TUNIS—A knife assault on two female African students in December last year has rekindled the debate on racial discrimination in this country.
For African and Arab students coming from outside Tunisia, the racial discrimination is an additional burden at a time when they already face significant administrative and financial difficulties.
On January 25, a young, unidentified Tunisian man tried to kill two Congolese students, leaving the women with injuries to the neck. Another young man was injured after he tried to save them. The three victims were taken to the hospital, where a surgeon was only able to describe one person’s injuries as “not serious.”
The incident sparked anger and fear among hundreds of African students who currently study in Tunisia. In a protest attended by both foreign students and local citizens showing their solidarity, the crowd called for protection for the students from such attacks.
“What happened was frightening,” said Rachid Ahmed Souleyman, a second-year engineering student from Chad at Tunisia’s Private Central University who is president of the Association of African Students and Trainees in Tunisia, a licensed student association. “It drives many of us to consider quitting our studies and going back to our country. We need a sense of security and justice.”
Foreign students in Tunisia number more than 8,000, with 6,000 of them in private Tunisian universities and 2,000 in public universities, according to Souleyman. They say they choose to study in Tunisia because freedom is combined with high-quality education, along with cultural and artistic activities. “We wouldn’t be able to organize a protest if there were no laws allowing the freedom to demonstrate,” said Souleyman.
Still, international students face a number of difficulties. They pay an average of 5,000 Tunisian dinars ($2,500) per year in registration fees and tuition at private Tunisian universities, a great deal of money for students coming from poor African countries. They also face difficulties renting private accommodations, because some owners refuse to rent to African students or charge them more in rent. “Many people prefer to rent us their homes without official contracts to avoid paying taxes,” said a Central African student, Dwarka Selezenguele, who is in her third year of studying business management at Private Central University. “But we need these contracts to complete the residence permit documents.” She also noted that rent is liable to go up at any time without warning.
Recently, international students have also started facing difficulties obtaining residence permits, for reasons that are not clear. If they don’t get a residence permit, they can’t get free health insurance and the use of free public transport that comes with it.
The protesting students used the vigil against the assault on the two students as an opportunity to denounce refusals of residence cards over the last year, and the increase in the permit fees from 65 Tunisian dinars ($29) to 300 Tunisian dinars ($130).
“Most of us study here at our own expense because of the difficult security and economic conditions in our home countries,” said Jean Ferdinand, a second-year architecture student from Chad who attends a private university. “We need clear and consistent laws regarding tuition and the allocation of residence permits so we can continue our studies.”
Hassan Yahmadi, a professor at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences—a Tunisian university—admitted there were some racist practices against African students. “I am shocked by this, like many other Tunisian academics,” he said. “However, I think it is isolated individuals and not a general attitude.”
Yahmadi believes it is part of the universities’ role to correct this behavior and open the door to dialogue. “We have to address it through debate and dialogue, firstly to protect the image of Tunisia as the first Arab country to call for freedom in the region, and secondly in order to maintain—and even increase—the number of foreign students at our universities who are supporting them [the universities] economically.”
Abdellatif Khamassi, president of the Private University for Scientific and Technological Studies, agreed about the importance of keeping international students at the Tunisian universities. “We were the first African country to attract foreign students to our universities before 2011,” he said. “We should not allow any negative practice that hinders the flow of African students to our universities.”
Along with the Africans, many Arab foreign students are enrolled in Tunisian universities: They are 30 percent of the total foreign student population. Most of them are from Palestine, Mauritania, Yemen, Jordan, and Libya. And although these students do not generally suffer racial prejudice, they still face academic difficulties because the language of study is French, which most of them are not used to.
“French language is a big barrier for many Arab students,” said a Yemeni student, Ibrahim Sharaf A-Din, studying for a doctorate in education at a Tunisian public university as part of a government-sponsored student exchange program. “In Yemen, we study in Arabic and some English. So, I had to learn French first before starting my actual studies.”
The majority of Arab students enroll in Tunisian universities through student-exchange programs sponsored by their governments. But over the past two years, Arab scholarship students from Yemen and Libya have begun to face financial problems threatening their ability to continue their studies. Security issues and difficult economic situations in both countries have caused delays in payments of tuition and expenses of scholarship students. These delays add to the psychological distress caused by being away from their home country, especially when communication with their family is difficult because of the ongoing war.
“I am stuck here and have not been able to visit my country for the last two years,” said Ibrahim. “I am lucky as I am continuing my studies, but the war is painful.”
Mohammed Khalid, a Libyan business management student at the Private Arab University of Science and the new head of the Libyan Students Union, said the quality of education in Tunisian universities is excellent, but that the reality for international students is tough. “I know a lot of friends who dropped out of school before obtaining a degree because of their finances and the drop in the Libyan dinar exchange rate,” he said.
Fewer than 200 Syrian students are in Tunisia, most of them with dual Syrian-Tunisian nationality (having either a Syrian mother or father). But their problems are significant. Since 2012, Syrians have been unable to visit Tunisia due to the severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries, according to Nadeem Antaki, a Syrian law student and member of the Syrian Students Union in Tunisia. “The break in diplomatic relations has had a huge effect on Syrian students, especially with the lack of any Syrian authority to document their papers, which causes some problems with the administrations of Tunisian universities,” he said. Once Syrian students have graduated, they also cannot register their diplomas with the Syrian government, which could make it difficult for them to work in Syria in the future.
Arab and Africans international students alike seem to agree that the opportunity to study at Tunisian universities is helpful, even if they fear that difficulties outside their campuses put an added burden on their studies and threaten to put an end to their academic experience. “We love Tunisia, though, and have trust in its universities, and the civil society that is trying to help us to continue our studies,” said Souleyman.