Tunisian activist urges teens to stand up for what is right - The Buffalo News
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Tunisian activist urges teens to stand up for what is right

Stand up for what is right even if no one is standing with you. As familiar as this sounds, the advice is strong.

Jamel Bettaieb, Tunisian activist, trade unionist and high school German teacher at Sidi Bouzid Institute in Tunisia, witnessed the aftermath of a horrific event in his homeland and knew he had to share the story. He did so using social media. His message to American youths is to become interested in the world and use your voice to change the world for the better.

“We are all connected,” he said. “We must do better to understand others.”

Bettaieb participated in two events in Western New York over the summer. He was in residence for a week at the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. The Summer Institute, founded by Andrew Beiter, enlightens youth about current human rights issues and genocide, while examining past events to inspire change. In addition, Bettaieb was invited to be a panelist and participant in the Chautauqua International Law Dialogs in August. These discussions allow those involved in law, as well as the Summer Institute participants, to hear prosecutors from all over the world talk about international court cases.

On Dec. 17, 2010, a 26-year old fruit vendor named Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in the rural Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. This act, in protest to city officials who confiscated his fruit and publicly humiliated him, ignited a revolution. An intensive campaign of civil resistance led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled in Tunisia for 23 years. A poor country with a nearly 30 percent unemployment rate, little new development and an autocratic government was eventually changed by free and democratic elections.

The death of Bouazizi, a regular citizen, might have been ignored by the media if not for the actions of Bettaieb and his colleagues, who posted the story on Facebook. The international community took notice of the events unfolding in Tunisia and as a result of his actions, Bettaieb was presented the National Endowment for Democracy Award in 2011. President Obama met with Bettaieb prior to the awards ceremony to recognize and reaffirm the universal rights of all people of that region.

Bettaieb, who lived in the same town as Bouazizi, believed the world needed to hear the painful story. The story went viral. When asked about the fruit vendor and his cause, Bettaieb said, “The surprise was, the fruit vendor was a very normal and quiet person so nobody imagined that one day he would change the world. Now there are many streets in Tunisia and a square in Paris which bear his name. Generally, suicide is not common in our culture and it is one of the biggest sins in our religion. But that guy was a victim of corruption and oppression of the authorities of his state, which should normally protect the citizens and care for the justice. So he felt the injustice, and nobody from the local authority wanted to help him or even listen to him; he was very hopeless and he made a symbolic act to let people pay attention to this injustice.”

Bettaieb, one of the individuals responsible for the launch of the Arab Spring movement, said, “I began blogging in 2009. I married in the summer of 2010. The revolution began in December 2010.”

As the revolution began, Bettaieb’s wife was expecting their first child. He didn’t want her to worry about his involvement in protests and demonstrations, but he felt strongly about being a positive influence in his homeland and for the next generation.

“We were leading peaceful protests and demonstrations for jobs, freedom and democracy,” he said. “We did our best to keep that going on and to keep these protests peaceful.”

Bettaieb wants Americans to know that Tunisia is a beautiful place, despite the turmoil. It lies on the Northern coast of Africa, with many exquisite Mediterranean beaches.

When Bettaieb was asked why teenagers should be involved in activism, his message was clear, “Because the future is for the teens and they can change. Youth is a symbol of rebellion and change. It was the youth who participated in protest and making political parties. They refused colonization. They created my union, as well as, women’s rights.

“Tunisian teens are very curious about American teens,” he said. “They want to know what kind of music they listen to. Many kids are more conservative. ... Tunisian youth care about [issues] outside Tunisia.”

Bettaieb places deep significance on his idea that teenagers throughout the world are the future of the world, thus it is crucial that teens must stand up for the rights of others and be as involved as activists can be.

Eliza Lefebvre is a senior at Sweet Home High School.

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