Happiness is in the field!
Happiness is in the field!
In the Tunisian village of Sidi Thabet, a therapeutic farm welcomes disabled children from disadvantaged families. The farm provides the opportunity of vocational training. Along the way, the children acquire the art of “horse whispering”.
A teenager stretches gently on the back of a Berber horse trotting blithely. Nearby, a dwarf goat is hopping and bleating at a girl’s caring touch. A hamster nests comfortably in the little hands of a young child. We are in Sidi Thabet, barely 30 kilometers north-east of Tunis. Here, a therapeutic farm of 7 hectares named Gaïa provides a home to and educates young people with mental or physical disabilities from disadvantaged families in the region. Succulent olive oil is served to welcome visitors.
Support and quality education
43 children and teenagers are currently living on the farm. They hail from socially disadvantaged families, where they did not receive the care and assistance they require. Many of them were previously excluded from social and cultural life. Their prospects for future professional integration were similarly bleak, due to a lack of support. At Gaïa, these children are acquiring the means to overcome their difficulties. Aided by specialized educators and trainers, they tap into new resources on this rural sitting amidst fields and olive trees. Here, they receive the necessary tools for professional and social reintegration. In Sidi Thabet, young people are given the opportunity to receive a high-quality education that takes into account their individual characteristics and challenges.
Myriam Ben Brahim, an economist and coordinator of the project, lists the special features of the therapeutic farm: "Our students learn to produce quality agricultural products. For instance, they make Kadid (dried meat), as well as spicy or subtly flavored oils, floral waters of geranium or mint, and 100 percent natural jams from fresh fruits." She then invites us to taste the organic olive oil, confident of its effect and certain of our positive feedback. The cheese shop provides young disabled persons with the opportunity to become experts at making milk and dairy products. Horticulture and cuniculture, i.e., rabbit breeding, are other paths of training open to the young people working with the association behind Gaïa. Four former students have been hired to work for the farm upon graduation. The secret of success in fact lies with the methods of work, hitherto seldom used in Tunisia. The most important among them is animal-assisted therapy.
Animals as therapists
"Unlike in people, we don’t see pity in animals’ eyes. An animal does not treat these young people any differently. Gradually, a relationship based on trust is established, and the child learns to take responsibility", explains Sahla Siala, vice president of the association officially founded in September 2009, but operational since 2006. She stresses that “therapy that employs animals as mediators helps calm young people with disabilities and unlock their physical and mental potential." The children interact with small animals such as rabbits and hamsters, but they also learn to ride and communicate with horses. Horse therapy, one of Gaïa’s focal points, is a particular source of success.
On this farm, the animals are the therapists! A joyous dwarf goat, for example, has become a star. Thanks to the goat, a little disabled girl has relearned to walk: pushed by the desire to follow the dwarf goat everywhere, she has left her disability behind. An astounding achievement.
But the story of Gaïa, which today might sound like a fairy tale, began with a series of obstacles. "When we started, nobody believed in the project. We had no budget and no bank account. We were considered dreamers", recalls Leila Gasmi, president of the association. The land was offered by the state, generous initial funding was provided by a local financial services firm. The farm is now partly self-financed by the revenues from the agricultural goods produced on the farm. At the same time, some artists are contributing to the farm’s livelihood by organizing charity events such as Solid'art. On these occasions, famous artists donate their works. The proceeds from their sales support the therapeutic farm. Finally, Leila Gasmi affirms proudly, “7000 people were present at the last fair held at Gaïa.” The farm can look to the future with confidence.
The main obstacles facing the team at Gaïa are not financial, however, but have to do with the children’s families. Ms Siala regrets that parents are not always fully aware of their disabled children’s special needs. “Some may even slow the progress of their kids with their irresponsible behavior.” Yet, many difficulties pertaining to the interaction with the families have gradually been overcome, thanks to the cooperation of social workers active in the region and to the determination of a united team. "The group has unbelievable energy", affirms Myriam Ben Brahim. And when you see the smiles grow in the faces of the children, there is no doubt: In Sidi Thabet, happiness is in the field.