Her parents had just picked her up from school and were driving her home when it happened.
“Turn around. You don’t want to go here!” the men yelled through the open car window.
Anita, 11, watched from the back seat as countless cars and people fled from where her parents were headed. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing, and she didn’t understand. But her parents turned the car around, and they eventually found another route home.
Just as many Americans remember what was happening during the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, Anita remembers Jan. 14, in the wake of the Arab Spring hitting Tunisia, where she grew up. She remembers learning about the significance of Dec. 17, a story she heard from her childhood friend who lived in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid. Her friend told her about the street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in protest of the Tunisian government.
Only a week later, the protests hit Anita’s city. The event that sent her family to find another way home was a protest on the television station. The Tunisian Revolution was underway, and after less than a month of protests and demonstrations, the Tunisian president Ben Ali fled the country on Jan. 14, 2011, and left his power to the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi. Ghannouchi gave the presidency to parliamentary speaker Fouad Mebazaa and opted to keep his own position as prime minister. Mebazaa was to organize new elections within 60 days. However, the violence and chaos continued escalating.
In addition to protests, demonstrations, looting and political rivalry among competing parties, thousands of prisoners were released by a prison director in one instance and aided by prison guards in other instances following prison riots. New militia groups defending different political interests also stepped in. The police force of 250,000 people in Tunisia was spread thin.
“So, you suddenly have no one in power [that’s recognized by the people], and all this crime. And what happened is the neighborhoods sort of started looking after each other… People were watching out for us,” Anita said.
It’s good that people did, because Anita doesn’t know what her life would look like if they didn’t. She spoke of one chilling night.
“I was up kind of late and I was just about to go to bed,” Anita said. “And my parents got tense about something, because my mom went upstairs, and she looked out the window and there were all these men standing out in front of the wall to our house. The neighborhood watch showed up and kept the peace and called the police and took care of it.”
The revolution didn’t see partial resolution until Oct. 23, 2011, when the Constituent Assembly of 217 members was elected to create a new constitution. The parties agreed to split the power between them with Ettaktol’s Mustafa Ben Jafar appointed as president of the Constituent Assembly, CPR’s Moncef Marzouki appointed as interim president of the republic and Ennahdha’s Hamadi Jabali appointed as prime minister.
Despite the protests, prison breaks, violence and fear of these 10 months, Anita and her family didn’t leave. She still loves the place where she grew up, despite the scary times, she said. She found joy in her first year of school in Arabic and all of the friends that she made, and she now finds comedy in the scary events that occurred, she said. After describing that incident in front of her house, “Nothing happened, but we almost had front row seats for a minute there,” Anita said.
For her, however, there were still far more good memories than bad ones. She remembers all the countries she visited when her parents had to leave the country every three months. She remembers sailing down the Nile on a boat at sunset after visiting the pyramids and drinking fresh-squeezed mango juice. She remembers the joy she felt eating Thai food at a restaurant in Cairo because Tunisia didn’t allow restaurants from outside the country. She remembers the way the community and parents around her with autistic children came together to watch out for her autistic brother.; the way the Muslim call to prayer comforted her as a pre-alarm clock in the morning. She learned to pray and study the Bible more because of how devout Muslims were, in her eyes.
Anita was born in Washington but moved to Tunisia when she was three. Her pre-school was taught in Arabic, but she was given a private, English-language education after that. For the most part, they stayed in Tunisia until she was ten. It was then that they came back to America in time for middle school while her parents fund-raised for two years. Then, for half of high school she went to a private, Christian-run school in Tunisia before coming back to Zillah, Washington to finish high school.
Now, she is a student at Corban and her parents are serving in their next missions venture. Anita doesn’t know what’s in store for her in the future, but she does know she loves culture and diversity. She volunteers at Salem Alliance’s Salem for Refugees on Sunday evenings, where refugees living in the Salem area from all around the world gather for community.
Here, after a large potluck and prayer in more than seven languages, she watches the kids while the adults enjoy a time of worship, community dialogue and extended prayer. Anita is excited to visit wherever her parents serve, wherever that may be.