Ettadhamen, Tunisia – Montasser Khedher turned 24 on Monday. But he didn’t have much to celebrate.
Instead, he spent a large part of his birthday on a plastic chair on the curb, across from a cafe in this suburb of the capital, an empty cup of coffee on the table between himself and about half a dozen friends.
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“Ettadhamen is seen in a bad light,” Khedher told Al Jazeera about his neighbourhood.
Home to more than 200,000 people, Ettadhamen (“solidarity” in Arabic) is a largely impoverished town in the greater Tunis area, less than a dozen kilometres west of the city centre.
Once a rural area, families began moving into the now densely populated town in large numbers in the 1970s, as Tunisia experienced a wave of internal migration to the country’s urban centres.
Today, while Ettadhamen’s main arteries are lined with clothing stores, restaurants, bank kiosks and fruit and vegetable stalls, the area is perhaps best known for its high unemployment and youth delinquency.
Khedher finished high school and has a driver’s license, but he said he cannot find any work. While he is among many other young, unemployed Tunisians, he said being from Ettadhamen puts him at a distinct disadvantage.
“If you go to look for a job and say you live in Ettadhamen, people will feel uncomfortable. They think you’re going to steal,” Khedher said.
Police regularly stop and search him or demand his ID card any time he goes into downtown Tunis, he said.
Despite their age, the situation has already taken a toll on Khedher and his friends.
“Either they employ us or it’s better that they kill us,” he said. “At least then we’ll be able to rest.”
Sunday marked the seventh anniversary of the fall of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced from power after the Tunisian revolution.
For many people across the country, the economic situation has remained the same, or worsened, since the Ben Ali era. Unemployment sits at about 15 percent, while some 30 percent of youth are without jobs.
On Sunday night, youth in Ettadhamen clashed with police who reportedly fired tear gas into the neighbourhood. The young protesters threw stones and set tyres on fire to block roads, local media reported.
It wasn’t the first time frustrated youth from the area battled security forces since the anti-austerity protests began this month.
But, according to Khedher, the problem is that Ettadhamen is over-policed.
“With or without protests, even if we didn’t do anything, if we’re just sitting around, [the police will] shoot tear gas,” he said.
Before the clashes broke out on Sunday, the neighbourhood was full of police and military officials who closed roads and set up barricades.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi was in town to highlight the refurbishment of a local youth centre. Essebsi described it as “the starting point of a new policy that will give more attention to the youth who led the revolution”, local media reported.
But Khedher said he was frustrated that the state would allocate money to a youth centre, when residents have trouble making enough money to meet their basic needs.
“It’s better for them to give [the money] to people to eat,” he said. “If I get hungry, will I eat a book?”
‘We want to work’
Maha Kasdaoui, a youth programme director with the Amal Association for the Family and Child, which works to support young people in Ettadhamen, told Al Jazeera economic conditions are dismal.
Without any activities or programmes to join locally, youth in the area often fall into delinquency, which can mean “stealing, engaging in crime [and] consuming alcohol and drugs”, she explained.
“Dropping out of school is the main reason children’s behaviours change. They find themselves in the street with nothing to do,” Kasdaoui said.
Teenagers are in a critical period between the age of 14-17, when they are most vulnerable to dropping out of school.
“We’re working within the framework of the rights of the child: the right to participate [in society], the right to go to school, the right to life and dignity,” she said.
But a place like Ettadhamen is “forgotten [and] marginalised” and children here are “not given a chance compared with [children in] other neighbourhoods”, she added.
As Al Jazeera spoke to Khedher and his friends on the pavement, another local resident rolled down the window of a white van, its right-side door wide open.
He had turned the vehicle into a makeshift taxi to take residents around the area. Each ride costs less than one Tunisian dinar – about 30 US cents, he said.
“We want to work, but the state doesn’t want us to work,” the man, who didn’t give Al Jazeera his name, said from his window before driving down the street to pick up another passenger.
Another young Ettadhamen resident Moslim, one of Khedher’s friends at the cafe who gave only his first name, said he relies on cannabis and ecstasy to make it through the day.
“Every day people use these things here,” said the 22-year-old who didn’t want to give his real name.
He said he’s been doing drugs since he was eight.
“If you’re fully awake”, Moslim said, “you’ll set yourself and everyone around you on fire.”
In recent years, Ettadhamen has also become tied to violence as many youth from the town – as well as other parts of the country – have gone to Syria and Iraq to join groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, head of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, which works to repatriate those who have joined violent groups abroad, said youth across the social spectrum in Tunisia have been recruited.
“Rich, poor, educated, non-educated, this phenomenon touched everyone,” he said.
Ben Rejeb told Al Jazeera government estimates show 27,500 Tunisians have attempted to join violent groups abroad since March 2013.
About 3,000 succeeded in reaching conflict zones, and 900 Tunisians who joined such groups have returned to Tunisia so far.
But young people in a place such as Ettadhamen are particularly vulnerable to extremist ideologies because they are marginalised and live in “one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the world”, Ben Rejeb explained.
“With so many marginalised youth, we’ve seen many [from Ettadhamen] who were enlisted to join conflict zones,” he said.
“They are looking for jobs. They are looking to be listened to. They are looking for something to do.”
Meanwhile, some residents have left Tunisia to start their lives elsewhere, including Oussama, 26, who grew up in Ettadhamen but left the country in 2012.
He told Al Jazeera he took a boat with dozens of other undocumented migrants to Italy, and today he is a resident of France.
“It’s dangerous, but there are no other choices,” said Oussama, who didn’t give Al Jazeera his surname.
Back in town to visit his family, he said life in Ettadhamen has always been hard. Youth can’t get jobs and there is nothing to keep them busy. “There’s one football field but if people don’t work, why would they go play?” he said.
For residents here, the Tunisian revolution “changed nothing”, Oussama said.
“In fact, it’s the opposite. Things have become more difficult.”