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Vendor’s suicide reflects despair of Mideast youth

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SOUK AL-JUMMA, Tunisia – On the day he chose to die, Adel Khedri woke up at 6:30 a.m., took his black backpack and headed down to the busy boulevard where he worked as a cigarette peddler.

It was the last in a series of odd jobs that had defined his hand-to-mouth existence for almost nine years. He couldn’t afford to pay bribes to get hired as a driver or a guard. The Tunisian army didn’t need him. There were few factory jobs. And the owner at a fast food restaurant in neighboring Libya had cheated him out of wages as a dishwasher.

So on March 12, three weeks after his 27th birthday, Adel left the dirty room he shared with his older brother in a Tunis slum for the tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba, once the stage for the first of the Arab Spring uprisings.

He stopped in front of the art deco Municipal Theater. He poured gasoline over his body. Then he set himself on fire.

Adel died 19 hours later. One of his last words to a doctor at the burn center was “faddit” – slang for “fed up.”

Adel is one of 178 people in Tunisia who have set themselves on fire since the self-immolation two years ago of another high school dropout-turned-street vendor launched the Arab Spring.

These two book-ends of a revolution that toppled four Arab dictators show how little has changed in between for millions of jobless, hopeless 20-somethings across the Middle East and North Africa. The difficulty of finding a job, which helped spark the unrest, is now a prescription for continued turmoil.

Youth unemployment worldwide is up to about 12.3 percent, in part because of the global financial crisis that began five years ago. But some areas of the Middle East and North Africa suffer from more than twice that rate, because of stubborn labor market problems compounded by the turmoil of the Arab Spring.

And the future looks worse. In the Middle East, youth unemployment is expected to rise from 27.7 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2018, the International Labor Organization reported this week. In North Africa, a slight increase is expected, from 23.3 percent to 23.9 percent.

Economists say fixing the problem will require broad and deep changes, such as overhauling education, slashing bloated public sectors and encouraging entrepreneurship.

“There is no quick solution that will address all the aspirations of young people looking for jobs now,” said Masood Ahmed, head of the International Monetary Fund for the Middle East and North Africa.

In the meantime, the numbers add up to a generation in trouble.

In Tunisia, 143 of the people who lit themselves aflame over the past two years, many of them unemployed, have died. Similar self-immolations have been reported in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain and Lebanon, though in smaller numbers.

A month after Adel’s death, five of the 20 beds at the Ben Arous burn center in Tunis held people who had set themselves on fire, including two young men newly arrived from the poor provincial towns of Kasserine and Ben Guerdane. Self-immolations make up about 25 percent of admissions, according to Dr. Amen Allah Messaadi, the center’s trauma chief. Some victims suffer from mental problems, but most are just like Adel – unemployed high-school dropouts in their 20s.

The Associated Press pieced together Adel’s story from interviews with two dozen people, including his family and friends; waiters, a lawyer and a witness at the scene; a doctor and a psychiatrist at the burn center, and local officials, including a school principal. The AP also looked at photos from the scene.

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Adel’s life of struggle was in some ways a copy of that of his father, Habib.

Born in Souk al-Jumma, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Tunis, Habib went to the capital as a young man to find work in day labor. In January 1978, he was wounded by gunfire in the left shoulder during a government crackdown on anti-poverty protests.

In 1980, Habib married his hometown cousin, Latifa. The couple started out in a tiny room in Tunis, just like the one Adel and his 29-year-old brother Issam were to share later.

Several years later, the Khedris got a two-room concrete shack in Souk al-Jumma as part of a housing program by the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the longtime authoritarian leader of Tunisia. Latifa stayed in the village with Issam and Adel. Habib returned to Tunis to work.

Over the years, Latifa had Bilal, now 24, Hamza, 20, and Omar, 17. The growing family squeezed into one bedroom, while the second room served as a kitchen. Habib came home occasionally and sent money when he could.

It was never enough.

As a boy, Adel often railed against growing up poor. When his parents pressured him to get a job, he berated them for having children they couldn’t afford.

Issam was the first of the Khedri brothers to quit school. He joined his father in 2003 in Tunis, where they had to hustle every day to find construction work.

Adel’s last school was a 10-minute walk away from the family home in Souk al-Jumma, down a dirt path and past a village coffee shop where unemployed men smoke, drink and play cards in the daytime. The school teaches 447 students, including 250 boarders from outlying areas, in a testament to Tunisia’s investment in educating all children. Yet many leave because their families expect them to help earn money, according to principal Issam Ayari.

Adel was one of them.

A hand-written student ledger shows that Adel dropped out of school on April 20, 2004, toward the end of ninth grade. He was 18 and had repeated two grades. Before quitting, he had been absent for long periods and often failed to hand in homework.

If he had gone on to 10th grade, he would have taken a bus to a school 12 miles away at a cost of 54 dinars ($34) per year. By comparison, a job in construction pays 15 dinars a day ($9.30).

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Adel and his four brothers were part of the “youth bulge” rippling across the Middle East and North Africa, a region of about 380 million people. In Arab countries such as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, those under 25 make up anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the population, largely due to improved health care over the decades.

But the economies of the region have not kept pace.

The Arab world would have to create about 46 million jobs to bring unemployment down to the global average by 2020, according to Elena Ianchovichina, the World Bank’s lead economist in the region. Instead, economic growth has come in at well below the 6 percent a year required to achieve this, particularly in Arab Spring countries that saw a sharp economic downturn.

In Jendouba province, where Adel spent much of his childhood, unemployment is running at about 20 percent. His district of about 60,000 people houses factories for car wires and sugar, with two more in the works for solar panels and olive oil packaging. But that’s not enough to absorb all those with a high school education or less.

Even a university education may make no difference.

In Tunisia, about 230,000 university graduates are unemployed, making up one-third of the jobless, according to the National Institute of Statistics. The Union of Unemployed University Graduates puts the actual number of jobless graduates closer to 350,000, saying many have stopped looking for work.

The few jobs available are awarded through nepotism and political connections, according to union member Soheil Idoudi, 32, who has an engineering degree but never worked in his field. His four college-educated siblings survive on odd jobs.

The problem is especially acute because in the Middle East, a job is often the first building block of adult life, as Adel soon found. Without a job, a young man cannot get married. And without marriage, a couple cannot live together.

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After years of moving between odd jobs, Adel went to the capital in 2008 to join his father and brother. Habib was slowing down, plagued by his old shooting injury. He became a tea vendor, earning half of what he would have made in construction. Habib died of cancer in November 2010, at age 55.

A month later, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. The Jasmine Revolution erupted.

Adel and Issam were excited. They joined the protests and burned pictures of leader Ben Ali, who was overthrown in less than a month.

Suddenly, a new generation could dare to hope for freedom and jobs. The brothers voted for Ennahda, a moderate Islamic party, in Tunisia’s first free election in October 2011. Ennahda won as part of the political rise of the regionwide Muslim Brotherhood, long suppressed by Western-backed dictators.

The new authorities were less aggressive with street vendors than their predecessors. But Ennahda failed to revive the economy, and the Khedri brothers quickly lost faith.

Adel switched from construction to the slightly more lucrative trade of selling cigarettes on Boulevard Bab Bnet, opposite the Finance Ministry and the courts. He set up his stand, a tray balanced on two large cardboard boxes, next to the entrance of a building of law offices.

On weekdays, Adel got up at around 6:30 a.m. in a room of 15 square meters (160 square feet), just big enough for two beds, a mattress, a cooking gas canister and a TV. He washed his face at a faucet in a courtyard outside.

He walked 10 minutes to Boulevard Bab Bnet, and drank an espresso with milk at the Cafe de la Justice. He picked up his cardboard boxes from a night guard, who stored them overnight under a staircase. Then he set up his stand to catch the morning rush hour trade of lawyers, government officials and passers-by.

From there, the picture of Adel turns fuzzy.

Two waiters at the Cafe de la Justice said he drank heavily, but others reported that he sent money home and wouldn’t have wasted it on alcohol.

Two friends contend Adel had several relationships, but his brother Issam said he was serious about a girl who worked as a maid in Tunis, whom he could not afford to marry.

The girlfriend agreed to speak by phone on condition of anonymity because she did not want the relationship to become public. She is in her early 20s and says she holds a three-year degree from Jendouba University in economics and management.

“Since I knew him, he was irritable and unsettled,” she said. “Recently, he was particularly nervous. We were always talking about how bad the situation was.”

Issam said policemen frequently harassed his brother by taking cigarettes for free. But Ratiba Ben Othmane, a lawyer in the building next door, denied any such trouble, and called Adel “a nice young man” who was troubled by his girlfriend’s jealousy.

Adel was particularly despondent in January. He got a job as a dishwasher in a fast food restaurant in Tripoli in neighboring Libya, but left after two weeks when his boss didn’t pay his full wages.

It’s not clear what pushed Adel over the edge.

On Tuesday, March 12, he went to the boulevard as usual, drank his espresso with milk at the Cafe de la Justice and told a waiter that his stomach hurt -- a frequent complaint.

He reached the Municipal Theater on Avenue Bourguiba sometime after 8 a.m. The avenue is a scene of frequent demonstrations, and police are permanently deployed there.

Then waiter Khaled Hammami heard a woman scream outside Le Grand Cafe Du Theatre. He and a customer, an off-duty policeman, rushed outside and saw Adel on fire.

They grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to douse the flames. But it was too late.

The sickening smell of burned flesh hung in the air. Dozens of people flocked to the scene, stunned. Some snapped pictures of the blackened man sitting on the ground, with his legs outstretched and his arms slightly raised.

The photos appeared on the front pages of Tunisia’s newspapers the next day.

“Tunisians become inflammable,” read the headline in the Al Anwar newspaper, one of several from that day that Issam keeps under his mattress.

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Adel was taken to the Ben Arous medical center. Issam saw him alive one last time through a window into the burn unit. Adel was bandaged, and just his lips showed.

His mother Latifa, en route from Souk al-Jumma, arrived too late for visiting hours. She only saw her son’s body after his autopsy the next day at Charles Nicolle Hospital, near Mellassine.

Adel was buried on March 14 next to his father in the village cemetery of Souk al-Jumma, a five-minute walk through green fields from his mother’s shack. Neighbors collected the money for the burial, including the unmarked grave’s concrete cover.

His mother visits every day, sitting on a low cinder block. She seems defeated.

She hopes Issam will get married one day, add a room to her shack and start a family, moving back and forth between Tunis and the village just like his father. But she says that “as long as the situation is like this, he will raise poor children.”

Bilal is in his third and final year at Jendouba University, studying business law. Hamza quit school. The chances of either finding work appear slim.

Omar, the youngest, is still in high school. During a school break in March, Omar worked at the cigarette stand in Tunis for two weeks. He found the job exhausting and the food bad.

“I want to stay in school,” he said. His mother quickly interjected, “That depends on the financial situation.”

In Tunis, Issam briefly took over Adel’s stand, but has since returned to construction. He finds life unbearably lonely without his father and brother. He says getting married is out of the question as long as he has to support his mother and brothers.

He remembers how he and Adel talked after Bouazizi’s self-immolation.

They agreed it was “just inconceivable” that either of them would do such a thing.

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Associated Press writers Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis, Tunisia, Paul Schemm in Rabat, Morocco, and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.

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