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Some Tunisians Continue to Risk Their Lives to Get to Europe

Tunisian man shows a photograph of his relative, who died while trying to reach Italy illegally, at coastal town Zarzis in southeastern Tunisia, February 18, 2011

Tunisian man shows a photograph of his relative, who died while trying to reach Italy illegally, at coastal town Zarzis in southeastern Tunisia, February 18, 2011

Thousands of Tunisians have tried crossing the Mediterranean to Europe since a January uprising toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Now Europe is braced for a new tide of would-be immigrants - fleeing the chaos in Libya. For VOA, Lisa Bryant takes a look at how immigration has brought hope - and loss - to the residents of the Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis.

The sea is an essential part of life for the 140,000 residents of Zarzis, located in southeastern Tunisia not far from the Libyan border. Many of the residents here depend on fishing and on the European tourists who flock to beachside resorts.

But for Hana Zair and her family, the sea has brought tragedy. Hana's brother Mohammed and her nephew Aballah were among thousands of Tunisians who boarded rickety boats this month to cross the Mediterranean for a better life in Europe. They paid the equivalent of $1,400 for the journey - an enormous sum here.

"He's lost in the sea, and I don't have any information about him," Zair said. "And also the son of my sister Mounir. He was also with him."

The family claims Tunisia's coast guard deliberately rammed into the boat the young men were on. Some of those on board were saved, they said. Five people drowned. Dozens of others are missing, including the two young men. Their accusations could not be independently confirmed.

There are questions about why these youths would want to leave their country weeks after a popular uprising toppled Tunisia's longtime president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Many here are hopeful the revolt will usher in true democracy.

Resident Walid Fellah has filmed the story of these young men lost at sea for his website Zarzis TV.

Fellah says lots of Zarzis residents now work in France. They come back in the summer with cars and luxuries many here don't have. Zarzis youth are searching for the opportunities they can't find in Tunisia.

The economy around here is based on agriculture, tourism and fishing. All have been struggling recently. Hana Zair's brother worked for a hotel.

"He go to search for better life. Because Tunisia is jobless," she said. "Because tourism isn't good here because of the revolution."

Fisherman Joar Goubba was on the same boat that sunk on its way to the Italian island of Lampedusa. He survived.

Goubba says if he has another chance, he will try to go again. He is the breadwinner for his family of nine.

Roughly 5,000 Tunisians have arrived in Lampedusa this month alone, prompting Italy to seek European help to patrol the Mediterranean. In Zarzis, the drownings have prompted a lull in departures. But maybe not for long.

Now Europe is braced for another possible mass influx of immigrants. Libyans escaping the uprising in their home country. But the most immediate fallout is being felt here in Zarzis. The town is sheltering thousands of Egyptians who have fled across the Libyan border, about 65 kilometers away.

Residents of Zarzis are rolling out the welcome mat some youth hope to experience someday - in Europe, if they ever get there.