Before meeting Racha for our interview, I had the chance to spend the afternoon at the beach reading. Relaxed and happy, I met Racha just at sunset at a coffee place next to La Marsa beach. The place was really busy, so Racha invited me to her apartment, just 1 minute away, with a lovely view of the Mediterranean sea.
Racha Haffar is a young international woman. Racha is half Syrian, half Tunisian, was born and raised in Dubai, and moved to Tunisia just after finishing high school. In 2016, Racha founded Not4Trade, the first Anti-Human-Trafficking organization in Tunisia.
Discover Racha's Story
Part 1 Each person in unique – About Racha’s passion for the topic of human trafficking
Racha’s passion for the topic of human trafficking started about 10 years ago when she was only 18 years old. After finishing high school in Dubai, she wanted to study in Tunisia but all the courses at university were in French. Racha wasn’t convinced that her basic French would be sufficient to really study and mingle with the Tunisian society. She started applying at universities where she also could improve English. She got admitted to a university in the UK but life there is as we know expensive. Racha, therefore, needed a job to cover extra expenses. “I thought ‘what would an 18-year-old girl do besides babysitting?!’” and that’s how her whole story began.
How a babysitting job can lead you into a dangerous trap
Racha tells me “so I put my profile on these online platforms that would match families with babysitters. I got a lot of emails from families with the same standard language saying’ ‘Hey, we’re really interested in your profile. We want you to come and take care of our kids. You’re going to get paid a lot of money and we will also help you in school etc.’” She takes a deep breath and continues “I got a lot of interesting offers and everything they say was all about ‘send us your family information, send us your address and passport information, and we will take care of you and of the whole visa procedure. You don’t have to worry about anything.’ I received around 10 emails of this kind. I asked to meet on Skype but none of the families agreed. Some would just send me pictures like, you know, the pictures you take from a frame you just bought in a shop, kind of very yellow perfect family picture. Then, they would say ‘here you go! You saw the family, and there’s no need for Skype, we are so busy…’. In this quite serious moment, we hear an insisting miau. Pussycat, Racha’s cat makes her appearance on the scene and in front of the camera. We start laughing simultaneously and give us a short break.
I’ve seen how girls are trafficked from Asia and Africa through these fake promises
After we said also hello to Racha’s American flatmate and stored Pussycat somewhere, Racha continues her story. “So these families would tell me not to worry and just come to the UK. Since none of them wanted to Skype with me, I felt something was weird. I was privileged, I’m a capital girl, I have access to information, I have access to Internet.. so I followed my guts and did some internet research. I entered ‘babysitting in England’ and the articles I saw were really horrible”, she says still shocked. “I’ve seen how girls are trafficked from Asia and Africa through these fake promises and fake jobs that I didn’t even think existed. When the girls arrive, these networks would confiscate their passports and push them into prostitution, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, and human trafficking”.
I felt responsible since I knew something others don’t
When Racha became aware of this, she felt responsible since she knew something others don’t. “I felt that I was saved for a reason and I feel like I have a mission. So I did my Master’s in International Relations, a double Master’s on International Development in Italy.” To finish her masters, Racha went one semester to Sicily. For a human rights course there, she had to do some research, “and what would be better than talking about illegal immigration and human trafficking in Sicily? I met this Nigerian victim that was trafficked for 10 years in Palermo until one of her clients saved her. He helped her starting an organization that now is saving other trafficked Nigerian women in Sicily.”
I studied all the developments of trafficking
Racha really felt touched by this encounter. She wanted to go back to Tunisia to investigate the trafficking of women with the objective to start her own organisation. “ I wrote my dissertation about the development of women trafficking in post-revolution Tunisia.” She explains in more detail “I studied all the developments of trafficking – from a historical point of view, from a low legal point of view, and also when it comes to victims, forms, types, and numbers. I realized that there was an absence – there were no organizations specialized in the topic.”
Racha’s feeling of being responsible became once again stronger. Before founding ‘Not4Trade’, she went to the US to teach at the University of Kentucky on a Fulbright scholarship. She tells me “in Kentucky, they have a lot of organizations fighting human trafficking because it’s on a couple of famous roads where trucks take girls! They traffic them from different parts of the country, so they have a lot of work. I connected with so many organizations and learned a lot from them.”
About starting ‘Not4Trade’, the first Tunisian Anti-Human-Trafficking organization
After a year, Racha came back to Tunisia and started ‘Not4Trade’, the first Tunisian Anti-Human-Trafficking organization. With a smile on her face, she says “now it’s a year-and-a-half and since the beginning, we have done a lot of awareness and different trainings. We’ve done trainings for civil society organisations and gave lectures at universities. We also did trainings for the media on how to cover human trafficking stories in a way to not victimize the victim and cover her identity.” I feel impressed, Racha and her team, have done quite a lot in a short period of time.
The future of the NGO looks promising as well. “Now we’re working on establishing a center for research and training. We’re also trying to get funds for the Integration Center in the Northwest of Tunisia because that’s where the majority of girls who are trafficked into domestic slavery are coming from, especially minors. There, we also try to organise a training of trainers. We are going to take one person from each state in Tunisia and train them on how to be trainers on the issue of human trafficking. Then, we will help them to establish their own local contact point or local organization.”
About starting an International Youth Alliance on Human Trafficking
Racha seems to be in her element when speaking about ‘Not4Trade’. “We’re also working on starting an international project. This is my new idea that I try to put in place. It’s going to take a little bit of time to come to reality but it’s based on my experience. When I started ‘Not4Trade’, I received an email from a Yemen activist. He told me that he’s really interested in the topic and he wants to start as well the first organization in Yemen. He asked me for help and I didn’t know how to help him because I was just starting myself.
His words stuck to my head and I felt ‘maybe I should do something about it’. I was like why not start an ‘International Youth Alliance’ where we create a toolkit for youth who are passionate about fighting the topic, train them and help them to initiate their own first projects. Especially in countries that don’t have any local bodies or local organizations. We would also help them to advocate, to push their governments to apply international standards, the international law, to come up with a local contact point, laws, persecution, or services for victims.”
Her enthusiasm transmits but she is aware that “we need a lot of partners because it’s so big. First, we must identify and different countries according to their efforts in fighting human trafficking. Then, identify youth that belongs to the countries at the bottom of the ranking whose governments do nothing or little to fight the problem. We want to find motivated youth, or at least enlighten a group of people who might get passionate about this topic.” Having worked in international network projects, I can imagine the amount of work ahead but wish that the stars align to facilitate this task.
It’s really frustrating to feel that you’re always been shut down
When I ask Racha about the difficulties she met, she says “I’ve been facing a lot of difficulties here in creating partnerships, especially with governmental bodies and other organisations who work on the topic. Everyone has their own agendas, their work, their projects, and finances are all ready for the next year. So when you tell them ‘hey, let’s do something together’, no one is actually ready to do anything. It’s really frustrating to feel that you’re always been shut down. You’re bringing an important topic where it’s necessary that you have everyone working together. It’s not only difficult to communicate with people but also to motivate them. It’s such a hard topic, such a deep topic..”, Racha sighs. “Maybe people look at it as a taboo or they don’t consider it as a priority or they maybe deny the fact that it exists.. it’s really hard to get people to work on it as well ”
It’s very challenging every day but also very rewarding
Nevertheless, I feel that Racha is a fighter. “I’m learning, I’m learning every day you know. I said there’s nothing easy about what I do. It’s a very challenging everyday day in day out but at the same time, it’s very rewarding. Like just being able to train one person, or to help someone to know about the topic, or to get someone to even ask me ‘hey, can you tell me what’s human trafficking?’, or knowing that a bunch of people actually now can identify human trafficking. It’s very rewarding.”
About the 4 P’s of human trafficking
She adds, “I want to move from prevention and to protection. Now I’m still in the prevention phase which is the first ‘P’ of the 4P’s fighting human trafficking – partnership, prevention, protection and persecution. We’ve been trying the partnerships, it’s working a little bit with international organizations.
The prevention was done through education and awareness. Now, I want to move to protection and persecution. We are also developing this online platform which will be the first-of-its-kind where people can actually report cases online. We still need to train a team that can take care of it and we need lawyers who can take cases to the court.” Again I feel impressed by all the things Racha is initiating with her team of ‘Not4Trade’ in Tunisia.
I expected to have more support & more interested in the topic
When I ask her about surprises, Racha comes up with some disappointments. “I expected to have more support, to be honest. I expected people to be more interested in the topic, to put more effort in connecting, learning and joining the cause but I did not find this here. I first started working on the topic in the U.S. I feel that America is way ahead fighting human trafficking, it’s really well established and everyone knows what human trafficking is. They have done a lot, and they really are passionate about the topic. When I was there, I imagined that in Tunisia it will be the same but that’s not the case!”
I feel a bit depressed after this answer, so is there also anything positive to mention? Racha answers reluctantly “of course, yeah, to be honest, I don’t know what’s positive.. I mean the positive thing is that I’m started something from scratch and I’m building for the future, so it’s like I’m building a whole movement in North Africa. I’m not just doing something for Tunisia. I want it to spread. I want it to go everywhere and I want people to stop being enslaved! I want everyone to free everyone, so it’s just hard in the beginning as all other projects but that’s that’s fine.” I feel relieved as well as impressed by the ambition Racha just revealed. I nevertheless understand her frustration.. just be patient I think.
The first year I decided to not take any full-time job
When I ask her about a typical day, Racha responds, “the first year I decided to not take any full-time job. I turned down a lot of offers and it was really hard. I just worked a bit freelance. It was really challenging because it was my decision but at the same time, I felt like I was obliged to do it so to be able to work on the organisation. Otherwise, no one would do the paperwork, no one would do anything, you know a lot of people sometimes tell me that ‘Racha, this is your cause, it’s your mission, you got to and you’re going to do it’. So if I don’t do it, no one else is going to do it!”
Nevertheless, she is aware that she is not alone. ”I don’t want it to be that way, other people have to feel it, and they have to get into the cause! So now I have a good team, that’s the good thing that I got the interest of people in the topic and others who are just a bit interested. That’s a good thing for sharing our experiences. I have started teaching two days a week to make sure I also have enough time to work on the organisation, but that’s my life”, she smiles. Then she adds “I travel sometimes to programs related to the topic as well. I’ve been to trainings or to conferences or to Fellowships. I’m going to the U.S. on a program called the “Global Female Exchange Program”. It’s about bringing 28 female leaders from around the world who are working on human trafficking, sex-trafficking, and child sex trafficking to teach them more and to also give them some sort of mentorship, help them with their current as well as future projects.”
About human trafficking as a life mission
I almost don’t have to ask my question about how Racha imagines her future since her love to fight human trafficking is undeniable. “It’s my life mission and the good thing is that I’m really passionate about it. So even if I do it, I’m happy to do it! I love reading about the topic and I love writing about it. I’m publishing my research in the ‘Slavery Today Magazine’. It’s an American journal focusing on human trafficking and I’m also writing a couple of pieces for German magazines.”
You never know what you’re capable of doing until you actually do it
Curious about which philosophy of life actually pushes her to constantly give everything for her passion, she tells me “my philosophy of his life is, you never know what you’re capable of doing until you actually do it. I would never have imagined myself doing so many things, but when I do them I’m like ‘wow, I did that?! I can do even more!’. So I don’t think anything is impossible, I think anything is possible! We can do a lot, achieved a lot, and we should do more because the world is messed up and it needs a lot of work. So if anyone has a little passion, they should use it in the right spot!” Racha is completely right, at least that’s how I feel. I will try to use my passion in the right spot – for this project – and see where it leads me.
Even reading an article about human trafficking can actually help you to identify a victim one day
So if anyone would like to join the cause and fight human trafficking, what would Racha recommend doing? “Read about the topic, it’s a little bit complicated, better said a little bit complex, not complicated. Before engaging, I would love people to read the definitions of the international laws and legal contracts, to know what type of victims there are, what does human trafficking, how do you distinguish human trafficking from smuggling or from exploitation because they’re totally different. So I would love people to learn, even just read about it. You don’t have to fight it, read about it because even reading an article can actually help you to identify a victim one day. You could actually save a life and look at how rewarding your life would be!”, she smiles. You can find some information page on the Facebook page and website called ‘Not4Trade’. Also, if you google ‘first anti-human trafficking organization in Tunisia’ it should show up because it got a lot of media attention.
Part 2 How is it to live in… ? – Racha’s vision on Tunisia
Tunisian youth is not heard and respected
Being half Tunisian but having lived most of her life outside of Tunisia, I am very curious about her perception of life in Tunisia. Racha takes a moment before answering “well there’s a lot of challenges. I would say that mostly the youth faces now is that they’re not really heard. I would like to keep repeating that we are not really heard, we are not respected by others who have the office. They don’t really give us enough importance or respect. They denied our importance! I don’t know what they’re doing but I think that the country would definitely change a lot. It would excel really fast and in a short time if the youth get a grasp of decision-making and proper positions in the government and the Parliament, but we’re still neglected and we’re still not respected and that’s a big problem!”
It’s not the first time that I am hearing this. Hanna also talked about it and me, knowing some really bright, engaged and forward thinking young Tunisians, I don’t doubt a second that they would positively transform Tunisia within some years. To do this, they need to be heard, given the chance and all the support they can get from the government.
Tunisian youth are among the best I’ve ever met in my life
Racha confirms my feeling, “definitely, Tunisia is full of amazing fighters. They never give up! Once they identify an issue and they relate to it, they fight till the end and it’s amazing. We have a high level of intelligent people here and everyone speaks up to three languages and I’m like whoa” she smiles. “They’re open to the world and we really have amazing potential. Tunisian youth are among the best I’ve ever met in my life! I’m really proud of that because they’re really doing well, so that’s one of the amazing things about this country!” I totally agree and advise everyone to go visit Tunisia soon and meet all these amazing young people.
Part 3 – The Mediterranean
What’s the Mediterranean for you?
“That’s a tough question because I lived in Tunisia and I lived in Italy. I think it’s the point where two worlds meet. There are more similarities than differences between these two worlds but some people just insist on the differences. That’s why I think there should be more connection and more communication. There should be more cultural bridges to make it smoother for both worlds and to create a common future together because there’s a lot of potential whether it be projects or anything else.”
Racha’s message for the Mediterranean?
“Just get your ass out, move seriously! Like people in Italy for example, move! For example in Sicily, don’t stay in Sicily, come to Tunisia! It’s only 10 hours away by boat or 40 minutes by plane. It’s not different from Italy, however, it has its own charm. I don’t know if your life would change if you just come here for a visit even for 10 days or a week or for a weekend. Just like for us, it’s very important to go around and to discover the world. I think also people of the north part of the Mediterranean should do the same and should come to us and discover our part of the world because that’s how you bridge cultures and that’s how you create peace. So that’s how you make the world easier and more comfortable to live in.”
Part 4 Enjoy Tunisia like a local – Racha’s insider travel tips for Tunisia
Places to see
“My advice is to, of course, stay with locals enjoying the Couchsurfing community. They are really cool. They can take you around and just go to the old medina and discover the real country. Go to the other cities, see the different faces of the country because it’s not only the capital. There’s a lot of marginalization, there is this different beauty that is in simplicity in different spots, but it’s beautiful, it’s captivating. There is different nature and there’s the Star Wars setting you gonna love – you got to go!”
“I really love the sea, that’s my thing, so I love La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said. I think Sidi Bou Said is gorgeous, especially in the winter and sunset. Carthage as well so. So we have a lot of beautiful stuff and try the delicious Harissa, even if it’s spicy but it’s good!”
“We have a feminist festival that happens every year. It’s called Choftouhonna where they bring different artists. Also, there is this festival that takes place at the Star Wars set in February of every year. It’s called Electronic waves or the Electronic Dunes. It’s amazing, it’s like three nights in the desert on the Star Wars sets, just under the stars and nonstop music.”
Part 5 Discover new books, films, and music groups – Racha’s cultural recommendations
“Honestly, I’m so into rock and metal. I love that! I think it’s the best type of music that you can actually feel and move to. And its lyrics, sometimes sad… it has a certain depth in it. It’s not all about love, it’s also about life, death, revolutions, systems, about everything!”
“The book that changed my life, it’s the “The Secret” about the ‘Law of Attraction’. I read that almost ten years ago. It’s all about attitude in life and what you want. So when you control your thoughts, you control your life. You control whatever you want. You can get what you want but also what you don’t want. So you just want to keep your thoughts positive and focused on whatever you want to get and what you got. I really believe in it now and it happens to me magically sometimes. I just think of something and it pops out or I think of a person and I see him or they call. So you think it’s magic but it’s really the power of the thought – I really love that book!”
“I recommend ‘The life of Pie’. I am a very visual person and that movie is full of water, animals, and colors. It talks about the journey of this Indian boy who moves with his family from India to Canada. They have a zoo, so they move the whole zoo on the ship but on the way the shipwrecks. All his family dies, he’s the only one who survived. The whole movie talks about his survival story. It shows the determination, passion, survival, power, and intelligence, but it also has so many different twists. I like his imagination, how he saved himself through his imagination because he imagined certain animals with him on the boat that were not real. The film has so many interpretations, it talks about the different religions and different ways of life. He’s a boy who practices 3 religions at the same time, so it’s very interesting.”