Young Libyan Americans Driving Diaspora Opposition Movement

A rally in solidarity with uprisings in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain in front of the United Nations on March 25, 2011 Photo: Mohsin Zaheer

A rally in solidarity with uprisings in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain in front of the United Nations on March 25, 2011. (Photo: Mohsin Zaheer)

New York – “My body is here, my life is here, my mind is in Libya for most of the day,” said Yasmeen Ar-Rayani, a 20 year old student at Columbia University.

The uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya has sparked fire in the Libyan diaspora, particularly among second generation youth who have never touched Libyan soil.

Many are the children of refugees: dissidents, exiles and students who fled after Qaddafi took power in a bloodless coup in 1969. Ar-Rayani’s father helped found the Libyan League for Human Rights after he defected, and she now serves as the organization’s North American spokesperson.

“It always occupied a strong space in my imagination, but since the uprising I’ve started to feel much more connected to Libya in a lot of ways,” said Ar-Rayani, who is a junior in college. She organized last Friday’s protest in front of the United Nations and has been coordinating with a network of Libyans around the U.S. and Canada to document human rights abuses, distribute petitions and support the protesters in Libya with software to help them get around government Internet blockers. She said the diaspora opposition movement founded by her parents’ generation is now being spearheaded by young people. “Our parents are still involved and they’ve adopted some of our methods, my father even got a Facebook account recently, which I never thought would happen,” she said.

Ar-Rayani’s feelings have been mixed over the past month. “It’s beautiful to watch the psychological impact it’s had on people in the Arab world,” she said, but at the same time, “excitement in a situation like this is also tempered by a sense of loss at all the deaths.”

Abdulla Darrat, an urban planner born in 1982, heads up the EnoughGaddafi twitter stream along with his wife, Sarah Abdurrahman, another Libyan American who is behind Feb17Voices. He’s been involved in the Libyan opposition movement since Qaddafi’s infamous visit to the UN in 2009. Darrat’s initial mission was to address the lack of information about Qaddafi in English and organize youth living outside of Libya in the opposition movement.

As soon as the protests started in Libya he saw another gap: Western media’s inability to connect with Libyans fighting their regime. He and his network, with their social networking prowess, began to act as middlemen between their sources in Libya and Western media outlets.

Without any independent media on the ground, the biggest challenge was confirming reports coming in from Libya.  The strategy they adopted was to wait until they heard the same stories of atrocities from numerous sources. “So we would get multiple reports of ‘they’re shooting us with 50 caliber bullets,’ so we’d report that, then we’d get video, a few days later the video and photographs would begin to trickle out slowly,” Darrat said. Another challenge was the hesitancy of Libyans to talk to the media, for fear of reprisals from Qaddafi’s government which used widespread phone-tapping.

A network evolved between Libyan American activists and those in the diaspora who had supported Egyptian and Tunisian protesters. Darrat reached out to individuals behind the powerful Jan25Voices Twitter stream, which served as an indispensable source for people seeking information about the Egyptian demonstrations. “We imagine ourselves as an extension of people on the inside, with our connections to friends and family we could fill the gap and get the media wheels rolling,” he said.

Like Ar-Rayani, Darrat has been doing a combination of Internet activism, distributing petitions and organizing protests in U.S. cities to promote solidarity with the Libyan uprising. During one weekend in February, while Qaddafi made it clear he would stubbornly hold onto his rule in the face of the protests, Darrat and over 30 other young people hunkered down in a house in Washington D.C. that became a control room of sorts for the Libyan diaspora opposition movement.

Now Darrat says, more and more Libyans in North Africa are feeling sufficiently confident to speak to the media, which has meant a shift in his strategy: less amplification and more petitioning the UN and U.S. State Department to support humanitarian efforts. “Luckily in the last couple days we can move to the side and let the people in the inside tell their own stories without us being in the middle,” he said.

Yuseff Assed’s parents are also Libyan exiles. The 27-year-old Columbia University student says until the recent events his interest in Libya wasn’t really political–it was academic. He hopes to publish work on Libyan politics, and is concerned that Libya’s situation is being abused by American political pundits and erroneously depicted in Western media. Assed is focusing his efforts on expanding information about the Libyan context, and is organizing an event this Thursday March 3 at Columbia’s Middle East Institute to this end. He views the uprising as a war of independence.

“I don’t think it’s a factually correct to say that Libya is on the brink of civil war because it’s a tribal society. I also think it’s incorrect to say that there are terrorist forces, Islamic fundamentalists, ready to seize power unless there is stable and orderly rule to keep them under control. Libya doesn’t have a real history of Islamic fundamentalism,” Assed said.

None of the three youth interviewed for this article have ever been to Libya, but they all said the uprising makes them proud to be Libyan and hope the movement will prevail so they can visit soon.

“Even people who are exiles like me, we have a very deep and profound relationship with people on the inside,” Darrat said.  Because of our parents our life has really been dominated by the struggle that our parents went through.  That struggle and responsibility are still very much alive in our generation.”

AboutSarah Kate Kramer
Sarah Kate Kramer first got hooked on collecting stories as a StoryCorps facilitator, then traveled the world with a microphone for a few years before settling down in her hometown of New York City. From 2010-2012 she was the editor of Feet in 2 Worlds and a freelance reporter for WNYC Radio, where she created “Niche Market,” a weekly segment that profiled specialty stores in New York. Sarah is now a producer at Radio Diaries, a non-profit that produces documentaries for NPR and other public radio outlets.