In the lobby of the Movenpick Hotel in Gammarth, well-dressed couples are greeted by elegant women with perfumed gift bags. Members of the crowd mingle as they wait for the doors to open, sampling catered hors d’oeuvres as soft music plays in the background. They are here for a showing of “Bourguiba: The Last Prison,” a play by Raja Farhat that cleverly presents the imagined musings of the late president in his final years. This image of high society might be replicated throughout Tunisia’s five-star hotels on any given night. But this is no ordinary event.
Tonight the actors are performing for a cause. The food, the gifts, the space – all donated. This is a fundraiser for the Therapeutic Farm for the Handicapped (FTH), an association that provides therapy and training for people with mental and physical disabilities from low-income households.
North of Ariana, the city fades away and is replaced by rolling hills dotted with grazing sheep and lines of olive trees. Fields of grain blow in the wind like fresh bedsheets being thrown across a mattress. Hidden in this pastoral landscape near the town of Sidi Thabet, FTH seems to exist in a different world from the seaside resorts only a few miles away.
The seven-hectare farm was given to FTH by the Lions Club and funded through donations from a number of organizations. What started as a one-room farmhouse with five employees has developed into a sprawling complex with projects in horticulture, animal husbandry, and food processing.
For the last three years, the farm has used completely organic techniques and it is planning new initiatives in sustainability and renewable energy.
Work on the farm is carried out by FTH staff and people with special needs as a form of hands-on vocational training. More than 74 participants in the program come to the farm to receive training, as well as speech-, physio-, and zoo-therapy. People socialize at events organized with local high schools, learn to ride and take care of horses, play sports, create visual and performance art, and develop the skills to live fulfilling and independent lives.
Leila Gasmi, President of FTH, said the farm was developed as a response to the difficulties people with special needs face when looking for work. Although under Tunisian law employers are required to reserve two percent of positions in the workforce for those with special needs, in practice there are problems with compliance and enforcement of the regulations.
In a recent statement, the Council of Ministers said it would implement new rules for employing people with special needs in the public sector by September 2013. In the meantime, the FTH has employed a number of its own graduates and makes an effort to place its participants in positions at local farms.
“When the students hold an animal, it calms them,” Ms. Gasmi explains. “They learn to take care of themselves by caring for another living being.”
Zootherapy is an integral part of the program at FTH. Children and adults raise baby rabbits and hatchlings, and everyone at the farm receives equestrian training.
In order to increase the project’s sustainability and diversify its offerings, the farm also dedicates land to horticulture and food processing. Farmers grow olives and forage for the animals, as well as a variety of edible and aesthetic plants in two large greenhouses. There is also a fromagerie where students make cheese and yogurt, as well as a new facility for making sausage. Local partner organizations also offer workshops and training in other fields at sites all over Tunis.
Aside from making money from selling its produce, the farm raises funds by throwing parties and cultural events like “Bourguiba” at the Movenpick. Recent events have included an art exhibition, Ramadan dinners, and an annual golf tournament. FTH plans to host movie nights and other parties at the farm in the evenings. Corporate and government sponsors also play a large roll, donating money for specific projects like the fromagerie or equestrian equipment. FTH posts ideas for new projects on its website that organizations can support.
Back at the Movenpick, the audience listens attentively to the words of Farhat’s Bourguiba. “The only way for Tunisia to rise and get out of this misery is through education,” he asserts. The employees and volunteers at FTH seem to agree.
To learn more about FTH and get involved, visit the farm’s website.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Raja Farhat as “Taja.”