I had a teacher in junior high and high school who groomed a few of us from a young age to go abroad at some point in our high school career. There were some who chose to go during high school, and others (me included) who chose to do a fifth year of high school in another country. The program was called AFS (American Field Service); it has since morphed into AFS Intercultural Programs. In 1986, the AFS policy was such that students couldn’t choose the country to which they were sent. A student could list their top 3 choices, but there was no guarantee they were going anywhere near the countries of choice. I remember my number one choice was Greece; my classmate and friend was sent to Greece. The other choices-I have no recollection. And Greece? I have no idea why I chose Greece, other than the romantic notion of going to a country with such a storied history. I guess I ended up somewhere similar; Tunisia is home to the ancient city of Carthage, no less, and the center of the Punic Wars.
In April, 1986, I found out I was going to spend the next academic year in a country called ‘Tunisia’. As you can imagine, at the time, I was asking myself what I was getting in to? And, more importantly, how did I find myself going to a country in North Africa? I happened to have had 4 years of high school French; French is the second language in Tunisia-that is how I found myself there. At this time in my life, I honestly don’t think that I had ever heard of the country, let alone know anything about it! In fact, when people asked me where I was going, I would tell them “Tunisia” and their response was “Indonesia, how exciting!” (Another classmate went there.) My friends had no idea either; they gave me a surprise going away party…..an African safari-themed party. I learned rather quickly that I was not going to ‘that’ Africa.
A little historical background is needed here to fully understand the utter surprise of Tunisia. I was notified in April 1986 that Tunisia was going to be the country of my placement. In the same month of the same year, the United States bombed Libya. For those of you not aware of the geography of North Africa-Tunisia and Libya share a border. Additionally, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s headquarters was located in Tunisia at this time. In fact, the year before I arrived, the PLO headquarters was attacked by Israel; unbeknownst to me, the headquarters was located a few miles away from my Tunisian family’s house. So, the first words out of my American family’s mouth when hearing that I was going to Tunisia was “Sorry, but you aren’t going anywhere.” After consulting with some people who were knowledgeable about the region, I was permitted to go. We were told that Tunisia was considered to be the Switzerland of the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) area. Off to Tunisia I went……like Alice going down the rabbit hole.
Upon arrival in this new land, I could immediately hear myself saying the words Alice said when she was in Wonderland – “It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down the rabbit-hole–and yet–and yet–…”. I went.
What followed was a year full of difficulties, tears, laughter, surprises, lessons learned, and attachments made.