Libyan Diaspora Helps the Homeland

Libyan Diaspora Helps the Homeland

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Editor's Note: In the turmoil and revolution that has become the Middle East this year, when Libya's turn came up, things took a violent turn. As the different factions continue to battle it out, what has gotten lost in the shuffle is the Libyan people, and especially those who live in the battleground cities. Sarah Ibrahim is the Press Officer of World Medical Camp Libya, a new humanitarian organization that has successfully provided medical supplies and other necessities to some of the more dangerous areas of the Libyan war zone. She was interviewed by New America Now's Shirin Sadeghi.

What is the humanitarian situation in Libya right now?


Sarah Ibrahim: Pretty dire. Many towns in the west right now are being bombarded by the loyalist regime forces. From doctors we're hearing about how people are being killed, and there are injuries, and they're running out of medication and supplies and the supply lines aren't getting through very well. From our sources, we hear the situation is pretty dire.

Who are your sources? You're in touch with people in the country?

Sarah Ibrahim: Yes. Basically, how we're set up is that we are all Libyans -- we all know people on the ground: relatives, friends, people who work in hospitals. And, we also have people who are working on the ground. We'll get orders from the hospitals and information from the doctors on the ground saying 'this is what we need' or 'we're not getting so and so' through the supply lines. They provide us with lists. They're not used to having these types of injuries so they didn't have a stockpile of these medications to begin with.

It's not just medication, by the way, it's also things like baby formula and yeast for breadmaking. So, it's very basic items that are needed there. And we get calls and requests to supply these things.

Your organization, World Medical Camp for Libya, is quite new, just a few months old. It really started with this conflict in Libya. How did it come about?

Sarah Ibrahim:
It came about very quickly. The process officially started on Feb. 17, which is a Thursday, in Benghazi. We were hearing of stories amongst ourselves, asking each other what's going on. We were hearing of friends or cousins being killed. It really affected us. We've been living outside of Libya for awhile, but we go back very often. It's always assumed that we will return to Libya, so Libya's our home.

We thought we really have to do something, especially the first week -- with the type of crimes that were being committed against unarmed protesters at the time was horrendous. We felt that we couldn't just sit here and do nothing. So from Thursday we were just on the phone with each other, sharing stories and horrors. By the Sunday, two of us had already set up WMCL -- they had already set up the name, the logo, and prepared leaflets to hand out at the protests in front of the embassy in London.

So it was literally a group of friends who had family in Libya and were worried about the family.

Sarah Ibrahim: Yes. Absolutely worried. One of us, one of their family members had been killed, so it was very personal. That Monday, we had a meeting, and 20 people attended and we kind of gave each other roles and decided what our aim was. Our aim was humanitarian aid because that was what was needed right now. We were getting phone calls about hospitals in Benghazi who were dealing with injuries they had never seen before, because of the types of weapons that were being used. They needed help and we didn't think twice.

And you raised quite a bit of money very early on. How much was that and how did you do that?

Sarah Ibrahim: Exactly. Through connections. A lot of expats, not just in England, but Europe, America, the Middle East. In London there was just about 15-20 of us calling, and seeing what we could do. A few of us had already gone to Egypt and Tunis to work out the logistics. Working out how to get the aid, how to get it in, who do we know on the border to help us with vans and help us get the aid through. So it was just basically all of us calling around to who we know, using our connections, our family connections, business connections, anything that we could use to get things going.

The first two weeks we had raised about 80,000 pounds (approx. $125,000) and had already started making the purchases, making the orders.

It's pretty impressive because when conflicts arise a lot of people sit around and they're upset in their homes but they can't get an organization together to make things happen. What's interesting about your organization is that it seems to be getting to places that other humanitarian organization can't get to, why is that?

Sarah Ibrahim: Obviously, I don't want to disclose some of the locations because of the sensitivity, and the routes that our people on the ground are using because we don't want to endanger that, but it's basically because we know Libya. We know Libyans. We have our contacts, we have our families. We know how the system works. In Libya we know who to call. So we have the insider information, I guess, which maybe the large organizations don't have the privilege of. The bigger organizations are now getting to eastern Libya but the West is still problematic for them. But because of who we know, what we know -- knowledge of the country is so important. That's how we've managed to get aid where it's needed.

What specifically are you delivering? Your organization is called World Medical Camp -- are you just delivering medical supplies?

Sarah Ibrahim: Initially that's all we thought we would be supplying. But we've actually also had orders for things like baby formula -- that's kind of a big thing that we've been delivering -- and also the yeast for making bread, because they don't have that. But I would say the majority is the medical aid, medical equipment, medication. Some private individuals rather than donating money have donated equipment or ambulances, or cars, or communication equipment. So we've managed to deliver that to where it was needed.

It's incredible. We're really proud of what we've done but there's still so much that needs to be done, and every day the humanitarian situation worsens and it seems like we're running up a hill -- running up a mountain even.

Has the current military intervention that is taking place helped the humanitarian situation or made it worse?

Sarah Ibrahim: If you look at the timing of the intervention passed by the UN, it was literally as Benghazi was being attacked. So, from all the speeches that Gaddafi and his sons were giving, we all had expectations that the whole place would be turned into rubble. So in that sense, if it has stopped the attack on Benghazi, then of course it has helped the humanitarian situation. But then there's still attacks going on today. In the west it's bad.

I don't understand. Is the military intervention that has now begun, is that helping or hurting the humanitarian aid that is going into Libya?

Sarah Ibrahim: From my understanding, I was just talking to my friends today, it has not hampered our aid going into Libya.

You're Libyan -- how do you feel about the currently military intervention?

Sarah Ibrahim: WMCL is very humanitarian. We don't try to get involved in any political statements or issues. Personally, I see the intervention as a necessity. Without it, opposition forces were needed to even the playing field. It was a necessity. It was needed.

Is that a view that Libyans in exile might have that perhaps might be different than Libyans in the country?

Sarah Ibrahim: I think it's also Libyans in the country. If you hear people in the East talking, even on the news when they were talking about some of the farmers which were injured by friendly fire, they were saying that we still want the intervention. So it was a necessity. It was a UN-mandated necessity to stop the loyalist forces from shooting at civilians.

Are there any concerns amongst Libyans, either in exile, or in the country, as far as you know, of the intervention perhaps lasting longer and even becoming an occupation of sorts?

Sarah Ibrahim: Sure. With regards to the occupation, I support the UN resolution and that's pretty clear where it says for the international community to take all necessary measures, but short of occupation, to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas. I don't think any person, Libyan or not, would want their country occupied. So they wouldn't want an occupation.

I'm obviously speaking from my personal opinion. I can't speak on behalf of the whole community. The worst case scenario is that this conflict lasts, is drawn out. On the humanitarian front it would be disastrous. We would like a short conflict. And hopefully that's what will happen. But we just don't know. I'm not a military strategist and can't tell you if it's going to be long or short, but we would hope for a short intervention and that the opposition forces can finish their job off and free Libya.

Sarah Ibrahim is the press officer of the World Medical Camp for Libya.