Tomorrow will mark the second week since the devastating attacks on the US Embassy and the American Cooperative School of Tunis (ACST), Tunisia, where I teach art and drama here in North Africa. We are still holding our breath.
I moved here from Guilford two months ago, eager to go overseas where I spent a great deal of my youth as an Air Force Brat, when my family was stationed in Europe and Asia.
The timing seemed right; the opportunity presented itself and my husband and I spent the last several months divesting ourselves of our house and possessions in order to follow a new education career, and a professional and personal reinvention for both of us. I came here on my own first with our 8th-grade son, and started to settle in the usual way with trepidation and uncertainty, but confident I would learn to navigate the culture with the support of the ACST community and a curious spirit.
Three weeks into the job, still without a secure grip on our way around, living from a few suitcases, without a car, and rudimentary French and just a few words in Arabic, the US Embassy and ACST were attacked and pillaged by extremist Muslims called the Salafists, angry at the now-viral YouTube clip denigrating their prophet.
We were all sent home early, just before afternoon prayers at the nearby mosque, as intelligence warned us there would be a protest. Thankfully, all children and staff were off-campus when the attacks occurred.
Nowhere in our dreams did we imagine, all of us holed up in our homes, that the “peaceful protest” would turn ugly and migrate to our school, which is located across the highway from the embassy.
Our only updates were from head of security at the school, describing the devastation, the looting and burning through Facebook posts and phone calls. The news was heartbreaking and shocking; books, computers, toys, furniture, personal possessions and even the school buses, smashed, burned, vandalized and subsequently destroyed, all in the name of an amateur anti-Islamist movie, which none of us had even seen.
ACST has 650 children from 70 nations in attendance, and very few Americans attend. All the embassy families were then evacuated. After several hours, our director, his sons and guards recaptured the campus. We learned that we would not be returning on Monday to the bright, shiny faces, but to a toxic soot- and smoke-damaged campus. Several teachers lost everything; classroom supplies, decades of teaching materials, cash and their personal computers.
The Lower School library lost 10,000 books. The playgrounds were littered with shattered glass and melted plastic. Everywhere we looked, we saw hatred and anger. The acrid, smoky odor overpowered us. We were all brought to tears. This was a sucker punch; it wasn't about the video, this was about feeling disenfranchised, envious and the opportunity to loot and destroy what wasn't theirs. Little did these thieves and thugs realize, ACST employs many local Tunisians, and Tunisian children attend the school.
We reluctantly re-entered the school on Monday, just the staff and teachers, dazed and confused. We went through the motions of cheerfully cleaning up the campus, but this violation was irreparable. There was, and still is, a loss of trust for Tunisian officials and local neighbors, many of whom were seen carrying laptops and guitars from the school in the streets. No one showed up to help us, and that made us very vulnerable and still does.
Hundreds of Tunisians offered apologies, embarrassed and ashamed of the attack. The current interim president of Tunisia visited the campus and stationed tanks and police along the perimeters. Although the gestures are seemingly genuine, isn't this closing the barn door after the herd escapes?
Although we are making our way back to reentering the students this week, only time will tell what’s in store for Tunisia and for ACST. We are hopeful and encouraged to carry on, continuing to believe in our motto, "Opening doors, hearts and minds."
Welcome to Tunisia.