Taking Libya in their hands
Three students look back, plan ahead for the future of their country
A few tense minutes pass before one soldier emerges and brazenly steps into the street to fire an RPG at a cluster of government loyalists around the corner. His name is Mohammed Rajab Fadil and like most of his fellow fighters, he's young and inexperienced. What sets the 20 year old apart however is that before going to war, he was attending college classes at SCC.
A native of Benghazi, Libya, Fadil's introduction to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, who was ousted by opposition soldiers on Oct. 20, 2011 after a decades-long stint as dictator of the country, began early on as a child.
At 4 years old, Fadil watched helplessly as his father was imprisoned for, as he recalls, "Not speaking out—not planning—but just thinking about doing something."
He cites his father's detainment, as well as his uncle who spent 17 years locked up for similar disapproval of Gaddafi, as the spark that prompted him to put his studies at SCC on hold, pack up his belongings and return to his country as it underwent its own chapter of the still-lively Arab Spring movement. The movement began in Tunisia in January of 2011, with the self-immolation of a distraught fruit stand owner, and quickly spread to nearby nations also hungry for change within their oppressive governments.
"My family fought Gaddafi all along during the 42 years (that he was in power) so I felt like it's my turn to do something now for my family's history and for my country overall," Fadil said, adding that he felt his country was in a "now or never" situation not seen before in any previous uprisings.
This sense of urgency seeped its way into the classroom, where Fadil struggled to remain focused on his studies as his friends back home took up arms to join the revolution he so strongly believed in.
The breaking point came on March 19, 2011 when Fadil's cousin was killed while fighting alongside rebel forces in Libya.
"That was the point that I said 'No way, I am going home,'" Fadil said. "He was the closest one of my cousins, we always talked … it was hard for me."
Further complicating the issue was his family's objection to Fadil's decision to return to Libya. Relatives living in Seattle had given Fadil a chance many of his compatriots only dream of: a connection allowing him an opportunity to pursue a highly valued education in the U.S.—one that could potentially grant him a career above the financial struggles many Libyans face on a daily basis.
Eventually, in the summer of 2011, Fadil convinced his family to allow him to return to Libya by telling them he only planned to visit for a short time while on summer break from school. Unbeknownst to his parents, however, he intended to join the battle as soon as possible, and had even booked his ticket with a stop in Tunisia where he tried to cross over the border to Libya's then-besieged city of Tripoli.
The region's heavily manned checkpoints proved too difficult for Fadil to negotiate though, and he was forced to try a different way of reaching the battlefield—via Benghazi where his family would surely discover his intent to fight.
As predicted, he was met with resistance from his father who was nervous with his son's involvement. But Fadil's stubbornness quickly became apparent to his family who, in a few days, went from actively opposing his return to Libya to helping him cobble together a weapon and military uniform he could take with him to the frontlines.
"My uncle gave me his AK-47 and was like 'Use this, but I don't have any bullets' and my father gave me his military uniform—it was a little big," Fadil said. He set off one evening in late August to make the nearly 300 kilometer trip westward from Benghazi where Gaddafi loyalists and opposition forces had converged for weeks to trade blows in a barren desert region.
His combat experience was non-existent—it wasn't until the night before his first fight that he learned to properly operate his weapon—but his comrades weren't much different. The group's impromptu leader had been chosen because of his age and, as Fadil remembers, the fact that "he seemed to be the wisest."
Their tactics were rudimentary at best, and to make matters worse, they knew nothing about the area in which they were fighting. A chain of command had been established, though the exact roles of the rebels within the group often blurred. On the eve of the besiegement of the coastal city of Sirte, Fadil sat on the floor and spoke with rebel commanders, watching as they anxiously sketched out possible entry points to one of the last major strongholds for Gaddafi's forces.
Despite the circumstances, Fadil looks back fondly on the time he spent fighting.
"I consider those days the best days of my life," he said. "What I learned there is just to value the person you are with because I lost one of my friends—man, I wish he was here."
His tour of duty passed in just two months, though his experiences in combat correspond more closely to those of a seasoned veteran. At one point, Fadil escorted the aforementioned friend's body back to Benghazi, and eventually left the war with shrapnel wounds in his back, from which he has since fully recovered. He brushed them off as being "very minor" in comparison with other injuries he witnessed in Libya.
Today, Fadil prefers to look forward.
His room in the Northgate apartment he shares with two Chinese roommates bares no signs of his time spent at war, his computer taking center stage instead.
"I want to get a masters here in computer science and then go back to Libya and just bring all this knowledge I got here … and help the country—just a little bit—to advance," Fadil said. "The internet there is so slow, so we need to work on that."
"There is no need to stay here (in the U.S.); my family and my country need me."
For Logina Abukhashim, 25, the severity of the Arab Spring revolution hit home while she was staying at a Marriott Hotel in Cairo, when Egyptian protests were first beginning to break out.
"This hotel was close to an institution of special agents, like FBI, so we heard a lot of discrimination for revolutionaries," Abukhashim said, who moved to Seattle in January of 2012 with her husband and now attends SCC, where she is enrolled in a program for students with English as their second language. "They beat them, they treat them like an animal because they wanted change. We heard them in the night."
At the time, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was coming under heavy pressure to step down from his position of power. His administration spanned from to 1981 to 2011, when on February 11, he resigned, transferring power to the national military and security forces.
Abukhashim could see the rapid changes taking place in the Arab world but could not predict that in the ensuing year, the revolution would spread to her native country of Libya and eventually disrupt her studies in her hometown. She had attended what is now called the University of Tripoli—changed just last year from its previous name, Fattah University, which roughly translates from Arabic to "like a hero." The name was a blatant homage to the notoriously narcissistic Gaddafi, who went so far as to use this word as the name of a month in local calendars.
Her city in shambles from the erupting civil war, Abukhashim's classes were cancelled, meaning her five years of studies at the university's medical school had hit an abrupt dead end.
To add insult to injury, Abukhashim and her fellow students were forced to return to the school and speak out in favor of Gaddafi's propaganda in what was a desperate attempt by loyalists to salvage waning support and quell growing concern for the regime, in a city that was teetering closer to chaos each day.
Further adding to her distractions, Gaddafi's forces took control of a house Abukhashim's family had rented and converted it for their own use.
"It became a center for Gaddafi and his son was there everyday," Abukhashim said. "We discovered a system in our house for communication; every call we had done they hear it."
Intervention in Libya from the international community had already begun with the implementation of a no-fly zone. By mid-summer of 2011, NATO was bombing Tripoli to flush out and soften Gaddafi loyalists for rebel forces who were preparing for a ground offensive on the nation's capital that would begin on August 20.
Food, water and electricity were scarce—"It was like a hell," Abukhashim said—but she put her medical knowledge to use as a volunteer in aid stations for wounded rebel soldiers.
The city rejoiced at the change oppositional forces were bringing, but her family had other worries; that NATO would intercept outgoing signals from their house and target it as a source of communication for Gaddafi's army.
Fearing the worst, the Abukhashim family returned to their home after the dust had settled and were elated to find it intact, aside from a mess of paperwork left scattered as the house was abandoned—seemingly in a hurry.
Buried in the clutter was something Abukhashim's uncle now keeps in his own home as a reminder of his country's past; a letter, addressed to President Obama, signed, "Muammar Gaddafi."
In it, Abukhashim says, the now deceased dictator babbles in a grandiose tone, referring to Obama as "my son," while stating his understanding for the American president's decision to get involved with the Libyan uprising.
Only two words come to her mind when she thinks of Gaddafi now‚—"Big idiot"— though Abukhashim's plans for her country's future take a direct line at fixing a problem she feels he encouraged during his decades-long rule; drug use among citizens.
"His (Gaddafi) army would sell cocaine and marijuana to poor people—even without money—so they can't think about what is going on in the government, to forget about reality," Abukhashim said. "I have an idea to start a center for rehabilitation (for drug users)."
The center, which she would like to begin in her hometown of Tripoli, would allow her to simultaneously combine her experience in the medical field with humanitarian work in the country she has seen, first hand, undergo major changes.
Before she can begin this project, however, she must first face the challenge of finishing an education in a foreign country—in a city she is only just beginning to learn.
Though frustrating, Abukhashim says nothing could be more important.
Similar to Abukhashim and Fadil, Nadine Bejou's family was directly impacted by Gaddafi's regime; her mother's family was exiled and forced to flee the country after threats were made that the government would take their money, land and possessions. However, Bejou's story holds one unique difference—she grew up in the U.S.
Bejou, 22, currently enrolled in SCC's pre-dental program, did not become truly interested in her own heritage until her teenage years, when she spent nearly five years living in Saudi Arabia with her family, who are Libyan, from Benghazi.
"When I moved to the Middle East, it felt like 'This is my home,'" Bejou said. "When I moved overseas, that's when I started to realize 'Oh, I'm Libyan'… And that's when I started to do my research."
This research, combined with the shock of moving to an unfamiliar place—especially one with major cultural differences from that of the U.S.—led Bejou to develop a fervid attachment to Libya.
With this passion, she has embarked on an idea that she hopes will play a crucial role in teaching young Libyans about proper dental care. It's called the TEETH (Together we Educate Enhance and Transform Health) Project, and while still in its infancy, Bejou has already received national attention for her idea.
In 2011, SCC international studies instructor Larry Fuell told Bejou about the Clinton Global Initiative—a program former President Clinton introduced in 2005, whose annual meeting draws hundreds of attendees, mostly comprised of notable global leaders, NGO directors and college students, together each September to network and share their knowledge about world issues—and suggested she apply.
"I gave it a shot," Bejou said. "They asked all these questions that forced me even more to narrow my idea, and a month later I got invited… It was held in DC, so I went for four days to the conferences, where I met and networked with all these other kids who were doing about the same thing as me."
Bejou has already begun work on the ground in Libya: In the winter of 2011, she travelled around poverty-stricken areas of the country to teach youth the fundamentals of using a toothbrush—a far cry from her original idea of building a new clinic from the ground up, but something she sees as a fundamental step in creating a new generation of Libyans who care about their teeth.
On July 14, Bejou will be travelling back to Libya to launch the next phase of the TEETH Project.
"Specifically on this trip we are going to be meeting with dental students from the dental school over there (University of Benghazi) and our goal is to get 200 young kids—students—treated who have cavities," Bejou said. "The first thing we are going to do is take a number of the 200 students that we get and see the percentage of them that have oral health problems. When we did this back in December it was something like 54 percent—that's a lot."
Today, Bejou is juggling her upcoming trip with the continuous job of promoting, maintaining, and perhaps most importantly, finding newcomers who are interested in the TEETH Project organization.
"It's hard because the whole thing has been just me … I'm still trying to cultivate a solid group here that I can meet with every month (to brainstorm with)," Bejou said.
"I want to see how far I can get with this organization."
Since Gaddafi's overthrow, debates have raged over future governmental plans and in some areas, reports have surfaced that tell of common citizens using Libya's current state of flux to take arms—which are readily available and exist in massive quantities there—to settle long standing property disputes with neighbors.
And although the violence is much less severe than just months earlier, when the country was experiencing a full-fledged civil war, sporadic outbursts have left the population on edge, wondering whether the upcoming parliamentary elections will yield a true democracy after decades of dictatorship.
Despite setbacks—on June 10, an interim government currently serving Libya announced it had chosen to delay elections from the originally scheduled date of June 19 to July 7—Bejou, Abukhashim and Fadil all remain confident that their country will embrace this new breed of rule never before seen in Libya's history, and are quick to dismiss comments that suggest otherwise.
Fadil sees a key difference in his country that he thinks will elevate its chances for democratic success; the fact that, for the most part, Libyans can agree on religion.
Of the approximately 6 million people who live there, Sunnis make up the vast majority, "About 99 percent, if not 100," Fadil says, which stands in stark contrast to other Arab nations like Syria and Egypt where religions meld together, often creating friction.
With this in its favor, Fadil believes Libya's new government, who will sit down after the elections to draft a fresh constitution, may begin its term already having negotiated the hurdle that has proven to be among the most challenging for other countries in the midst of the Arab Spring.
However, other hurdles remain, one of which will be navigating an election with over 2,600 candidates—all running for parliamentary positions—who exist within 370 various political parties.
Fadil, like all Libyans, will be allowed to vote for six total candidates. He says wading through the clutter is difficult, and instead will be relying on personal experiences to guide him as he participates in the landmark election. Already he has found one candidate he knows he will be voting for.
"I really like Mohammed Ahmed, he is a professor at the University of Benghazi," said Fadil, who attended a few of Ahmed's lectures at the university and was immediately impressed by his intelligence and humility. "He's one of us; you see him on the street, he's just a normal guy."
Like Fadil, Abukhashim will also be relying on intuition to be her guide when she casts her vote online in early July.
"I'm looking for someone who can lead Libya with more education and help Libya move away from the civil war," Abukhashim said, adding that any candidate she considers will also need to show a strong interest in economics—a quality that could prove crucial as the country faces the task of handling its enormous oil reserves, which rank as the highest on the entire continent of Africa.
Fadil also points to education as the crux of Libya's future and hopes the 200-member elected parliament will take a serious look at what he has experienced to be a failed system. As a child, he remembers students passing classes simply because their parents were friends with teachers, and in his late teens, one month in a packed classroom with no air conditioning was all he could take at a local university.
"We have all the resources and the money to be one of the best countries," Fadil said. "Now we just need the brains, and that's what I'm working on now." ◊
Cam Keeble, Editor in Chief