With Hope and Fear, Libyan Students Meet New Leaders in New York

Along the blocks surrounding United Nations headquarters, there have been plenty of sour faces the past week – angry protesters and frustrated neighbors trying to weave through the blue barricades. But the faces of one group of visitors to the UN were full of joy: Libyans.

Even a group of Libyan students who had been slated to become part of ousted President Moammar Gadhafi’s regime were smiling as they waited to meet Libya’s interim president at the country’s Mission to the UN last week.

Libya’s population is smaller than that of New York City and Gadhafi ruled for more than four decades. 

But 28-year old Michigan State University student Mohammed Gibril said, during all his years in Libya, he never saw the man in person.

“You don’t see officials in Libya before,” Gibril said. “I mean, you hear about them but you don’t want to meet them, you don’t want to see them, you stay away from them,” he said.

He added: “We drove all the way from East Lansing, Michigan, here just to see the new leadership of Libya.”

An elite group tapped by Libyan leadership

Gibril was among scores of Libyans who lined up outside and then filed into the Libyan Mission on Wednesday to see the country’s interim president and prime minister speak.

He was also among was among a group of Libya’s elite — academic and professional successes who were carefully selected by Qaddafi’s son to train to be diplomats.

(Photo: New Libyan leaders greet the crowd.Marianne McCune/WNYC)

They were sent with their wives and children to Michigan State University to study English and develop their skills. Then in February, when Libya’s uprising was about to begin, Gibril said, the regime asked them to stage a pro-Gadhafi rally in the United States.

“We were asked to sign allegiance to Gadhafi which we did not sign, and to go and protest,” he said, “which we did not.”

Some of their colleagues did – and then returned to Libya while Gibril and most of the others refused. Gibril says some members of the pro-Gadhafi contingent were interviewed on State television when they got home.

“Speaking about us as rats sometimes, as street dogs on other occasions. Traitors,” he said.

The Gadhafi regime cut off the funds for their education in Michigan. Gibril said a friend sent him a document from the Ministry of Interior to Tripoli security calling them defectors. In Arabic, the document says, ‘you may take all needed and legal procedures against them.’

“We knew that if we go back, we’re going to be dead. They’re not just going to welcome us, they gonna kill us,” he said.

Last week, they sang Libya’s national anthem – banned during Qaddafi’s rule.

And when the interim president walked through the crowd to the podium, Mohamed Gibril actually got to shake hands with him.

The next morning, Gibril and six other Michigan State University students stumbled out of a crowded motel room in Jersey City, N.J., squinting their eyes in the sunlight – but still smiling about the day before.

(Photo: Libyan activist Ali AlAwaj introduces the interim president and prime minister. Marianne McCune/WNYC)

“I feel like now I get what Americans get when they see their president,” Gibril said. “It’s not someone who you fear it’s someone who you even love. So it was great.”

Months stuck in limbo

For six months, Gibril and the other students have been living in Michigan in limbo. Their visas to remain in the United States ran out in July, but they were afraid to return to Libya while Qaddaffi was still in power. Now, they say they’re thrilled the regime haschanged, but they’re still afraid.

“To be honest, I fear going back. Because the situation is still not stable and everybody has a gun. I mean guns are everywhere,” Gibril said. “My father tells me stay right there, Libya is here, Libya will always be here.”

(Photo: Mohamed Gibril and his fellow students packing the car to drive back to Michigan. Marianne McCune/WNYC)

Further complicating the situation, many of the students or their family members worked for Gadhafi's government. One colleague worked for the Central Bank. And another, Mohamed El Geblawi, was a television and radio presenter with the State run news.

Geblawi added, “Many friends told me, ‘Geblawi, please stay there right now. You can’t come back to Libya.’”

Because of their connections to the old regime, some say they fear they’ll be seen as enemies upon their return.

“It’s easy for anyone to make a judgment and take revenge for something you had nothing to do with,” Gibril said.

Gibril and his Libyan colleagues have been meeting with Michigan State University officials and talking with representatives of Libya’s new government to make their case for staying in the United States. They say they want to continue the education they started and then go back to serve the new Libya.

“Already the government paid $1.5 million in this program,” Gibril said. “And now, we feel if we go back it’s just like wasted money. So we feel we should stay and finish this program.”

As they stuffed suitcases into a mini-van and got ready for a long drive back to Michigan, Gibril pointed out the experience of negotiating their right to stay here for the last six months has given him better training in diplomacy than any course he could possibly have taken.

(Photo: Libyan students answer question from a Hasidic Jew staying in the same Jersey City motel. Marianne McCune/WNYC)