Between May 21st and May 26th 2016, 6 Americans had the opportunity to visit Tunisia. They met with artisans, entrepreneurs, ministers and political leaders. The group of six, made up of Ben Stratman from Texas, Jill Bader from Washington DC, Michael Inganamort from New Jersey, Suzanne Swink from Washington DC, Jacob Candelaria from New Mexico and Stephanie Howse from Ohio are the newest delegation selected by the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL) and to be hosted by Tunisian American Young Professionals and its friends and welcomed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Around the world, ACYPL, a bipartisan non-profit organization with support from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and boasting a network of over 8,000 alumni in 115 countries, organizes international exchange activities for young political leaders that aim to build mutual understanding and friendships that will eventually be translated into positive-impact policies and entente.
Hatem Bourial, a Tunisian author and news and media figure described this approach as essential to a modern, flexible form of diplomacy for Tunisia- one that focuses on the leaders of the different States that make up the United States of America and targets building and strengthening economic relations. The six ambassadors, would discover Tunisia’s beauty, potential, interests, and what makes the small country so important for the Mediterranean, African and Middle-Eastern regions. They would in turn become friends and ambassadors for Tunisia in the United States.
Testimonies from the ACYPL alumni who visited Tunisia bear proof to the incredible impact of these exchanges as short as they seem to be. Through a rich, and carefully prepared program, TAYPers have allowed the six American young political leaders gain an understanding of and appreciation for Tunisia that goes beyond the merely political and economic. These lasting impressions are bound to have a positive impact on Tunisia-American relations in both the short and long-terms.
One alumnus, Holly Chisa, owner of contract lobbying firm and a delegate from 2012 shares that her “visit to this remarkable country did not end in December of 2012. I continued to stay in contact with people we met there, and I meet up with one of the members of TAYP in Washington, DC […] I continue to read with interest this small country’s efforts to move their revolution forward in large ways.”
Her experience showed her that “while the media and Western news showed Tunisia as a chaotic hotbed of insurrection, I found it to be very, very different. […] Many investors and business developers we met with believed that the key to Tunisia moving forward was economic development. Their workforce is highly educated, but their young people (at the time) suffered from an unemployment rate of almost 50%. These talented young people wanted to work, and wanted to bring new vision and industry to Tunisia […] The vast majority of the Tunisian people want to move forward. They believe in democracy and modernization, while holding to the cultural traditions that make them unique.”
This discrepancy between media coverage and reality is shared by alumnus Colmon Eldrige, Executive Vice President at Young Democrats of America who notes: “Tunisia is a beautiful country. That is not hyperbole […] Yet even more beautiful than the natural beauty was the humanity of the people I met. […] From children playing soccer, to families working in the marketplace, to young professionals developing businesses, to social activists shaping the future of their communities, there is a dignity to the people I met that stands in stark contrast the news coverage in the West.”
Ben Stratmann – a chief of staff in the Texas Senate, an appointed member of the city of Austin Ethics Review Commission, and president of the Austin Sunshine Camps and Young Men’s Business League of Austin, concluded that: “those who cherish their freedoms and desire them for the rest of the world would be wise to observe, understand and support Tunisia and all nations seeking democratic reforms in the Middle East-North Africa region.”
As far as lessons learned while travelling with ACYPL, Holly Chisa says: “I learned one very important lesson while traveling with ACYPL – every country must find their own path to success. If we, as the United States, or even as big business, force our own ways onto their culture, they will never own their own path forward. Their final governmental structure may look little like what we had envisioned for them – but it will not be their own. And the people of Tunisia, so remarkable, bright and welcoming, will find their path. Of that I am sure.”