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Young Woman Fighting Terrorism in Tunisia

“Terrorism is not fought with terrorism…
It is fought with a pen, school, and a book…
Terrorism is fought with culture”

IRI’s Civil Society Community of Practice is conducting a series of interviews with current and former civil society partners to highlight their work. This is the first blog post in series.

The following is a condensed and edited version of the COP’s interview with Zyna Mejri, a civil society activist in Tunisia who graduated from IRI’s Civil Society Academy. Zyna serves as the president of Youth Can, an organization that focuses on human rights, youth political participation and preventing terrorism.

IRI: What drew you into civil society work?

Mejri: In 2009, I entered university and wanted to be a journalist. This was when the old regime was still in power. My mother was scared because she knew journalism meant I would be criticizing the regime. Despite the risks, I still wanted to be a journalist and I started a human rights blog.

After the January 11 revolution, a great movement of people emerged. I was in university at the time and I started meeting people from the movement.  All the movements started changing into organizations and NGOs.  A movement can end any minute but an organization will last.

I met members of the IWATCH organization, whose main goal was to fight corruption and promote transparency. I was interested in human rights, which is such a big subject. IWATCH focused on a specific area of human rights, so I decided to work for them. I worked on corruption and election monitoring from 2011 to 2014. In 2014, IWATCH became the transparency international chapter in Tunisia.  I also worked for other organizations and continued blogging on human rights. In 2013, I received the Arab Institute Human Rights Award for blogging.

IRI: What success has Youth Can had?

Mejri: In July 2016, I was elected president of Youth Can. It started as a movement in 2014 to encourage the technocratic government to hire young people and collected 30,000 signatures for the cause. Youth Can encourages young people to participate in politics and promote human rights by either joining or starting their own political parties or running for office as independents. The goal is to work with everyone who wants to promote human rights and to complete Tunisia' democratic transition. We are based in Tunis and have a network of 7000 volunteers and 1000 members. We have had about 50 people join political parties. One of them works for the Minister of Youth and Sports and is the founder of Youth Can. 

With the upcoming municipal elections in 2017, we have shifted our focus to local government. It is so important for people to understand that democracy starts at the local level. We have encouraged more than 300 young people to run for office in the municipal elections.  We are training young people on how to make great candidates based on the new concept of political entrepreneurship. 

IRI: What was your experience in IRI’s Civil Society Academy?

Mejri: I got an acceptance email for a long training in Casablanca, Morocco, for 20 days from March to April 2016. I was working with Youth Can and I didn’t think I could take off so much time to participate. One of my friends convinced me to go. It was a great experience. The diversity of people was amazing. There were people from Mauritania, Morocco, and all over North Africa.  We spent a week in trainings and then moved to fieldwork.  We were visiting NGOs in Rabat and we decided to give trainings on communications and leadership. I contacted organizations to spread the word we were providing free trainings to young people in Morocco. After the academy, I kept in contact with everyone and we all shared ideas.

IRI: What was the biggest difference between Morocco’s and Tunisia’s civil societies?

Mejri: In Morocco they have decades of civil society experience. In Tunisia, NGOs only have six years of experience [since the revolution]. It was amazing to see that people could cause change.  In Tunisia, we forgot we had the power to cause change despite overthrowing regime. It refreshed my memory about what we want to achieve.

IRI: How have you worked with IRI since completing the CSA?

Mejri: Last year IRI called for proposals from CSA alumni. I submitted a proposal with one other individual on fighting extremism. On November 2015, there was a terrorist attack on Muhammad V Avenue in Tunis. We chose that street to show that we’re here. That the culture of life can replace the culture of death. We organized artists from all over the world. We screened a Moroccan movie talking about extremism. A number of people came to walk, dance and sing with us. Despite terrorism, people still want to live and love the culture of the life we are fighting for. As long as the extremists groups are working, we will continue to work. This is our country and we do not have a choice.

IRI: What is the biggest challenge you have faced in doing civil society work?

Mejri: Two years ago in 2014, my cousin joined ISIS. My cousin was killed soon thereafter. My father also disappeared. We don’t know if he was killed or joined an extremist group. Since then I started focusing on putting an end to terrorism.

Tunisia reportedly has the largest number of people joining ISIS. People in marginalized places are joining extremist groups. There was a terrorist attack in my neighborhood. I had the idea that culture can be a larger solution. To show that “we are here”. I created the first cultural hall in my high school in Douar Hicher. In Tunisia, there is no room for students to do cultural activities. The idea is for people to have plaice to create music, and art.

My family and I received a lot of threats over the hall. When we finished, the people who opposed us actually came to the cultural hall and were happy. I faced the same threats when I created a second cultural hall. In every region, we have identified artists who go to school on Friday to animate projects for kids. In November, the new minister of education said cultural clubs should be an obligation in every school.   

The first cultural hall in Zyna Mejri’s old high school.

IRI: What is your biggest “ask” for the future of IRI’s work/international cooperation on civil society work?

The main work of IRI in Tunis is building the capacity of political party members.* The issue is the program is only working on politics, but not on human rights. What if IRI tried to work with young people who wanted to get involved in politics but aren’t members of political parties. Maybe it would help our work with youth candidates.   

International NGOs should work with youth candidates and do human rights trainings.  They have a great database of people in the region they could connect them with. The NGOs could help young people get involved in politics and create new generations of politicians. They could create a network of young people who want to become involved. They should also put pressure on ministry of education to do civic education.

*IRI currently works in Tunisia with politically unaffiliated youth seeking to become involved in politics, as well as young MPs and young civil society members.