Dignity in loss

In 2011, I had the honour of escorting two extraordinary women around New York City.

“Escorting” and “extraordinary” – those are loaded words. Let me start from the beginning.

Post-Masters thesis, I scrambled for something to do and accepted the first internship I was offered. Any experience is good experience, right? In any case, I ended up at Cinema for Peace – a foundation located in Berlin and run, at that time, by an erratic boss and five female interns under the age of 30. There was no introduction, no internship handbook, and hardly any pay. I lasted for 6 weeks, which is probably 6 weeks longer than I should have stayed. But it granted me the opportunity to travel to New York City for the unveiling of the First Universal Human Rights Logo, an event entirely (mis)managed by the German Foreign Office and Cinema for Peace.

As a last minute attempt to drum up international support for the event, I was charged with the task of inviting as many Human Rights Activists as possible to attend. Two of the names on my long and multi-coloured Excel spreadsheet were Leila and Mannoubia Bouazizi.

They are the sister and mother of Mohamed Bouazizi – the young man who immolated himself as a response to the corruption and inequality facing him and his family in a small village in Tunisia. It was his actions that sparked the Arab Spring.

It was unlikely that they would be able to attend, as we were only able to get their contact information at the very last minute. However, despite the stress of travel plans and visa requirements, they RSVP’d and made the long journey from Tunisia to New York.

Enter Young Lady. Tasked with not only coordinating all of the Human Rights Activists’ stays during the four days in New York, but also with the jobs of interpreter, guide and companion to the Bouazizis, I was in a bit over my head. Juggling it all was not easy, but my experience with them made it all worth it.

New York is a daunting place, even for a well-travelled Canadian. For the Bouazizis I imagine it was over-stimulating and an utter culture shock. But they never complained, and never even gave me the impression that I should have done more for them, even though my impossible schedule meant that I couldn’t be with them at mealtimes – which I’m sure they skipped for lack of resources and language skills. They were lodged in a fancy hotel in Upper Manhattan, while we interns were spending our restless and short nights in Newark. (The event venue was, of course, in Upper Manhattan.) Luckily for the three of us, however, a bellman at their hotel happened to be Algerian and spoke Arabic. When he found out who they were, he burst into tears, and I saw these two shy and modest women hug him as if he were a long-lost brother. 

The event went off relatively smoothly, and Leila and Mannoubia were invited to address the crowd at the charity auction. A Tunisian human rights campaigner living in exile, Sami Ben Gharbia, was more than happy to interpret from Arabic to English.

Leila expressed to me her absolute awe and wonderment at everything there is to see in New York. I took her to Bed Bath & Beyond to buy some shampoo – she had promised her relatives she would bring them something back from America – and she was absolutely speechless at the amount of choice available. She also wanted me to see if I could arrange a meeting with the Tunisian Ambassador to the United States, which I was unfortunately was unable to accomplish. She told me her dream was to one day study in North America.

We lost touch over the past year and a half, and it pains me to read accounts of how some Tunisians feel that the two women are capitalizing on the loss of their brother and son for profit. If anything, they are proud of his sacrifice and see their fame a chance for a better life, and who can blame them for that?

I was so happy to read that Leila will be starting university in Montreal this month. She is an absolutely resourceful and determined woman, and despite everything that is said about her, I am confident that she will uphold her brother’s legacy with dignity and poise.

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