Monday, January 09, 2006

To Tunisia or Not To Tunisia

Imagine I am your daughter, your niece, your wife, or your sister. Then picture I have a problem like everyone else in this world. Just imagine my problem is more visual than others. Imagine I am in a wheelchair. My problem is permanent. Imagine I am a paraplegic. But pity is not in this equation. There is success and perseverance in this story.
I had the privilege to perform this last November with a London based organization that focuses on Global Community Outreach at the World Summit for the Information Society in Tunisia. Being a third year graduate student in acting any work I can get in the US or internationally is a gift. So off to Tunisia I went.
I have never been to Africa. I knew Tunisia was a Muslim country, but found out quickly after the plane landed that only French and Arabic was spoken. No problem. I like adventures and new opportunities. I just had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I traveled to the Carthage Airport in Tunis alone from London. I realized after we landed something was not quite right. The airport crew refused to get my own wheelchair from under the plane. They also had no clue what an aisle chair was. They just wouldn’t get the aisle chair so I could get off the plane. Then a security officer came on the plane and asked me in very broken English if I needed assistance. I told him I need my own chair from under the plane. He didn’t understand. So I asked the flight attendant to get me off the plane with the planes own aisle chair. She then had to ask the airport employees in French to get my chair from under the plane. They finally got my chair. I thought O’Hare was slow to assist.
Once off the plane I then had to convince the airport crew I could transfer and push myself. They tried to then push me anyway. I just remained patient and showed them it was okay. I was an alien to them from the Planet Independent Woman.
As the airport let me go on my own I saw behind me as they began to push these other two women in the Tunisian 1950’s airport wheelchairs. I tried to wheel ahead by myself to get my luggage but was stopped by a female military officer. She didn’t speak English, would not let me pass through the sign that read “sorte” and began to yell down the hallway in Arabic to the disgruntled airport employee pushing the two women in these clunky chairs. It was so odd. From her behavior and his reaction I figured she made me wait so that he would bring me through the “sorte” also. I wanted to say something like, “Hey guys, relax, it’s okay, I do this by myself all the time,” but the gun on her belt and her severe young face, I chose to stay quiet and wait for The Carthage Employee of the Year sloppily pushing these two women one after the other awkwardly down the hallway towards us. He would push one five feet then go back to get the other. As he went to get the other the one he left behind would drift into the wall. I wanted no part of this so I acted like I was being a good slightly retarded, handicapped person, and made my escape. Luckily I saw one of the musicians who had come to the airport to pick me up. I got my passport stamped and made a mad dash to the car.
As we drove to the hotel, which was an hour away from the airport, I looked at the Tunisian countryside: lots of dry dirt. Lots of half built houses made out of concrete. Then some more grass and more dirt. But in the distance there were these beautiful mountains. They seemed so far away.
We arrived at our gated and guarded hotel and I checked in, once again telling the porter I didn’t need to be pushed. I still felt optimistic about the Summit. But very soon I would change my opinion.
The first frustrating experience was traveling to the conference center where Tunisia was holding the Summit. I traveled to the conference center with a dancer, an Irish musician, and a couple other mates from Spain. We jumped into a small van the hotel ordered for us. It had no lift and the doors were small but I was learning quickly to adjust. We took off with our driver named “Churky”. He was very kind. We took the hour long drive into Tunis quietly, all wondering what the conference center would be like and what the stage would be like. As we got to the gate Churky asked one of the guards if we could drive through because I had my chair. The guard started to yell at him to pull over and park. Churky pulled over and they had an intense five minute conversation as the guard stared at us then looked at Churky to yell at him some more. I realized soon this was not going to be good.
We had to get out of Churky’s van and wait on the side of the road for another van to drive us to the conference center which was visible but over a mile away. The first van that came to take us was clearly not going to work. It was already almost full with delegates from Japan who were staring at the angry cop then to me then back to the cop. I just smiled at them and shrugged my shoulders. I told my Spanish mates to go ahead. So I waited another ten minutes with my dancer friend and the musician from Ireland. As we waited the musician noticed that the land we were standing on used to be water. Tunisia must have re-made this part for the conference center. Even though it was dark, the conference center to the left lit up the dark distance. To the right were sparkling lights that seemed to glisten and say hello to us. The air was cool but clear. Finally another van arrived and I was told that the wheelchair and I were to ride in the trunk of this van to the conference center. I couldn’t believe it. The angry cop was all of a sudden happy and said that this ride would be much better for me. I figured I had no choice. We had to rehearse tonight and we were going to be late. So I told Churky we would be back in an hour and I was then lifted by these random Tunisian men into the trunk of this van.
We get to the convention center and after they “unloaded me”; we searched for the next thirty minutes for our performance space. Not one employee knew where anything was and we kept getting the same maps to find the space. I think my musician friend had three maps at one time. We finally found the space but it was in an area that was closed off. So for another ten minutes we had to argue our way into the blocked off area. We finally got through and found the rest of our group. I then went to search for an accessible bathroom and there was not one. Not one in the whole newly-built-on-top-of what-used-to-be-water-convention-center.
The next day was the performance and we were all excited about going. Churky came to get us again and we took the long drive back to the conference center. I traveled this time with an additional companion, another dancer who was in a chair. He is quite remarkable. The President of Tunisia was at the conference center this night in particular so his Secret Service was present at the gate. One of his employees seeing the two wheelchairs, my two new mates from Spain, and my dancer friend proceeded to hop in the van to get us to the conference center. There was another checkpoint a half a mile ahead and they stopped us and it took a moment for them to realize one of there fellow employees was in the van with us. Wait a second, why didn’t the Secret Service guys at the first gate radio ahead and tell the guys at the next gate we were coming? Well after some questions in Arabic we went ahead to the conference center. I made arrangements for Churky to pick us up at the same spot he was dropping us off at: right by one of the entrances to the conference center. I then asked the Secret Service agent if Churky would be allowed through and he said yes. Churky needed us to be out there waiting for him by ten because he had another pick up. So I saw no problem, I mean it was 6:30pm. We were set. No more problems like the night before.
We performed and when we were done it was nine thirty: perfect timing. We left the convention center and arrived at our rendezvous point, myself, my other colleague in his chair, the two mates from Spain, and my dancer friend; but no Churky. I looked in my journal and pulled out his number. I couldn’t seem to dial it correctly. I look over and the two Spanish mates were chatting up some good looking Tunisian man who speaks Spanish, French, and Arabic. I ask him to call the number for me and see where our driver is. He does and tells me the driver can’t get through the gate, the guards won’t let him. I take the phone and tell Churky to wait there we will come to him. I then ask the first guard I see when the next van from the convention center to the main gate will be arriving and he says there aren’t any more that can take us. I didn’t believe what he was telling me. I get the young Tunisian man to ask the guard if there is another bus and the guard says no. I then tell the guard our taxi is waiting for us at the gate but he is not permitted through, can he radio ahead to the gate and let the taxi through so we can catch our ride. He says no and walks away.
At this moment I look around me. It is dark out. There does not seem to be anymore buses. I see my colleague in his chair and the two Spanish mates and my dancer friend and I started to get a little worried. We could be stuck out here if we don’t get to that gate and find Churky. I call Churky and tell him not to leave, we will get to him. I then walk up to a Secret Service agent and tell him the situation he waves me off and walks away. I go over to the rest of our group and tell them what is going on. Then all of us try to get the guards to either give us a ride to the gate or let our taxi driver through. They refuse. Some walk away. Among all this chaos and refusal on their part to help us I look over and there sits a brand new United Nations van equipped with a wheelchair lift and a driver sitting in the front seat. I yell wait there is a van with a lift. I go over to the driver and ask him to give us a ride. He looks at me stone-faced and says no. I couldn’t believe it. I said we are part of the conference we need a ride and he said no again and looked away. I rush over to the rest of the group and tell them about the van. Then everyone congregates by the van. Our group is trying to get the driver to take us and he refuses. The guards and the Secret Service refuse to help us get him to give us a ride. It is now ten thirty and I have a sinking feeling Churky has left. My New York skills of persuasion have faded; my American idealism that all people are good deep down has left my body. I call Churky, he answers but still cannot get through the gate. I look over at all my friends but especially my colleague in his wheelchair. And I start to cry on the phone to Churky, begging him to not leave us here. Begging him to wait, please I said. We will get to you. I look over at the guards and the Secret Service and tell each of them through my tears of frustration, anger, and complete sadness of their lack of compassion, I tell them I hope you and you and you have nothing bad ever happen to you. Deep down I prayed in that moment for their wives and daughters. How could these men, employees of the President of Tunisia, employees of the conference, holding a World Summit sponsored by the United Nations put us all through this much grief and stress over a simple ride to the front gate? They were making our lives so difficult and then I saw they were laughing. The guards and Secret Service agents were laughing at me. I turned around dumbfounded, embarrassed, and angry. I finished with Churky and hung up the phone. Another ten minutes goes by and out of nowhere the lift starts to go down and they are willing to take us. I don’t what happened but they changed there minds. It was surreal. We all get in the bus relieved. My Spanish mates yell Adios Guapo to the young man they met, the one person that night from Tunisia who helped us.
I wondered something big that day. As a young woman I have to let people know what happened to us. If we were denied the right to transportation what other Human Rights Violations occur in Tunisia to its own people? I want the United Nations to realize this logistical blunder. What is so easy to construct for guests to a Summit was made so difficult and quite frightening at times. I would not have minded more security checks on my person if I could have had the right to an accessible transport to the Summit, not the trunk of a car or a van ill-equipped for a wheelchair. It would have been nice to have a bathroom I could use. And then the irony of all ironies: the one mode of transport that was accessible was denied to us. I am an American. We have certain ways of treating our fellow citizens. There is no reason to make life so difficult. The United Nations and the Tunisian government should have worked this out ahead of time, but for us they didn’t. I shudder to think what happens to those disabled Tunisians who live with a Spinal Cord Injury or any other mixed ability. There are no curb cuts in Tunisia. No infrastructure to support independence in a wheelchair. And there definitely isn’t any awareness or compassion. How can a group of people gain there independence in one country and have to leave it at home to survive in another? There is no reason to hold back progress. This Summit was about inclusion. I felt none of that from The Tunisian government running this event. They need to know what happened to us and make change, if not for me then at least for the sake of that one young Tunisian citizen, disabled, sitting in their parents home unable to go out because the geography and mentality of their country doesn’t want or allow them to.


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