TATAOUINE, Tunisia >> A century ago, fleeing Italian colonizers, the inhabitants of Libya’s remote western mountains descended upon this wind-whipped Tunisian outpost, many to stay permanently.
With those desert plateaus once again under siege, this time by the armies of the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, about 30,000 Libyans have repeated their ancestors’ flight. Astonishingly, at least to aid workers, hundreds upon hundreds of Tunisians, some of them the descendants of those earlier refugees, have opened their homes to these Libyan families since early April, when Gadhafi’s forces went on the attack.
There are no sprawling refugee camps at the border, just two modest clusters of tents housing around 2,500 people. The vast majority of the newcomers are now living with Tunisian families here and in neighboring villages, an area that in normal times counts just 150,000 residents.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen such an impressive response,” said Firas Kayal, a spokesman in Tunisia for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
That generosity is all the more remarkable, he added, given the challenges Tunisia faces in the wake of its own revolution — which in January ended 23 years of kleptocratic rule by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — and previous waves of Libyan refugees this year in the north.
Even some of the refugees seem baffled by it.
“Would you give your house to someone you didn’t know, from another country?” asked Maren Abouzakhar, 22, who fled the besieged Libyan city of Yafren early this month.
She spoke in the airy drawing room of the house she and 10 relatives now share with a local family; the owner had moved himself, his wife and their three children into the unfinished ground floor, leaving the comfortable, perfumed second story for their guests.
“We don’t even know how to thank them for something like this,” Abouzakhar said.
Abdallah Awaye, 35, a thin, sun-darkened man and the owner of the house, described his gesture as a matter of obligation and pride.
“This is how it is; these are our customs,” he said. “If there is something to eat, we will eat it together. If there is nothing to eat, we will have nothing together.”
Most of the refugees arrived at the border with little more than the clothes on their backs and fears for the sons they left behind to fight the Gadhafi militias, and were rapidly taken in by local residents whose compassion and good cheer have drawn the admiration of Libyans and international aid workers alike.
Kayal also praised the generosity of the Tunisian government, which has kept the country’s borders open from the start of the Libyan conflict. As many as 276,000 people — most of them foreign workers — have fled Libya for Tunisia, according to U.N. estimates.
Asked about their willingness to provide shelter to strangers, residents of Tataouine like to cite an apt local proverb: Travelers cry upon arriving in this desolate place but leave with tears in their eyes.
Despite the abundance of good intentions, though, the city and surrounding areas are feeling the strain of so many refugees. The afterglow of January’s jubilant revolution has largely given way to old frustrations, with people complaining of a stagnant economy, inadequate infrastructure and widespread unemployment.
The police, the lackeys of the deposed government, are largely absent from the streets, having gone into hiding after the revolution. And many worry that the country’s transitional government has failed to break with what they call decades of neglect for the arid Tunisian south.
“Generosity and fraternity have been taking precedence over the problems,” said Ali Mourou, the mayor of Tataouine.
Nevertheless, he said, in response to appeals from the city, truckloads of aid have flowed in from as far as Tunis, the capital, 300 miles to the north.
Three local coordinating centers have been opened, placing Libyan families in homes and distributing donated couscous, macaroni, milk and tomatoes, as well as mattresses and blankets. Libyan children have been placed in local schools, and doctors and nurses have opened a clinic offering free medical care.
“We’ve taken the thing as a human obligation, a religious obligation, an obligation of fraternity,” Mourou said, and the Libyans have been “truly appreciative.” He added: “They ought to be.”
He worries, though.
Thousands of young men who work in Europe — the economy here depends heavily on remittances — are expected home soon for traditional summer weddings, to vote in July’s historic legislative elections and for the holy month of Ramadan, which this year falls in August. The summer heat is also sure to make tensions rise, he added.
Food, too, is becoming a problem: local bakeries, unable to meet the rising demand, have begun closing early, after selling the last of their baguettes.
To the displeasure of many conservative locals, Mourou noted, a number of Libyan refugees have made prodigious use of their newfound access to liquor, scarce in Libya. At the Hotel Sangho, one of just three establishments in Tataouine licensed to sell alcohol, nightly sales of Celtia, the local beer, have risen almost eightfold, to 180 bottles.
“They ought to be over there fighting, not here drinking,” said Dab Abdel-Kader, 28, who works the night shift at the bar at the Sangho.
Libyan men brought four prostitutes to the bar last week, he said, and fights broke out.
Nevertheless, he said he was pleased to be in a position to help. His family is hosting 22 Libyans in Tataouine, he said.
In a way, it is the region’s economic plight that has allowed for such hospitality. The coordinating centers established to manage the crisis are staffed by 40 unemployed university graduates, just a few of the thousands who populate the city’s shabby cafes in the afternoons. Scores of Libyan families are being housed in the empty homes of local men gone off to work in Europe.
Mohamed Zouari, 60, is lodging six Libyan families in his cafe on the outskirts of Tataouine, vacant since he closed it two years ago for financial reasons.
“They’re our brothers, our neighbors,” said Zouari, a retired municipal bus driver. “We’re happy to do them a service.”
Asked if he worried the situation might become untenable, with the expected arrival of thousands of expatriates in the coming months, Zouari only laughed and called himself an “optimistic” man.
He acknowledged that Tunisians have often looked down upon Libyans, considering them a nation of oil-rich indolents. But he pledged to house the refugees as long as necessary.
“We want to show the world that we’re capable, that we’re making an effort,” he said, “that we’re proud of it.”