Letter from Tunisia

Roar runs a periodic feature, “Letter From Tunisia,” written by Kemal Benyounes. Kemal is a dual citizen of the United States and Tunisia, is Muslim, blind, and lives in Tunis.  He offers a unique perspective on life in the mideast, the 2016 election of Trump as well as the Arab Spring and ongoing conflicts.  (Revolts recently led to a transition to a constitutional democracy in Tunisia.)

Dear Readers,

I pose this question for your consideration: What happens to the poor and disadvantaged when a country doesn’t have a strong social safety net, or at least one without as many holes as a piece of Swiss cheese? When there’s no safety net, kids and their mothers go hungry and wind up living in garages if they are lucky. I recently encountered such a situation.

A few weeks back my wife introduced me to a young woman with a nine year-old son. She’s a single mother because her husband fled Tunisia with another woman, leaving behind his wife and young son. Unfortunately, Hannan is not very well-educated and has limited skills. She works as a hairdresser, where she doesn’t earn enough to pay the rent and is forced to live with her son in the shop, a renovated garage. This story gets worse from here.

Almost exactly a year ago she and her son were involved in a car accident. She was okay aside from a couple of scratches. Tragically, her son Rayan was severely injured. One of his legs was shattered and his head went through the car door window. Fortunately, he survived. However, he had to get twenty-four stitches in his head and a surgery to put his leg back together. His leg is held together with pins and screws that eventually must to come out. Rayan is in fact overdue for this surgery. His mother has been unable to scrape together the money for the surgery.

This family has no health insurance and a meager income. Tunisia has little to no protection for people in this challenging circumstance.

Naturally, who ends up getting away with not supporting this family? The father and husband. Sound familiar?

I wish I could say that this is an exceptional case but it’s not. What makes this so distressing is 35-40 years ago, extended family picked up the slack if one of its members was having problems of this kind. Times have changed and much like the U. S. the family has been fragmented and the communal attitude is disappearing. Ideally, the government through a social safety net should pick up the pieces. This net doesn’t exist in Tunisia.

Also, deadbeat husbands and fathers aren’t held to account as they should be. For one, Tunisia doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to pursue these a-holes. The other reason is a reluctance to pursue these men due to a patriarchal society; Tunisians do not take these irresponsible jerks seriously.

When I see the spirit with which both Hannan and her son deal with their adversity, my complaints about my little hardships put me to shame.

Rayan is only nine years old and is incredibly spirited and bright. This boy’s main complaint is that the kids in school make fun of him because he has a small limp. To listen to him is sometimes like listening to a forty year-old man. In the short time I’ve known him and his mother, he’s taught me much just with his spirit. During the time he spent in the hospital, his father didn’t deign to visit or ask about him. As an aside: Jailing these individuals is too good for them. It seems to me there is so little attention paid to deadbeat parents in both Tunisia and America. We’re losing too many kids and their single parent to poverty and unnecessary hardship. This should be something that the U. N. brings attention to through UNICEF and any other agencies that deal with children.

My purpose in writing this letter this month is two-fold: I want to bring some attention to this family, and also use this as a cautionary tale of what happens when through neglect (either willful or inadvertent), there’s nothing to catch people when times get rough.

My hope in bringing these folks to your attention is that perhaps somebody can suggest a way to help them.

What is taking place under the radar with regards to the U. S. safety net threatens to put many families in the same position as this little family in Tunisia. The Republicons (yes, I spelled it with a con) are trying to destroy Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

With the help of the Clinton Administration in the 90s, they put an end to welfare programs such as AFDC (aid to families with dependent children). These programs kept many a family, especially single-parent families, from slipping below the poverty line.

If they succeed in destroying Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, more people will be without means and healthcare. As I’m sure you’re well aware, poverty disproportionately affects women, children, the elderly, and the disabled. We should be insisting on strengthening assistance for the poor, not weakening it. We should provide shelter to those who lack it. We should make sure no child, or adult for that matter, goes hungry. What is truly sad is that in the U. S. this can be done, and America can do much to relieve poverty in the world. Instead, the billionaires who control Congress want tax cuts for themselves, and the military industrial complex wants more money. All of this will come out of the safety net and those who need it. This is wrong.

It’s good to see so many people start to resist this agenda both in America and abroad. More needs to be done to defeat this draconian agenda.

President Kennedy said: “If a free society can not help the many who are poor. It cannot save the few who are rich.”


Kemal Benyounes

Kemal Benyounces is a 51-year-old, blind, duel citizen living in Tunisia. He graduated from Towson State University with a BS in Political Science and History. He moved to Tunisia to have better support for his disability. Kemal is married with two children. Kemal can be reached at: kemalbenyounes@gmail.com.

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