Beacon of light
Young Tunisians helped into the job market
The patisserie class learns to bake in both Tunisian and European style (swissinfo)
Elias bou Kaid and his fellow students line up in their small classroom, shyly but proudly showing off the cups and certificates they have won for their newly acquired skills as men’s hair stylists.
They have not been studying at a chic city salon, but at the El-Anaka training centre in Sidi Hssine Zahrouni, one of the poorer suburbs of the Tunisian capital.
The project, run by a Tunisian non-governmental organisation, Association Campagne, aims to give disadvantaged young people a leg up into professional life, and is being supported by Swiss development aid. The El-Anaka centre is one of two where the association has placed students in courses on hairdressing, as well as dressmaking, home furnishing, baking, computer skills and maintenance.
Switzerland is keen to promote job creation, to give young Tunisians what Swiss ambassador to Tunisia Pierre Combernous describes as "a beacon of light".
And that is precisely the idea behind Association Campagne, as its honorary president, Missaoui Mohamed, explained: “Young people think they have to go abroad to find work. We want to change this mindset, so they realise they can live well here and look with confidence into the future.”
Elias and his friends are not alone; the women hairdressers in the same centre have also won awards. When swissinfo.ch visited, it was like bursting in on a wedding: some of the students wore bridal gowns, while others had made them up and given them elaborate hair-dos to demonstrate their newly acquired skills.
“Hairdressing is in great demand,” explained Harzi Med Nafaa, the founder of the association. “Hairdressers can earn a lot, more than a teacher.”
Patisserie students meanwhile were serving up an array of goodies ranging from pizza to fruit tarts.
"I'm really impressed by the progress they've made," says Corinne Conti, of the Swiss programme office, as she looked at the intricately decorated cushions and pleated curtains produced by the home furnishing class.
But in run-down suburbs like Sidi Hssine Zahrouni and Cité Ettadhamen, the site of the other centre, simply teaching vocational skills is not enough.
Rafika Ferhani is a social worker with the association.
“Some of the beneficiaries have dropped out of school, or perhaps their parents are divorced, or they don’t get on with them. I try to help them solve their problems,” she explained. In Tunisia, where the family is normally an important support, such backup is a real help.
Frustration with the lack of job opportunities was the trigger which brought down the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. It is a problem that needs to be tackled all over the country, and at different levels.
Switzerland is also involved in promoting jobs in the south of the country where the unemployment rates are high, through a programme for young entrepreneurs.
The Bank of Financing Small and Medium Enterprises (BFPME) was set up in 2005 in order to help young graduates without a business background or family connections to set up projects. It is one of Switzerland’s partners.
The bank was established long before the revolution, but Moncef ben Yamna, head of the BFPME office in the southern town of Medenine, says there has been a change in mentalities. “Young people are now starting to develop an entrepreneurial spirit,” he told swissinfo.ch. “They have real hope.”
“The revolution has something to do with it, but really it’s a process that started years ago,” he said.
The Swiss contribution is again financial. Entrepreneurs accepted by the bank have to put up some of the capital themselves, which is not always easy for them to find. So Switzerland offers them loans. And the Swiss also help pay for experts to coach them in drawing up their initial plans, and supporting them through the first few years.
Samia Ezzeddine studied journalism and worked in a bank for 15 years. She is currently a housewife with two children – but not for much longer, she hopes.
“I want to change my life completely. I don’t like the monotony of work in a bank. I have lots of ideas,” she told swissinfo.ch. She has Swiss backing for a factory to process and sell marine sponges found off the Tunisian coast, and which are used as bath sponges once the living cells are removed.
“The Greeks used to come here to buy them, but since the economic crisis there, they’ve stopped. Other buyers have also stopped. The sponge fishers have given up because they can’t market their catch.”
The project will provide an outlet for fishermen as well as employing people to process the sponges. She will create jobs and market the output as 100 per cent Tunisian.
Looking to the future
But what about the next generation? Schooling is key, but a school where the toilets have been blocked for years, or where the children have to walk several hundred yards round the building to get into the classrooms is depressing, however devoted the teachers.
swissinfo.ch visited a primary school in Medenine, first built in 1889, whose playground was already a building site although term had not quite finished. It was one of six which Switzerland is helping to revamp.
“The school has been in need of repair for a long time. But there was never the money for it,” explained Tahar Mohsen, deputy head of education in Medenine. “Regions like ours have been neglected for years.”
As the new generation of would-be entrepreneurs discovered to their cost, the qualifications they gained did not turn out to be very helpful. This is set to change, said Mohsen.
“We are going to have to review the whole education system, which can’t be done from one year to the next, but we need to start now in order to end up with children whose education will enable them to have work that’s of use to society.”
The will is certainly there. Chouikhi Nazih, the contractor who is busy rehabilitating the school, was himself one of its pupils – as was his father before him, and as he expects his children to be. He was only too delighted to be able to help rebuild it at last.
“When I’ve finished the work, I want to visit Switzerland to thank everyone,” he said.