Amid uprisings back home, D.C. area Libyans look for ways to organize, help

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:14 PM

Often, these days, Badria Hakim feels helpless. For several days, the Fairfax mother of four has heard no news from her sister and other relatives in Libya. Phone lines are down, and Internet access is spotty.

"It's terrible, terrible. I can't live my life. I can't live my day. There is no peace of mind anymore," she said. "I can't even cook."

The only thing that has helped her stay calm as her home country has suffered the bloodiest crackdown so far among the Arab world's uprisings has been to connect with other Libyans in the Washington area trying to help their fellow countrymen.

A loose affiliation of doctors, businessmen and housewives, many never having anything to do with politics, has been organizing rallies and vigils, meeting with senatorial aides, and arranging for medical aid convoys to Libya, all while struggling to stay in contact with relatives back home.

Members of the group, who are among about 500 Libyans in the Washington area, attended an emotional news conference Tuesday in the basement of the home Hakim shares with her husband, Esam Omeish. They urged the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the regime from using planes to attack protesters.

Omeish, a doctor, has helped raise $250,000 to send medical aid and doctors to Libya. Earlier in the day, he visited the office of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), pushing for a no-fly zone.

Now, back in his basement, he couldn't get a phone call through to his parents in Tripoli.

"My last communication with my family was 48 hours ago," said Omeish, punching numbers into a cellphone. A recording told him that the call was not connecting. Because of the uncertainty in the streets, he said, "They're basically unable to move from the house."

Communication has been further hampered because many in Libya are afraid to speak openly over the phone or via Skype.

"They're talking to me as if nothing's going on, like 'Oh yeah, everything's fine,' " said Adam Ahmed, a Libyan American student at George Mason University who has helped organize rallies in front of the White House. "You can hear it in their voice that they're flat-out lying, and I don't blame them at all. It's really scary. I've never thought of Libya as a war zone, but now the whole country's a graveyard."

Ashraf Tulty of Ashburn said that his second cousin was killed while demonstrating peacefully in the city of Benghazi and that he has been unable to get details about what happened.

The idea of the no-fly zone "is to make sure there are no more airstrikes, to make sure no more mercenaries are flown in and to make sure that no members of the Gaddafi family fly out," said Rihab Elhaj, who lives in the District and has started a Facebook page, "Time for a New Libya," where people are posting news.

She said many have turned to Skype or Facebook to communicate with friends and family members - and to separate rumor from fact.

"Just getting the word out there, we're understanding how important social media is," Elhaj said.

The situation back home has drawn Libyans in the Washington region closer together, Tulty said. "Our country's bleeding. If this doesn't bring us together, we will never be together."

Sami Elkabir of Arlington County said his cousin in Libya had been wounded in the head by a bullet fragment. Organizing here in Washington was the least he could do. "We owe them this," he said, "because we are flourishing here."

Giving up on making his call, Omeish nodded, "We want to be the bridge."

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