House of the Aged
House of the Aged
A young Tunisian woman, Abir Rouis, has set great goals for her association Mazalet El Barka: She wants to revive the hopes of elderly abandoned people and build bridges between the generations in one of the most disadvantaged regions of Tunisia.
"Take me to the retirement home", demanded Abir Rouis’ grandfather, "I'm bored during the day while you are at work. There, I could talk to people my age." That was in 2012. At the time, Abir Rouis, a 26-year-old Tunisian student, and her family did not yet know that there was such a place in Jendouba, their hometown in northwestern Tunisia. The grandfather, on the other hand, was well informed. He had known and supported the institution financially for a while, although he lived 233 kilometers further south in Sousse and was only in Jendouba for a family visit.
Ten to one room
That was how Abir Rouis discovered Dar Al Moussinninn, the House of the Aged in Jendouba. She looks back: “The location of the house was far from ideal. The proximity to the cemetery gives little reason for optimism. Furthermore, the close by wadi (river) represents an additional risk in an area prone to flooding. To top it all, the souk (weekly market) makes access to the house very difficult on Wednesdays – even for an ambulance." 55 elderly and needy people were therefore living in rather uncomfortable conditions, indicates the young woman, who adds that "the residents live ten to one room, while according to the house rules, they should not be more than four."
In the weeks and months that followed, Abir Rouis made it her personal concern to improve the living conditions of the retirement home’s residents. How did the old folks’ home turn into a personal cause for her, while most young people in the region are not even aware that such a house exists? Abir explains: "When my grandfather died, relatives and friends rushed from everywhere to the funeral. We were affectionately supported by all these people. A few months later, an old man who had resided in Jendouba’s retirement home also died, and there was only one person to take care of his funeral. The majority of these old people have no children and scarcely any family ties. The contrast between my grandfather’s funeral and this old man’s was striking and saddening. That motivated me to take action, do something and try to change things." This is how the association Mazalet El Barka came into being.
Trainings for crafts
Today, the association has no less than 30 members, all of whom are determined to improve the fate of those forgotten elderly persons in Jendouba. At the core of the association’s work, initially, was the idea that the residents would produce crafts and offer them for sale. The objective was to make the elderly people more independent financially. However, it was not always easy to convince these people, who had been abandoned for years, to resume active lives. A lot of patience and power of conviction was required of Abir Rouis and her comrades to get the elderly to take part in trainings for various crafts, which in some cases lasted six months or more. The beginnings were difficult. Some residents threw the products of their first attempts in the garbage. What is more, some suffered from a handicap, making it impossible for them to hold a brush in their hands, for instance. But these challenges did not discourage the members of Mazalet El Barka – to the contrary. The challenges have only made them more committed in pursuing their endeavors.
Al Bouzid, star of the home
The results are impressive. The star of the retirement home is Am Bouzid – Arabic for “uncle Bouzid” –, a deaf-mute specialized in manufacturing key chains with traditional Tunisian patterns. The chains are finally decorated with small chéchias, a traditional headgear rooted in the history of the region. The product sells like hotcakes, and hoteliers are almost fighting to get to sell it! A single association has ordered 2,000 of the key chains. Am Ali, a blind old man, is no less successful: his rosaries are also very popular, as are bags and tablecloths made from cladium and recycled materials. These products are sold at the Forest Fair held in Tabarka or at the craft exhibition of Jendouba, among other places. The income from the sale of these products helps the residents improve the equipment of their institution, further develop their activities, and turn a once abandoned place into a lively home.
New links, new projects
The revival of the retirement home has created a special dynamic that has also forged new links between the residents, hitherto neglected, and the young people of the region. The young people have found an opportunity to apply themselves and learn valuable lessons from older generations. In the wake of these successes, the Tunisian Ministry of Women and Family Affairs has recently provided the association with a plot of land. Here, a new and far more comfortable building will be constructed, featuring, among other things, a more generous floor plan, so that relevant standards for room occupancy can finally be met. But Abir Rouis and her association are far from finished. They are about to launch a new project, the Nadi Nahari centre, which can provide daytime accommodation for elderly persons who reside with their families. Here, the aged can keep one another company while their relatives are busy, as Abir Rouis’ grandfather envisioned.
But how does this young woman conceive of her own future, given her hectic schedule and her time-consuming activities? "I study aeronautics. My parents are wondering about my professional prospects after graduating, as this sector is so poorly developed in Tunisia. But I do not really worry about my future. Nothing prevents me from using the knowledge I have acquired and applying it to other fields." Given her creativity and her infectious optimism, one can in fact do little but agree with this young woman.