'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.