May 22, 2019 – Good evening, exchange alumni. Romdankoum Mabrouk, wa kol 3am Wintuma B’khir. This is my first Ramadan in Tunisia as Ambassador of the United States, and I am so honored to share it with you here in beautiful Djerba. There are countless things that make Ramadan a special month in this country, but what I like most is the prevailing sense of generosity when I see Tunisians coming together and helping each other, regardless of their differences.
I am also honored to be among the thousands of visitors from far and wide here in Djerba to attend the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage this week. How incredible that Tunisia is home to not only the holiest Islamic site in the Maghreb, but also the oldest synagogue in Africa. I look forward to learning more about the historic communities of Djerba and elsewhere, as I continue to travel the country. In its commitment to religious pluralism and diversity, Tunisia sets a powerful example for the world.
Respect for religious freedom is a core value that Americans also share. It is exemplified in the First Amendment of our Constitution as one of the basic liberties that established our democracy. Right alongside religious freedom, we also celebrate freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom to assemble and to petition the government. What some people don’t realize is that the rights granted by this First Amendment are part of an important addition to our initial Constitution that we call the Bill of Rights. These are the rights that are fundamental to democracy and freedom. Democracy isn’t always easy, indeed, it’s almost always very challenging. But as the guarantee of religious freedom shows as an example, in democracies like the United States and Tunisia, all citizens matter and have a voice.
It’s particularly fitting to talk about having a voice this evening, in this room with this group of exchange program alumni. Whether virtually or physically, you all visited the United States to explore another culture and different ways of thinking. You listened to the voices of others. You used your voice to represent your country and your culture. And now, since you have returned to Tunisia, you continue to use your voice to share your views and create positive change in your communities.
I have not been the American Ambassador for very long, but I am already impressed by the powerful and positive impact of the Tunisian alumni community. In Tozeur, I saw first-hand how – with a team of volunteers and a modest grant – Thomas Jefferson Scholarship Program alumni are helping female entrepreneurs improve their businesses and livelihoods. In Medenine, alumni of a university linkage program are teaching small farmers and agricultural cooperatives how to save precious water with bio-saline crops and farming practices. And here, in Djerba, a high school club of alumni of the English Access Microscholarship Program is setting out to save the Mediterranean from its many environmental threats. You will hear soon from Omayma Jallouze, Arij Jandoubi and Jihen Ben Haddada about their unique and exciting project. Thank you, as well, to alumnus Jihed Saad, whose idea – Tunisian Blue Ambassadors – made this club possible, along with five others across the country. Before we part, we will also have the privilege to hear the talented Iskander Dridi – an alumnus of the OneBeat exchange, which brings musicians from around the globe together to create music. Iskander’s music celebrates the rich diversity of Tunisian ethnic and geographic influences. He is joined here this evening by fellow musician Firas Bahri. Thank you – we can’t wait to hear you.
These are all examples of this fantastic community of which you are all a part. Something these alumni have all learned is that you can accomplish more when you work together. So tonight before you say goodnight, I have two simple requests. First, use your voice to introduce yourself to someone you don’t already know in this community and share something of yourself with them. And second, learn something new by listening to them. All of us know that the true value of an exchange is when we share our voice and listen to others.
I look forward to hearing more from you, to learning more about your communities, and to continuing to see the wonderful impacts of your initiatives. Please, enjoy yourselves this evening. Romdankoum Mabrouk, wa sahra tayba. Thank you.