The Libyan-Irish building a post-Gadafy country *


This week, in Tripoli and Benghazi, The Irish Timesasked six Libyans with a connection to Ireland how they feel about their country’s future, a year after a revolution many thought they would never see.

THE TIES THAT bind Libya and Ireland after decades of migration between the two countries were only too evident during the revolution that dislodged Muammar Gadafy last year.

Libyans constitute one of the biggest Arab communities in Ireland. Since the 1960s, Libyans have come to Ireland for professional or educational reasons, and many have stayed on, often marrying Irish citizens.

A significant proportion of the Libyan community in Ireland sought political asylum here from the 1990s on. Several Libyans with connections to Ireland played prominent roles in last year’s uprising. These include Mehdi al-Harati, commander of the Tripoli Brigade, one of the main rebel units that led the advance on the Libyan capital in August. The men who served under al-Harati included several from Ireland who left jobs as engineers and doctors to join the revolution.

Many others with Irish links, some with dual citizenship, fought in some of the fiercest battles of the war, treated the wounded at front-line hospitals or ferried humanitarian aid to some of the worst-affected areas. Now, a year after the uprising began, many Libyan-Irish are helping mould post-Gadafy Libya.

Some work as ministers or interim government officials; others are setting up political parties as Libya’s nascent democracy takes shape; still more are trying to demobilise the militias that emerged during last year’s conflict. Many others are helping with reconstruction work and helping the revival of the country’s economy.


In Ireland: Lecturer in electronic engineering

In Libya: Deputy minister for higher education

Fathi Akkari, a lecturer in electronic engineering at Institute of Technology Tallaght, in Dublin, was appointed Libya’s deputy minister for higher education last November. He moved to Ireland more than two decades ago as a political dissident. Akkari plans to draw on his experience in Ireland to map a strategy for his home country’s educational system.

“I see this as a chance to contribute. This is an important moment in our country’s history and we must all play our part,” he says. “The Libyans wrote a great piece of history last year, and 12 months after our revolution began we still have the revolutionary spirit inside us. It is impossible to go back to the old days, but the challenge now is maintaining harmony and making sure another dictatorship does not emerge. “The greatest challenge is for the Libyan people to understand democracy and that will take time. It is like a child: he will fall a few times as he learns to walk. It is a process.”

He says he is optimistic about security despite the continuing existence of militias formed during the war. “We are far safer than Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan. The most dangerous time was up to last December, and we passed through that. Now we are sailing smoothly, the government funds are being released, and if the people start to see progress they will be happy.”

Akkari has a clear vision of the country he would like Libya to become. “Our former king Idris hoped to see Libya like Switzerland. We want a peaceful, developed country, not ostentatious like you see in other Arab states, with skyscrapers and all that, but with the standards of living and social welfare that you see in European countries.”


In Ireland: Rami lived here until he was four

In Libya: Musician and martyr

Rami el-Kaleh was born in Ireland in 1983. His family had moved to Waterford because his father, Shueib, was working for an Irish company involved in exporting meat and livestock to Libya. They returned to Benghazi when Rami was four years old.

El-Kaleh was working as an engineer in Tripoli when anti-regime protests first erupted last February. Appalled by Gadafy’s violent response, el-Kaleh, an amateur musician, wrote a song, We Will not Surrender, which became one of the anthems of the Libyan revolution.

El-Kaleh was killed last March when a Gadafy loyalist opened fire on a Benghazi street. At the time of his death, el-Kaleh had been preparing to move to Ireland to further his studies. His image now adorns Liberation Square in Benghazi.

“We are still in mourning, but at the same time we are happy because we know Rami is a shaheed [martyr] for his country,” says Shueib. “It is through sacrifices like this that we got Gadafy out. We miss Rami so much, but the fact we have a new Libya to call our own is a comfort.”

Shueib is optimistic about Libya’s future, despite the immense challenges the country faces.

“We have to be patient. It will take time for things to improve after so long under Gadafy,” he says. “There are some people who are making some trouble, but I am not too worried. I hope we will get good people in the new government that will follow our first elections.”

The el-Kaleh family would like to see the person who shot Rami apprehended.

They hope the Irish Government will press for an investigation into his death. “Rami was an Irish citizen, so we would like the Irish authorities to do something,” says Shueib.

“We want to see his killer brought to justice.”


In Ireland: Orthopaedic surgeon

In Libya: ER doctor and aspiring politician

Salem Langhi is an orthopaedic surgeon who took up Irish citizenship while working in Co Donegal. He spent 16 years in Ireland, returning to Libya in 2010. After the uprising began, he left his home in Benghazi to volunteer at frontline hospitals in eastern Libya and later in the besieged town of Misrata. Langhi is now head of the ER unit at Benghazi’s largest hospital and would one day like to run for parliament. “I always believed, even during the darkest days last year, that we would succeed. We broke the fear barrier and there was no going back,” he says.

“The security issue is the main challenge right now. This is still a time of crisis. During the anniversary celebrations, we have been fearing the worst. The insecurity springs from the fact that there are still pro-Gadafy elements organising outside the country and also there are revolutionary militias formed during the war that remain armed. The only way to resolve this issue is to begin building the country and getting business flowing.

“That said, I believe it will take not months but years for Libya to become a truly stable country. During the revolution you had a unified goal – getting rid of Gadafy – and we achieved it. Now the trouble is between the people. Some people are still loyal to Gadafy, others are loyal only to themselves. They should instead be thinking of what is best for Libya as a whole.”

Langhi looks forward to voting for the first time in Libya during elections – the first in more than four decades – planned for June. “The first time I ever voted in my life was in Letterkenny after I became an Irish citizen,” he says. “We never had elections under Gadafy. Democracy will be a whole new experience for us.”


In Ireland: Ophthalmologist

In Libya: Minister for health

Fatima Hamroush, a consultant ophthalmologist at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, was appointed Libya’s minister for health last November.

Dr Hamroush, one of two women in the interim government, says her priorities are addressing the needs of those injured during last year’s war and overseeing reform of the creaking medical sector.

“Everywhere I go in Libya I hear locals talking about how proud they are of what they have achieved in this revolution,” she says. “It involved a lot of sacrifice, and we will not let it be in vain. We are taking enormous steps forward. Yes, there is a lot of frustration – people ask why is the government not doing this and that, but they forget that the government is less than three months old and we have inherited a lot of wrong from the Gadafy regime that we are trying to sort out. As health minister, I feel every step I take forward, I move back two steps.”

Hamroush believes that addressing the security issue is crucial after a war that saw thousands of civilians take up arms. “Many people don’t trust that Gadafy’s allies have gone completely. They are afraid, so they still cling to their weapons. The biggest challenge is to make people trust the law, and feel that it is on their side, as well as making sure no one thinks they are above the law,” she says. “If we do this, the rest will follow and we will have no fear.” She acknowledges that post-Gadafy Libya will suffer political birth pangs for some time yet. “The path to democracy will be difficult. In Ireland I saw democracy as it should be. Here people want democracy but they don’t know how to apply it, because under Gadafy they never knew it.”


In Ireland: Medical student

In Libya: Revolutionary

Kareem Khbuli, who is 21, grew up in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, where his father, Nuri, is a doctor at Portiuncula Hospital.

Khbuli moved to Libya to continue his own medical studies shortly before the uprising against Gadafy began last February.

He participated in some of the first anti-regime protests and says his training with Ballinasloe’s Civil Defence stood him in good stead when he volunteered to help the wounded in Benghazi before joining a brigade of revolutionary fighters in the western town of Zawiya.

He lost cousins and friends in the war that followed. “It’s been a weird, weird life for me since I came to Libya,” he says. “The experiences I have had over the past year have changed me in so many ways. Facing death numerous times and seeing people die in front of me has made me more religious, for example.

“We saw terrible things, but it was a revolution, after all, and getting rid of Gadafy was worth it. I now feel a real sense of pride as a Libyan. I see my life as not for me any more but for Libya.”

Khbuli left his brigade late last year and decided to set up a civil society organisation focusing on Libyan youth. It now has several hundred members across the country, and it will be involved in supervising Libya’s first elections.

“I started thinking that I can help Libya in a different way, helping to prevent tensions and change mentalities among the youth, especially those who became fighters during the war. This is very important,” he says.

Khbuli has no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead for the country he now considers home along with Ireland.

“It will be very difficult for Libyans to get accustomed to elections and proper democracy,” he says. “It will take time, and it will be messy.”


In Ireland: Architect

In Libya: Design manager

Hakim Bader, an architect, was born in Dublin to an Irish mother and Libyan father. As Ireland’s recession deepened in late 2008, he moved to Libya with his wife and family. He was a design manager for a development project in Tripoli when the uprising began. During the revolution, he divided his time between Libya and Ireland, where he helped organise an aid convoy. He has returned to his work in Tripoli.

“Life is beginning to return to normality. I think the current situation, given all that happened last year with the fighting, is quite good; it’s quite promising,” he says. “I think everyone is optimistic. All the bad scenarios people were scaremongering about have subsided. I think we have passed the biggest challenge and now it will be steady steps towards building a country.

“We can say what we think and believe for the first time, and we will make sure that freedom is never taken away from us again. Everyone in Libya has a duty now and I am trying my best to contribute. For example, I have founded an institute for architects in Benghazi.”

Bader notes, however, that many people are growing increasingly disillusioned with the interim government. “I know they have been in power for only three months and it takes time to show results, but even on a PR level they have not performed properly. The government didn’t do much in relation to the anniversary celebrations; local organisations arranged everything.

“My biggest concern would be conflict, though I think the brigades, the armed civilian forces, have been quite restrained. They are proving to everyone that they are able to tone down and do the tasks required to keep the country secure. As long as everything is done in a civil manner, there will be no fear.”

* Headline changed on February 25th, 2012, to more accurately reflect the article content