‘They’re risking their life for this’

Young Libyan expats, many from Canada, return to help the cause

'They're risking their life for this'

Photograph by Jeremy Relph

Expatriate Libyans in their early to mid-20s have been returning from abroad to contribute to the revolution. Many refuse money for their work as fixers, translators and drivers. Their numbers seem to run nearly as high as the journalists here in Benghazi. They can be found at the front lines, in hotel lobbies and the press centre. This is their jihad.

But a jihad, even the more secular sort, isn’t as easy as just showing up. Zachariah, 22 and heavy-set, works a computer in a hotel media centre, trying to disseminate breaking news. Much of it is impossible to verify: brigades defecting in Tripoli, prisoners escaping in Tripoli and attacking Moammar Gadhafi’s home. He left a northwest suburb of London, England, where he was born and raised, after watching the news from Libya. The “feeling was of pure uselessness and restlessness, a level of anger and sadness I’ve never felt before in my life,” he says. “And shock—shock was a big thing that I’d felt.”

A few nights ago he attempted to round up journalists at 2 a.m. to see a ship full of wounded rebels that had arrived from Misrata. He appeared to have no luck. He’s also been to the front. “For the first five minutes it was like, wow,” he says. “You see the mortars being fired, you see smoke, you see the rockets coming, but it was a sense of calm, a sense of tranquility that came over me.” Now he stabs his finger at the computer screen, and a grainy video of what appears to be a protest from Tripoli. “They’re risking their life for this,” he says.

There are others hoping to help. A young man of quarter-Libyan descent from San Francisco, wearing a fitted baseball hat backwards as he waits in a bombed-out hotel in Ras Lanouf, 370 km by road west of Benghazi. A half-Polish, half-Libyan guy in a now-quiet café in Benghazi, with Chinese characters tattooed on his arm, wearing a beat-up Pittsburgh Steelers jersey and bejewelled watch draped on his wrist. They’re searching for a way to make their contribution to the cause.

Isha Aftaita, 23, has found hers. She is the press coordinator at the revolutionary committee’s media centre at the court building in Benghazi. Born in Winnipeg, raised in Vancouver, she moved back to Libya a year ago. “When I work with the media, I tend to forget what’s going on outside, which is what I need: to feel like we’re doing something,” she says. Aftaita says it’s different for women in Libya. “We’re not like Egypt, we’re not like Afghanistan, we’re not like Iraq,” she says. “A girl can work, can drive, can have guy friends. There’s religion and there’s limits, but we’re flexible.”

'They're risking their life for this'

Maurizio Gambarini/DPA/ZUMAPRESS

Adem, Qays and Tarek have been back in Libya for two weeks. They were studying at, respectively, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., and Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que. We first met at an acquaintance’s home in Benghazi where pizza, shisha—the fragrant tobacco smoked in water pipes—and hashish were shared. They were happy to meet a Canadian. Their embrace of Canadian culture began with the most provincial of tastes. “Tim Hortons and [Molson] Canadian!” Adem said. An AK-47 and a French FM light machine gun were passed around.

Adem, Qays and Tarek are still searching for their roles. They’d been to a rebel training base in Benghazi, but the facility didn’t have the guns they were to be trained on. “How does a place you’re referred to for training not have weapons?” asked Adem, 24, who was born in Zawiya, a suburb of Tripoli, and has been studying in Canada since 2005. “I felt I was more serious than they were.” Now they’ve decided to go to Al Bayda, a scenic drive 200 km east. It’s decidedly less hectic than Benghazi—and far less than Toronto. “I can’t stand Toronto, it’s too busy there,” 26-year-old Qays says.

They’ve come to stay with an uncle in the hopes they’ll find a way to be useful. The office we sit in is rundown, the chairs are wet though no leaks are visible in the ceiling, the windows are broken and partially boarded,  and the curtains are frayed and falling off their rods. We are hundreds of kilometres east of the front. Adem wears blue jeans and Asics sneakers, and has an easy smile. He likes girls: Moroccans and Mexicans and Canadians. He is frustrated. “I thought as soon as I landed my feet in Libya I’d hear guns,” he says. “I found I came one or two weeks late. I hear more stories than I see.”

Qays, who was born in Victoria but grew up in Zawiya, seems particularly agitated and restless. His head is shaved and his beard trimmed into thin lines tracing his jaw. He served in the Libyan army for 2½ years. “I want to do something, anything,” he says, still thinking of the front lines. He wears dog tags under his T-shirt, which he and Adem made for themselves in Canada. He chain-smokes and rubs his knees, laughing nervously. It wasn’t long ago that he was enjoying Waterloo, his girlfriend and teachers at Conestoga. “I’m proud to be a Libyan Canadian,” says Qays. “I know I was only [in Canada] for a short time but I learned a lot. I loved everything, religion, school, routines, respecting each other no matter what.”

That world seems far away now. But Libya had a way of reaching him in his Canadian college town as well. “Even when I was in Canada I wasn’t free,” Qays says. “If I talked against Gadhafi I’d be blacklisted, and I’d have to worry for my family.”

Despite the current military stalemate, each remains hopeful. “When I see the new flag raised, sometimes I don’t believe it,” says 21-year-old Tarek, who was born in Zawiya but is now a business student at Bishop’s. He hasn’t heard from his family in the suburbs of Tripoli since the revolution began. This uprising isn’t “for me, but for the next generation, for my brother’s kids,” Qays says. Adem is philosophical. “I’ve noticed patience is the key to success in Libya,” he says. “Not working hard—patience.” They will need it in the days ahead.


‘They’re risking their life for this’

  1. I am so humbled by these young people, who could so easily have stayed in safety in Canada, Britain and elsewhere, but are instead risking their lives for a free Libya. May God bless them and all Libyans and help them to win against that blood-drenched tyrant and his sons and their murderous militias sooner rather than later.

  2. Are there any immigrants left who actually give a damn about Canada or are they all just here as a haven from which to agitate against their governments in their homelands. There was a time immigrants came for a new life here but those days seem to be long gone. Rachida, I truly appreciate how you feel but I do not agree. Either your loyalty is to Canada or it is not. People came here to get away from the BS in those failed countries but now they seem intent on starting the same crap here. Sad.

  3. Your comment is so out of place – why does it matter is they are "loyal" to Canada. When you see your brothers and sisters, your cousins, your friends dying and being brutalized it doesn't matter where you are. You want to do something and these brave young people left the safety of cushy, rich Canada to fight for the rights of a people who have none. How is that being disloyal to Canada? I thought that Canadians believed in freedom and equality. So isn't it loyal to the Canadian dream to fight for the rights of others?

    Most immigrants come to Canada not to "get away from the BS" but to make a better life for themselves and their families, hoping to one day return to the place that is truly home. To say that those countries have failed is hilarious – don't you know that different places in the world aren't blessed with the kind of resources and money we have here? So does that make them a failure?

    In Canada we are blessed to have a strong economy, many high paying jobs, life is easy here. People don't come to "pledge allegiance" to the country, they come because where they are from, there is no money, there are no jobs, the average income is $150 a month and having Soda with dinner is a luxury.

    I have so much more respect for people like these then anyone like you, and I am born and raised Canadian.

    If being "loyal" to Canada means being ignorant to what is happening outside Canada, then by God I hope I am disloyal too.

  4. Good article, and I really like the stories of Isha, Adem, Qays and Tarek. Real heroes, not only loyal to Canada but loyal to Libya, and to making true change there.

    What I like most of all is that the author, Jeremy Relph, actually chose to highlight Canadians in this story. Unlike so many of Macleans articles, including the recent Japanese tsunami Special Report “A Nation’s Grief” by Nancy Macdonald and Nicholas Kohler which, for no apparent reason, highlighted and followed the stories of various US Americans and ignored Canada.

    We don’t have it as tough as Libyans here in the True North Strong and Free, no doubt, but it is tough to live in a country where we are constantly bombarded by self-obssessed US media, only to have our own media be virtually equally obsessed by the US as well. The good ol’ USofA… a country that cares so little about anyone else, yet gets so much positive attention and benefit of the doubt from so many Canadians. Its tiring. Thanks again, Relph.

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