After the Uprising
BY IAN TERRY
SEATTLE — The scene, depicted in an amateur video posted on YouTube, is Sirte, Libya in October 2011. Barren streets are flanked by pockmarked buildings; a car, its interior blackened, sits in the background as distant explosions ring out; and small groups of ragtag rebel soldiers alternate between firing their weapons and taking cover.
A few tense minutes pass and then a soldier emerges, steps into the street and fires an RPG at a cluster of government loyalists around the corner. His name is Mohammed Rajab Fadil and at the time this video was shot he was studying at Shoreline Community College in Seattle.
Fadil came to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 at the invitation of a cousin. His family had experienced persecution under Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship and was eager to pursue educational and economic opportunities. He was only a few quarters into completing his basic requirements at Shoreline when the Arab Spring swept into his home country.
When another one of his cousins was killed on the Libyan battlefield, he knew he had to go back and help.
"That was the point that I said 'No way, I am going home,' " says Fadil.
He had no combat training or experience — it wasn't until the night before his first fight that he sat down to learn how to operate his weapon. Then he fought in Libya for two months.
At one point, he escorted a friend's body back to their hometown of Benghazi, and eventually left the war with shrapnel wounds in his back. But he says he felt he had to help; his family's experiences under Gaddafi demanded it.
"My family fought Gaddafi all along during the 42 years (that he was in power)," says Fadil, whose uncle spent 17 years in prison, and whose father was detained for "not speaking out, not planning, but just thinking about doing something."
Rita Zawaideh, a Jordanian immigrant, activist and travel agent, says Seattle's Libyans were deeply impacted by the revolution.
"They (local Libyan activists) would call me and say, 'OK, Rita, we've emailed these people and we want them to go back,' " says Zawaideh, who helped local activists coordinate their national communication and organized trips for Libyans who had something to contribute to the revolution.
University of Washington professor Ali Tarhouni did just that when he announced to his class in February 2011 that he would be leaving for Libya to help rebel forces in his area of expertise, economics. Tarhouni first served as the country's prime minister before transferring to minister of finance until November 2011.
But not all Libyans were drawn back during the revolution.
Others, like Logina Abukhashim, 25, were forced to flee. Abukhashim, who is now at the intermediate level of SCC's ESL (English as a Second Language) program, arrived in Seattle with her husband in January. She had been studying medicine in Tripoli when the revolution broke out.
Abukhashim says she and her fellow students were forced to speak out in favor of Gaddafi in desperate attempts by loyalists to salvage waning support.
When the university she was attending shut down and her home was taken over by loyalist soldiers, she knew she had to leave. Abukhashim now plans to finish her education in the U.S. and then return to Libya to help rebuild the country. She would like to open a drug addiction rehabilitation clinic.
"His (Gaddafi's) army would sell cocaine and marijuana to poor people — even without money," says Abukhashim, "so they can't think about what is going on in the government, to forget about reality."
The desire to go back and help is strong among young Libyans in Seattle. Nadine Bejou, a recent SCC graduate, founded the TEETH Project (Together we Educate Enhance and Transform Health), a program that aims to educate young Libyans about proper dental hygiene.
Already she has received national attention for her idea, and was recently chosen for the Clinton Global Initiative Conference to share her idea with global leaders and international nonprofits. On July 14, Bejou will travel back to Libya to meet with dental students from the University of Benghazi.
Their goal is to treat 200 young students who have dental cavities.
"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," Bejou said.
Seattle's Libyan community, estimated at about 5,000 by Zawaideh, has a reputation for being particularly active.
Gamal Khalil, a 62-year-old Libyan immigrant and affiliate professor in the chemistry department at the University of Washington, also cites Seattle's community as exceptionally involved.
"Los Angeles has quite a sizable community, D.C. I would say also Atlanta, too, but Seattle distinguishes themselves because they are quite active and vocal," says Khalil, who moved to the Northwest from Tripoli more than 30 years ago.
That community is now turning its attention to the upcoming elections. On Saturday they will cast their ballots online, alongside other Libyan expatriates in the U.S., in what will be Libya's first democratic elections in nearly 50 years.
It is an exciting and tense moment with 2,600 candidates, representing 370 political parties, vying for 200 parliamentary positions and a hand in writing a brand new constitution for the country.
There have been reports of voting slips burned in Benghazi and ethnic tensions in the west of the country. Recent events like this make some uneasy, Khalil says, but he maintains that Libyans in Seattle are hopeful that the election will be a success.
Fadil is also optimistic about elections, and points out that unlike Syria or Egypt, Libya has a hyper-majority Sunni Muslim population, meaning less chance of the religious tension that has challenged other countries in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Fadil, who is supporting University of Benghazi professor Mohammed Ahmed in the election and cites a strong education system as the key to Libya's future, is excited to participate in the democratic election he fought for. It has been almost a year since he headed for the revolution, wearing his father's oversized uniform and brandishing his uncle's AK-47.
But his home country is never far from his mind. He is hoping to get a master's degree in computer science at the University of Washington and then return to Libya to help rebuild the country.
"We have all the resources and the money to be one of the best countries," Fadil says, sitting in his Northgate apartment. "Now we just need the brains, and that's what I'm working on now." •