Libyan-Americans, seeing turning point, pitch in to support rebels' cause

From the onset of the fight against Libya's Muammar Qaddafi in February, many Americans with family ties to Libya have dropped everything to be a part of what they feel is a historic moment.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
A woman, who does not want to be named, and other demonstrators wave the flags of Libya and the US in support of Libyan rebels, calling for an end to the regime of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi, in front of the White House in Washington, Saturday, July 9.

As rebels battle for control of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, many Libyan-Americans who have opposed the long rule of Muammar Qaddafi are continuing their efforts to support the struggle. From the onset of the conflict in February, many Americans with family ties to Libya have dropped everything to be a part of what they feel is a historic moment for them and their native country.

Shahrazad Kablan left her life as a teacher in Cincinnati to join the team of Libyans, now 40-strong, working with Libya TV in Qatar. She is working around the clock to deliver news to Libya.

Ali Tarhouni, a University of Washington economics lecturer, precipitously left his family and students to become finance minister for the rebel factions. He’s since taken up the crucial oil and gas portfolio.

Esam Omeish, since 2006 chief of the Division of General Surgery at Inova Alexandria (Va.) Hospital, is currently on a tour of medical duty in Libya.

Even Libyan-American students are dropping out of school to take up arms: One in Virginia (name withheld for security) dropped out to train with a Benghazi brigade and is now reported to be in Tripoli, while another South Carolina family is mourning the death of their son, who left school to join the fighting on the eastern front in the early days of the struggle.

Those who aren’t dropping everything to hop on a plane are replacing the web of fear engendered by the Qaddafi regime with a web of social connection and action. That means coordinated networks of Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and e-mail users who once were too scattered and too afraid to contact one another but have been increasingly galvanized by the faltering prospects of Mr. Qaddafi.

“I was very impressed with how quickly [the Libyan-American community] sprang into well-organized groups. They are not a very large community, but many of them know each other,” says Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Libyan Council of North America. The number is tough to track, complicated by the fact that Libyan expatriates – many of them political exiles – made deliberate efforts to remain invisible to the long tentacles of the Qaddafi regime.

Mr. Moustafa estimates the number to be between 10,000 and 15,000.

“They have used all these organizational tools to create a very impressive network of organizations in nearly every state to help. We send humanitarian aid, lobby the US Senate, and do media outreach,” Moustafa says.

This sophisticated organization is not surprising given that the Libyan-American community is very well-educated, points out Tamim Baiou, chairman of the political committee of the Libyan Emergency Task Force in the Washington area.

This is because many have ties to a group of some 5,000 students who came from Libya to the United States in the late 1970s and early ’80s and did not return. “Now we are seeing that some of these actual students many years later are fulfilling their desire to go home again or help,” Mr. Baiou says. “Or it is their children and grandchildren.”

Businessman Emadeddin Muntasser, who has a master’s degree in electrical engineering, came to the US as a student in 1981. He didn’t return because it wasn’t safe, he says. “Qaddafi was hanging students in the streets,” he says.

This past February, he formed Stand With Libya, an ad hoc committee of about 20 to 30, and held weekly public rallies in Boston, tapping into the 200 to 300 Libyan-Americans in that area. Between events they wrote thank-you letters to US service members, collected funds, and kept the story alive for newspapers and local TV channels. They have also trained medical professionals to respond to the kind of urban-shelling injuries that are common in Libya.

“We put in about 15 to 20 hours a week,” says Mr. Muntasser, who notes that much effort is now being focused on disaster cleanup and infrastructure building.

Asma Ramadan was 2 years old when her father left Libya to study in the US and then became a political exile. She is now a mother and PhD candidate in organizational industrial psychology, and she’s spent four hours a day for months coordinating humanitarian relief and political awareness. She also connects media to Libyans around the world so they can tell their stories. Her small network of 30 to 40 colleagues has raised money by selling recipe books and sweets.

Although there have been some isolated reports that Qaddafi may be found, the stance of one teacher in Washington, D.C., is illustrative. Her fear is so palpable that she won’t tell her personal story to the press until “Qaddafi is dead and buried.”

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