National Sponsorship Coordinator SOS Children's Villages in Tunisia
photo: © Stefan Lechner Photography
From a frightening situation to a long time commitment – or destiny can play tricks on us
In order to get my graduation certificate, during the summer holidays of 1996 I had to do a summer internship. The closest organisation to my parents' home was SOS Children's Villages Tunisia. After an interview with the Association President, I was accepted to be the National Director’s assistant for the months of July and August.
Everything was good in this Association: not far from home and the team was very supportive of me. As I was the youngest, everyone called me "the little one" and for many years, this was my nickname.
However, during the last week of my internship, I witnessed a frightening situation.
It was after 5 pm. Everyone had gone but I had to stay because I had an urgent job to finish. It may not have been so urgent or important to finish it the same day, but as I was young and new, any delay was catastrophic for me. So I stayed alone in the office to finish my work. It did not occur to me to check if the last colleague who left locked the door or not.
Absorbed in my work, I was surprised by a woman who entered the office with a child of 3 or 4 and started shouting: "I do not want this child anymore. Take her or I will throw her in front of the wheels of the first car I see!"
A woman who screams? Who asks me to take the child? Who wants/is thinking about throwing her child into the road? What is this? I have always been taught not to speak loudly so what about someone who is shouting? She asked me to take the child but how and why? I am a member of the administrative staff for an internship and I do not even visit the children's village. Is this woman crazy? And what if she has a knife and is going to hurt me or kill me? If so, will no one know until the next day? What will my mother think if I do not come home at night?
Listening deeply to understand
At this moment I was in a panic, frightened, and terrified. I was shaking like a leaf with fear. However, at the same time, I wanted to calm the mother because the little girl aroused my pity. My brain was burning with the effort of thinking and I was trying to find a solution. All my colleagues lived far away and I thought that if I tried to call the police, the woman would react badly.
I started talking to her. I learned that her name was Sonia and that she was raising her child alone. Even though I am not a psychologist or similar, I could see that Sonia was desperate and in need of care and that the child must be saved and put in a safe place. Fortunately, I had the idea of calling the nearest SOS Children's Village’s Director, about 5 or 10 minutes from my office, and I begged him to come while continuing to talk to Sonia. When she saw the director, Sonia resumed her hysterical cries and tears and told him the same story: to take the child or she will kill her.
More experienced than me, the director managed to calm the mother while explaining that he could not keep the child without a legal decision. After talking to the child protection officer by phone, the director confirmed that he was going to take the child to the safety of the village and that the mother should be ready to complete the administrative file for the child with the help of an SOS co-worker.
Finally, the mother was gone and the child was saved. I was still shaking. It was the first time I had been part of a scene where a mother wanted to get rid of her child at all costs! For me it was impossible. I had got used to seeing and living life, believing that everything is well in the world.... But I had never got around to the problems of other people before that night.
A moment of growing up
I was tired. I could not even walk. The director dropped me off at home after putting the child in the village. I thought that my terror was visible on my face because as soon as I walked in the door of my house, my mother came to ask me what was wrong.
After taking a hot bath and calming a bit, I told my parents everything. Do you know what my mother's reaction was? "Never again will you set foot in that office! I do not want to be worried every day or get bad news about you!”
I was so tired I did not bother to answer but I slept badly that night. I was very confused and lots of ideas jostled in my head. SOS had been the saviour that night. So, am I going to flee? If I was not there tonight, maybe the mother would have thrown her girl in front of a car. I was in bed thinking but, before falling asleep, I knew something: this evening, I have turned from a late teenager to an adult and I have found myself.
An experience that got anchored in my life
After twenty-two years, I am still here in SOS, trying to help children with the little that I can and participating in their graduation and wedding ceremonies. For most of them, I am their big sister, their confident. For me, most of them are my best friends, my big children.
Afef joined SOS Children’s Villages Tunisia as an intern in 1996 as part of her degree in International Business. She has now been working for SOS for more than 22 years! Over this period, she has seen many children grow up and fly on their own. After attending their graduation ceremonies, weddings and other private invitations, the children often see Afef like a big sister. Having their trust is her greatest satisfaction.
Afef is the youngest in her family, and is a mother of two girls herself. She raises her daughters based on the values of respect, sharing and autonomy. Every morning before dropping her kids off at school, they go to the beach and collect shells. Afef also loves reading in her free time. She has a digital library with over 1,000 books!
Tunisia, where Afef lives, is very multicultural because of its history, having been conquered by the Carthaginians, Romans, Ottomans, Spanish and French. It has been mostly peaceful since being the cradle of the revolution of the Jasmine, until recent years when the wave of terrorism affected many countries. However, Afef knows they will have no place in Tunisia as it struggles to achieve its transitional evolution towards democracy.