Saturday, October 30, 2010

Little people struggle for acceptance in Tunisia

From Magharebia in Tunis:

They live among us but are rarely seen in public, perhaps because they face harsh stares whenever they venture outdoors. Shopping for clothes is an embarrassment, using public transport is difficult and marriage is an improbable dream.

They are not disfigured. They are dwarves. But since Tunisia's "little people" do not qualify as "disabled", they receive no government help. They have no option other than to fend for themselves.

Soumaya Salmi, 37, is unmarried. She was told by a potential suitor that things would have been different had she been of average stature.

"Even my mother prefers my normal-sized siblings," she tells Magharebia.

What hurts the most, however, is her inability to find work. She has a degree in IT and is good in languages, but has been unable to find a job for 12 years.

No one wanted to hire a dwarf.

Little people never hold important positions, she complains. Short people are always associated with small jobs, such as waiters, street vendors or beggars. She calls for awareness campaigns to educate Tunisians about dwarves, as well as an association to support their social, psychological and health needs.

"Tall or short stature, they are gifts from God, which He gives to whom He wills, but each of us has a mind to think," Salmi says.

A private association would indeed help the dwarf population, said Achour Aouadi, Secretary-General of the Tunisian Association of Social Affairs. He agrees that dwarves are marginalised and suffer from a lack of integration and support.

"They are capable of success, especially in the field of cinema and theatre," he noted.

They should be able to find employment in areas other than the circus, officials suggest. According to Social Affairs Ministry official Ahmad Balaazi, there is no discrimination between tall and short persons in the allocation of public jobs, he said, adding that employment is open to the public and opportunities are granted equally.

"The important thing is that they work like the rest of the members of the community and provide for their daily needs," Balaazi told Magharebia.

Tunisian law defines a disabled person as anyone with a "permanent lack of physical, mental or sensory capacities and qualifications… which limits his/her ability of performing one or more daily personal and social activities, and reduces his chances of re-integration into the community".

Dwarves argue that their social integration is indeed severely "reduced". The government sees it differently.

"They are able to fend for themselves and live a normal life, and size does not constitute any obstacle for them to work or to move or do anything," the ministry official added.

Those people who find themselves unable to care for themselves, Balaazi said, should contact the offices of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which are available in each province.

The process did not work out as Balaazi described for Mohamed Barhoumi, a 46-year-old dwarf. He contacted numerous offices to request facilities and exemptions for persons with disabilities, but his attempts have not yielded any results.

"My work requires me to commute, but my height is an obstacle to using public transportation," he tells Magharebia. "I am forced to use taxis, but they often ignore me."

"The taxi drivers think I am a child," he explains.

He knows other dwarves who suffer from poverty and isolation. Psychological stress can also arise from things that average-sized people take for granted.

People should keep dwarves in mind, Barhoumi says, when they build stairs, sidewalks and kerbs, as well as when they sell clothes and shoes.

"It's embarrassing and sad to have to go to shops meant for small children," he tells Magharebia.

Belgacem Briki (pictured) is 59. His education ended in primary school because his peers ostracised him because of his size: "You are not like us, then you are not one of us".

The embarrassment he suffered since childhood, compounded by cruel treatment from his classmates, put an early end to his education. His family's poverty finally spurred him to look for a job.

"There is no escape from the streets and who's on it, but I have to deal with the consequences," he says.

He soon discovered that finding work was not an easy task. Everyone looked at him with cynicism. Because of his diminutive physique, he says, he was perceived as an incapable person who could not provide a useful service.

"Unfortunately, Tunisian society still links short stature to limitations and weaknesses," Briki laments.

But the rejections he received from potential employers only made him more determined. Luck finally smiled at him. He found a job in a Tunis hotel.

He considers work as an opportunity to rely on himself, break the negative stereotype imposed on dwarves and prove his worth as an effective member of the community.

A lifetime of suffering rejection and intolerance may even have helped him to be better at his job. One of his managers, Mehrez Rajhi, described him as "very kind".

"He knows how to deal with customers with respect and affection, which makes him succeed in his work and prove that he is worth it," Rajhi said.

Briki was able to change his weakness to strength. He no longer feels unable or inferior, especially after he got married and was blessed with children.

"For me, short stature does not represent an obstacle but an incentive to withstand it, because without perseverance we cannot reach what we want, regardless of the difference in size or shape".