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
At just 16 years old, Masika has suffered through horrible violence. But now, she's focused on protecting her young daughter, and creating a better environment for other children in DRC. See additional photos below. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps
Home for Masika is a small hut made of sticks and covered with tarps. It’s barely big enough to stand up in, yet she shares it with 10 family members — and has for the last seven years.
This is where 16-year-old Masika grew up: Mugunga 3 displacement camp, a sprawling sea of cramped shelters just like hers, on the outskirts of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s the oldest of many camps in this area, where Mercy Corps provides clean water and sanitation to keep families healthy.
Mugunga was first established to host refugees from the Rwandan genocide over 20 years ago, and is now home to nearly 5,000 Congolese people who’ve fled the brutal and widespread violence of rebel armies in the countryside.
And this is where Masika is raising her infant daughter, Prefina.
“Everyday is a struggle,” she says quietly while nursing her 3-month-old on the shelter’s only bed. It’s a platform of sharp lava rocks covered only with a thin blanket. “We lay on rocks. We hardly eat. All this time, I have been enduring, but it is very hard.”
DRC is known as the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman, with reports that an average of 1,100 women are raped every single day. Sadly, one year ago, Masika was one of them.
“It happened when I went to get some firewood in the bush,” she explains hesitantly. She and four other girls were attacked by armed men who killed two of them and raped the others. “At this moment, I got pregnant, but I didn’t realize it.”
Like so many people in DRC, this wasn’t Masika’s first encounter with violence. As a child, she and her family fled rebel army attacks on their village in the contentious mining region of Walikale. She remembers bombings and machetes, and running, and then walking for a week to get to the relatively safe haven of Mugunga 3.
“We were in our homes, we lived a good life. We had farms, we had animals. We grew cassava and many different crops and always had enough to eat,” she remembers. “But when we moved to the camp, everything changed. We are living a whole other life. We struggle day by day.”
In this environment, the start of little Prefina’s life was marred by violence, but Masika is determined to give her daughter the best chance at a healthy future. She looks for opportunities to fetch water or sell small goods to make some money and help bring in food for the family.
And the obvious highlight of Masika’s day is when the aspiring nurse goes to the children’s hygiene program that Mercy Corps started in the camp, where she is a leader and teacher. The program is part of how Mercy Corps engages the community, in addition to bringing clean water to tap stands and building latrines.
While adults are part of a hygiene and sanitation committee that manages the facilities, waste removal, and water use throughout the camp, the children’s program brings kids together to learn how to keep themselves healthy and their surroundings safe for everyone through discussions, songs and skits.
“I teach them how to wash their hands, how to maintain sanitation, and how to behave. And I will be able to teach my daughter the same things,” Masika explains.
“The only thing that is good here is that we have clean water and some sanitation [latrines, soap distribution, waste removal programs]. Without the water, people would die. People will just use rainwater for their needs, and that is not clean.”
“But for me, the future of these children will depend on their health and wellbeing. So it is a calling to help care for the children for their good future.”
The future in a place like this is uncertain. But each day that Masika works to protect Prefina and be a positive influence for children growing up here adds up to something better.
It’s vital to have clean water, but it takes remarkable people like Masika to bring hope and strength to Mercy Corps’ work for change, despite the odds.
Through an art therapy project, youth in Gaza learned how to express themselves and created 11 colorful murals to beautify their communities. Photo: Samantha Robinson/apt/ART
Most young people in Gaza over the age of seven have suffered through at least three wars in their short lives. War is an almost-constant reality, and families struggle to earn a living, support their children, and pick up the pieces after conflict flares.
The trauma of last summer’s fighting is still fresh and haunting. People were displaced from their homes, and even the youngest survivors saw horrific violence. But despite the circumstances, life goes on in Gaza — and people look for a reason to hope again.
At a Mercy Corps summer program, youth in Gaza are finding new ways to heal and bring peace to their communities. Many children and youth, traumatized by conflict, struggle to express how they feel about the war and their future.
But through art therapy workshops, the voices of Gaza’s youth are emerging from the darkness. They are strong, thoughtful and resilient. Working with teachers trained in art therapy, the participants learned how to express themselves through drawing during the first sessions.
One of the finished murals, "I see beauty," painted on 70-year-old Zalah's gate. Photo: Samantha Robinson/aptART
Soon after, they took their newfound skills to the streets of Gaza. With help from professional artists and our partner aptART, the group adorned walls and gates in their neighborhoods with bold, vibrant murals.
In painting the murals, the students visualized their thoughts about conflict, family and hope for a better future. “While I was holding the brush and painting all I felt was joy,” said 10-year-old Doonia.
Their work has inspired hope in the community, too — bringing beauty and color to neighborhoods wrought with scars from past conflicts.
“People driving by in cars stop to see the painting because it’s so beautiful,” said 70-year-old Zalah, the owner of a gate the group painted. “People have started coming from all over Gaza — I am so proud that they chose to paint this beautiful muralon my gate.”
Learn more about what art means to youth in Gaza, in their own words:
Yousef, left, paints where he wants to travel someday on one of the murals. Photo: Samantha Robinson/aptART
“Through the activities I learned how to use different types of art to express my fears, my hopes, and everything else that I usually hold inside. For first time I felt like I was able to express how I feel.
My favorite drawing is on the mural in the harbor. We had to draw somewhere we wanted to travel, and I decided to draw the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem because I dream of traveling there one day.”
Note: Sabrine is not pictured. The finished mural "I see you. Do you see me?" Photo: Mercy Corps
“During the sessions I felt like I could draw all of my thinking, my fears, and even the vision I have for my life after the war. Before the sessions I hated drawing, now I love it and want to continue to use drawing to express my thoughts.
Now the thing I love to do most is to try and draw realistically like Falk [artist] does, except with landscapes instead of eyes. I take a picture and then try to draw as realistically as I can.
For the mural ‘We See Hope in our Children’s Eyes’ we were asked to paint what we wanted to see happen in the future. My dream is to travel outside of Gaza, so I chose to write ‘I see myself traveling all over the world.’”
Abdullah draws his hopes and dreams on one of the murals. Photo: Samantha Robinson/aptART
“The sessions allowed me to start expressing myself through the pictures I drew. One day my older brother said he wanted to take me to another summer camp, I told him ‘no, I don’t want to go because this is my favorite summer camp ever.’ I hope that the sessions continue and next time I will ask all of my friends to join.”
Ghaida stands with the mural titled "I see strength." Photo: Mohammed Abu Assi/Mercy Corps
“Before, when I felt like I wanted to express myself, I didn’t know how to put what I felt into words — I would end up frustrated and not say anything at all. When we started drawing our feelings I felt like life changed for me and I was able to start sharing what I was thinking.
Now, after the activities, I feel like I can share how I feel freely. I feel happier and I have hope for the future. When I walk by the paintings on the street I remember every minute I spent working on them and all of the happy memories.”
Nagham holds her favorite artwork from the art therapy workshops. Photo: Mohammed Abu Assi/Mercy Corps
“When you ask any child in Gaza, they will tell you what they are most affected by is the last war. Since the war I get nervous about small or simple things and I don’t know why. The comforting environment and how everyone worked together and helped each other during the sessions made me feel safe and my nervousness went away.
Now, I am still quiet, but I have not been getting nervous like I used to and I am calm instead. I am going to continue to use drawing as a way to express my feelings. My next project is to make up my own story and draw the pictures that go with the story.
Before, I felt like no one could hear me, even when I would try to talk to people no one would listen to me. During the sessions, I felt like someone was actually listening to me and actually cared how I felt, which made me incredibly happy. I kept all of my drawings so I can remember everyone and this wonderful experience.”
A young girl paints a large canvas with other participants during an art therapy session. Photo: Mercy Corps
Nagham and Sabrine’s mother has noticed a positive change in her daughters since they participated in the art therapy project. “The most important thing they learned in the sessions was how to start expressing themselves. I can see the difference it made in my girls — they felt like someone actually noticed them and cared about them and it has made them so happy,” she said.
“The first time I saw one of the walls, I wished I had a pen and I could write everything I feel and express myself openly like they did. Every word, every scratch on the murals is a story. When I look at the murals they made I don’t see the children that drew them, I see thousands of stories.”
To see artwork and photographs created by youth in Gaza in person, visit the Mercy Corps Action Center in Portland, Oregon. The aptART exhibit Finding Place opens on September 17th and will be on display until December 2015.
In Iraq and Pakistan, adolescent youth are facing huge challenges as they try to grow up amidst the conflict, danger and uncertainty that surrounds them. With fighting and other security issues interrupting their daily lives, it’s nearly impossible to learn, grow and make important life decisions without a strong support system.
That’s why our programs in these countries are designed to offer adolescents the crucial support they need at the time they need it most.
With support from The Coca-Cola Foundation and Coca-Cola Içecek, Mercy Corps is helping youth in Pakistan and Iraq by offering them a safe place to be active, learn essential life skills and become leaders in their communities.
After-school groups meet every week to play games and engage in meaningful discussions on topics like inclusion, teamwork, communication, relationships, goal-setting and social responsibility. Trained coaches provide direction, but each session is run by a young person so they can stretch their new leadership skills.
Both Iraq and Pakistan have been plagued by regional instability and violence. Growing up in these places is not easy — even when youth have access to school and family support, they may not have the confidence, guidance or skills they need to go after their dreams.
For young girls, the struggle of adolescence is compounded by long-held cultural beliefs that can hold them back from reaching their true potential. Instead of being supported and encouraged in their studies, girls are often pulled out of school early to help with household chores.
But in Lahore and Baghdad, girls in our program are treated equally to boys — for some, it’s the first time they’ve experienced gender equality, engaged in sports or felt the freedom to express their opinions.
That freedom can be transformative.
Iraq: Meet Ala'a
In Baghdad, 17 year-old Ala’a is the youngest girl in a family of six. The neighborhood where she lives with her family regularly experiences bombings and kidnapping threats — they say it’s now just a way of life.
Because of the constant threat of danger, Ala’a has little freedom. Her brother must accompany her to school every day. "My family is very protective of me,” she says. “It made it hard for me to go to school when he was busy.”
Before she joined Mercy Corps’ youth program, Ala’a was painfully shy and had few friends. “I did not have the courage to make new friends,” she explains.
But after just a few days of leadership training with the youth program, Ala’a came out her shell. She began participating in discussions, made new friends, and learned to develop her confidence and leadership skills.
Now, Ala’a runs discussions with other youth on her own. “I love my youth team members,” she says. “We are friends now and we can learn from each other.”
The effects of the youth program reach beyond the group sessions. Because of her newly-gained confidence, Ala’a is no longer afraid to speak her mind. “I feel that my family and friends are listening to my opinion now and I can discuss things with them more freely and openly.”
Pakistan: Meet Mahnoor
In Lahore, a girl just a few years younger than Ala’a is learning some of the same skills through the youth program in her neighborhood.
Mahnoor, 14, lives with her large family in a poor area of Lahore, where most people are factory workers just trying to survive. Before joining the youth program, Mahnoor was doing poorly in school and struggling to find purpose.
While she was unsure at first, Mahnoor quickly became a capable leader in the youth program. After a few learning experiences, Mahnoor learned how to effectively lead a group of her peers in discussions by engaging with them and listening to them.
Before long, Mahnoor became a respected leader in the program and developed friendships with many of her peers. To improve her studies, Mahnoor started a study group with some of her new friends. “I realized after conducting sessions that as a team we can work better, so I thought to make a group for studying together,” she says.
Mahnoor’s family can see how much she’s grown in just a few short months. Because of her new skills and improved confidence, she is doing better in school and is more involved in her own family. “She’s active in sports now and she has started helping our family in different things. It’s all because of the program’s activities,” says Mahnoor’s sister.
In the last year, our youth program has trained approximately 5,000 youth leaders like Ala’a and Mahnoor. After learning new skills through the weekly discussions, youth are then encouraged to create events and projects that will further help their community.
Through the events that they have created, youth in Lahore and Baghdad have reached nearly 25,000 of their peers. The program is empowering thoughtful youth leaders in low-income communities where jobs and opportunities are tough to come by.
Young girls and boys are benefitting from the program in important, but different ways.When both groups come together, they have the power to influence change.Young people like Ala’a and Mahnoor now have the confidence and skills they need to achieve their goals — and the courage to inspire others in their communities to do the same.
Ten years ago today, the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami was triggered by a massive 9.0 magnitude underwater earthquake. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.
From Indonesia to parts of East Africa, a series of catastrophic tsunamis that tore across the Indian Ocean killed over 270,000 people and millions were left terrified and homeless. The destruction was unlike anything people had ever seen.
Today, we pause to remember those who lost their lives ten years ago. And we're reflecting on the incredible outpouring of generosity from people all over the world to help survivors in their greatest time of need. Because of compassionate supporters like you, people in some of the hardest-hit areas were able to survive those first days and communities built back stronger in the years that followed. See photos from our emergency response below.
The coastal village of Meulaboh in Indonesia was destroyed by the tsunami. Mercy Corps was one of the first organizations to respond there. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
Within hours, we mobilized our largest emergency response to date, sending dozens of staff to tsunami-devastated areas with lifesaving relief and supplies. Mercy Corps was one of the first humanitarian organizations to arrive in remote areas of India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia’s Aceh province, a war-torn coastal region near the epicenter of the deadly earthquake.
We rushed emergency food rations, temporary shelter supplies and blankets to help more than half a million people survive immediately after the disaster.
A group of men in Banda Aceh, Indonesia receive tools to help in the rebuilding efforts. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
Building supplies helped people construct temporary shelters for their families. We also quickly began building and repairing latrines, bringing in water trucks and reconstructing wells, and repairing essential health clinics to ensure that survivors stayed healthy in even desperate conditions.
Fisherman try to push a washed-up boat back into the water after the storm. Photo: Cate Gillon for Mercy Corps
In Indonesia, where the storm hit hardest, we helped more than 423,000 people in 64 villages earn daily wages to repair public facilities. Local workers cleared and constructed hundreds of miles of roads and cleared debris from more than 32,000 acres of public land. This work helped revive the local economy and gave individuals a way to earn income to restore their own livelihoods.
A Mercy Corps staff member from Indonesia observes one of the first rice harvests after the tsunami. Photo: Shirine Bakhat-Pont/Mercy Corps
We also distributed seeds, tools and fertilizer to help farmers earn income after their fields were washed away. More than 1,000 farmers were able to replant and harvest their rice fields.
Mothers hold onto their children at a refugee camp in Sri Lanka. Photo: Dwayne Newton for Mercy Corps
Our teams in India, Sri Lanka and Somalia responded to urgent relief and recovery needs in similar ways: providing emergency relief supplies, hiring locals to rebuild roads and public spaces, and helping people restart their farms and small businesses.
With an eye on the future across the tsunami-struck region, we also paid workers to repair ruined classrooms and provided supplies, uniforms and tuition to help 30,000 children return to school as quickly as possible.
Over the course of our tsunami response, Mercy Corps provided assistance to more than 1 million survivors of the disaster. More than 250 of our field team members and hundreds of local partner staff in the region contributed to this massive effort.
It's been a decade since the Indian Ocean tsunami, but the work that supporters like you made possible has not been forgotten.
“Much of the disaster response work Mercy Corps is now doing has been informed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. We learned so many lessons at the time – lessons which are now incorporated into our program design to help ensure that a disaster of that magnitude does not claim that many lives again,” said Indonesia Country Director Paul Jeffrey.
Mercy Corps in Indonesia today
Our work in Indonesia continues today, to make sure communities are more prepared for future disasters and have the resources they need to recover more quickly. We've worked with the government and local businesses to create earthquake and tsunami education programs, early warning systems and tsunami evacuation maps, as well as establishing shelters that are adapted to better withstand a disaster.
Outside of emergencies, we're focused on improving health in areas where disease and malnutrition are a chronic threat, helping communities increase access to water and sanitation, and working with new mothers to ensure proper infant care. We are also partnering with local people to create new economic opportunities and more inclusive businesses and social enterprises that bring greater prosperity and security to people throughout this region for years to come.
You can continue to make a difference by:
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