve attended university — the unemployment rate for a person with a degree is 33 percent on average. Nearly half of women — 47 percent — can’t find work. Those who want to be successful often move to the capital of Tunis, leaving more rural towns and inland cities out of any positive economic development.
To help youth in Tunisia make their dreams a reality, we are working to give them the resources and support they need to start their own businesses and make a positive impact on their local economies.
Below, learn more about Olfa’s story and meet some other young entrepreneurs we’re supporting in Tunisia, and see how they’re turning their ambitions into new business ventures.
Olfa: Bringing high fashion to Medenine
Olfa moved from her hometown of Medenine to bustling Tunis to attend a university, where she studied fashion design. When she recently married and moved back to Medenine, Olfa realized that to continue her trade in a smaller town, she’d have to start her own business.
Dressmaking isn’t uncommon in southern Tunisia, but creating a more formal fashion line as a young entrepreneur is something that hasn’t been done here before. Local banks were hesitant, fearing that there wasn’t a local market for Olfa’s fashions. “They turned me down twice because they thought the project wouldn’t work here in the south.”
Eventually, with determination, Olfa convinced a bank to give her her first loan, which she used to buy sewing machines and other equipment. To get her shop up and running, she would still need fabric and other materials. She was at a standstill, until she heard about Mercy Corps business training.
Olfa joined the Mercy Corps training and worked hard to create a business plan and earn one of the available loans to purchase the needed materials. Each of Olfa’s elaborate designs, worn for weddings and other formal events, is hand-sewn with intense attention to every detail and every sequin.
After she created her first full collection of 25 dresses, Olfa decided to hold a fashion show in Medenine to get the word out about her new business. She recruited models off the street and posted flyers around town before the event. By the day of the show, hundreds of people came out for the event.
“In the beginning, I didn’t have customers,” said Olfa. “But after the fashion show, I’m doing well. Almost all of Medenine knows me.” Now, Olfa takes custom orders for new dresses and also rents dresses to customers for a lower cost. She’s hired one employee since she started, and is busy working on her second collection.
Norhene: Creating custom furniture in her hometown
Norhene attended art school in Tunis, studying interior design, and worked in a furniture studio there for three years. She wanted nothing more than to bring her artistic talents back to her hometown of Medenine, but she faced challenges at every turn.
There is no furniture or design sector in her hometown, and accessing the basic services needed to start her own business — financial loans, business training, building space to rent — was difficult and time consuming. It took Norhene two years of persistence to get her furniture shop up and running in Medenine.
“It was a big challenge for me,” said Norhene. “It’s a big challenge for anyone, because we need experience. Tunisia is going through a difficult time — the economy is not doing that well.”
Norhene got a loan from a local bank to set up her furniture studio, but she needed additional resources for start-up materials. A Mercy Corps microfinance institution gave Norhene a $5,000 loan for the supplies that she needed, and now she’s on her way to running a successful business.
The furniture studio in Medenine has been open for several months, and Norhene is busy designing and building custom furniture for her clients. Soon, she hopes to add an upholstery space and a showroom to expand her offerings.
Farouk: Stylish seating from recycled materials
After the revolution, Farouk was one of many young people who struggled to find work. He was underemployed for over a year, taking work here and there where he could in his town, Kasserine. The effects of the lagging economy hit him hard.
“There are no more jobs in the public sector,” said Farouk. “The only thing left was to start your own business or work for someone else.”
While he tried to figure out his next steps, Farouk spent many hours in a local coffee shop that was located across from a tire shop. His time there sparked a new business idea. “A man across the street was using the tires to sit on,” Farouk remembered. “He put two tires one on top of another and used them as a pouf.”
Farouk began to think about how tires could be recycled and used as a new material for furniture. “I wanted to do something of my own. I wanted to create something personal that was a new idea and was mine.” Before long, designs for comfortable recycled tire furniture were running through his head.
Farouk participated in a Mercy Corps business training and received a loan to help him start hi
Access to financial services impacts disaster preparedness
Portland, Ore. - Nepal must build a more inclusive society, increase government accountability and build stronger financial support mechanisms in order to improve recovery efforts for future natural disasters, according to research conducted by the global organization Mercy Corps. Drawing upon lessons learned from this year’s deadly earthquake, the organization illuminates key areas in which change will be needed to make Nepal more resilient to future natural disasters.
“Nepal is very vulnerable to all types of natural disasters, including landslides and earthquakes. Mercy Corps sought to understand which factors hold the greatest promise for people to be resilient to similar events in the future, and what we could do to speed recovery,” says Olga Petryniak, Director of Regional Resilience Initiatives for Mercy Corps’ South and East Asia programs. “Each crisis may require a unique solution, but we can identify more specifically what people can do to help nations like Nepal bounce back.”
In its new report What Next For Nepal? Evidence of What Matters for Building Resilience After the Gorkha Earthquake, Mercy Corps recommends changes in several areas that are crucial contributors to resilience:
1. Disaster preparedness and response: Build greater preparedness on a community- and household-level, which will result in better accountability and faster response.
2. Social identity and networks: Because caste and gender strongly influence post-quake welfare, actively contribute to the strengthening of supportive and inclusive networks.
3. Financial services: Seek ways to establish relationships between financial service providers and households that will result in appropriate savings and credit resources.
4. Economic opportunities: Provide cash to those affected by a disaster to quickly restore markets and support livelihoods.
Mercy Corps surveyed nearly 1,200 households in Nepal 10 weeks after April’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake. The quake killed more than 9,000 people, destroyed a half-million homes and displaced some 2.8 million residents.
A nation in transition, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Read or download the full report.
Sepan, 15, and his family fled from Al Hasakah in Syria for Iraq three years ago. He has been out of school since then and misses his friends. His father, Jamal, hopes when Mercy Corps' community center opens, his son will gain a sense of belonging again. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps
Somehow Hussein conjured up a portable loudspeaker in no time flat. Sepan, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee, had just revealed his love of hip-hop and now, as if by magic, he was plugging his smartphone into the speaker. As the bright winter sun lit up the community center’s patio, Sepan hit play and music roared out into the quiet neighborhood.
The sound drew new kids off the street. Together with the youth coaches, they crowded around, bobbing their heads and clapping as Sepan danced. For the first time since his family fled the war in Syria, Sepan had an audience.
None of this was planned. Sepan and a crowd of other boys showed up on the patio that day, asking when programs at Mercy Corps’ new community center would begin. They had heard this would be a place to gather, to play sports, to learn English and computers, to make art. The hitch was that center wasn’t officially open, computers and other equipment had yet to arrive, and Hussein, the program manager for Mercy Corps' community center, was inside still training coaches.
The boys’ presence—premature though it might have been—showed that here, on the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq, the boys were hungry for these programs. It was almost as if they turned the patio of the soon-to-be community center into a reverse Field of Dreams: “If you come, they will build it.” The coaches dug up a soccer ball and the boys kicked it around, laughing.
Then suddenly, they left. It was time to get to school for the afternoon shift, but Sepan stayed back. He can’t go to school because the cost of transportation to and from school is $40 a month. That’s money his family just doesn’t have.
It’s a common experience for young Syrian refugees here; less that one in five Syrian boys are enrolled in school in Erbil. For girls it’s only one in nine. Seventy percent of kids under age 17 don’t have access to safe spaces outside their home. Mercy Corps is trying change that. The youth center will be more than a gathering place—it’s a tool to build a stronger community.
Sepan opened the gate from the street to reveal a small courtyard inside, and a shabby couch under the tree. There is so little public green space in Iraq that this little patch of garden where his family can gather outside feels like an improbable luxury.
Sepan and his family—including three older siblings and their spouses and children—live in a small, spare house in the working class neighborhood of Kaznazan. Iraqi Kurdish families primarily live there, but in recent years, the war in Syria and Iraq’s own battles with anti-government forces have brought newcomers seeking safety.
Sepan’s family fled from Al Hasakah in Syria three years ago. His father, Jamal, says life in Syria was hard, even before the war. “We were oppressed two times,” Jamal says. “First, because we were Syrian and there was no democracy in Syria, and then because we were Kurds.” Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, and have a long been a target for oppression and discrimination.
Once the war started, things got worse. A family member left the Syrian Army. Fearing collective punishment, Jamal sold the family’s sheep and cows to raise money for their escape to Iraq. “It was not easy to have a deserted soldier [in the family] and to live in Syria. It would have been very dangerous,” Jamal said.
Sepan has big brown eyes and a direct gaze, but he is soft-spoken. At first, he was happy to go to Iraq’s Kurdish region, he says. “I was imagining that everything good was here.”
But what he found was something different. “I was disappointed. I thought my life would be better, but it isn’t. I was not able to continue my education. I was not able to get a job. All those were closed.”
He says he’s lonely here. He loves break dancing, and in Syria, he had friends who shared that interest. Some are in Europe now; others came to Iraq.
“But they all got separated,” he says, “so I don’t know what happened to them.”
At a time when social life and peer groups are all-important, it’s easy to see how a teenage boy without a home, a school, or a community would feel profoundly isolated.
The new community center is just a short walk from Sepan’s house. It represents a cornerstone of Mercy Corps’ efforts to change the reality for Sepan and other vulnerable teens like him.
Hussein Omer, program manager, says teens frustrated by a lack of positive opportunities are at a high risk for alienation from their community or worse, being pulled into extremist groups.
With the community center he says, “Mercy Corps is innovating a new path for reaching those adolescents.”
The center offers informal education, safe spaces for social connection, and programs that help teens develop positive life skills. The team opening the community center asked the kids in the neighborhood what activities they most want, and Sepan is pushing for a dance troupe. He says if enough people are interested, he’ll teach them how to dance.
Jamal sees this as a chance to improve Sepan’s experience in Iraq. He’s clearly worried about his son.
“If you open this dance course or hip-hop course it would be great and make him very happy,” says Jamal. “And other children also like this. When the center is open, other children can join Sepan.”
Sepan lit up when he felt the bass vibrate through his bones. He popped his joints in precise and improbable ways, to the enthusiasm of the coaches on the community center’s patio.
It’s a moment that could chip away at the misunderstanding Sepan describes in his new neighborhood. “Some people do not understand what dancing is. They tell us it’s a dirty thing, it’s a nasty thing. They don’t know what dancing is.”
Of course when you’re an adolescent, you don’t have to be a refugee to feel alienated from the community around you. But it definitely doesn’t help. Being displaced from your home and peer group can bring with it a feeling of becoming erased, invisible from the world.
But at the community center, in front of the small crowd, Sepan seems to become larger instantly.
“I am alive when I perform in front of people,” he says. “I feel good about myself. I feel that I’m becoming something.”
In the small audience, something else is growing too. This group, thrown together by war, loneliness and need, also contains the seeds of friendship and resilience. They’re just getting started, but together they’re growing a new place to make themselves at home.
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