When Jen’nan Read escaped from Libya in 1987, she knew that for the time being she had to say goodbye to her home country. What Read did not know was that she was also saying goodbye to her father for 24 years.
Recent developments in the country gave hope to the Duke professor and allowed her to reunite with her father for the first time since she fled Libya.
“I didn’t think in my lifetime that we would see Gadhafi overthrown,” Read said. “When that began to happen, I was a little bit in shock but was hopeful that this would mean I would see my father again.”
Months of rebel advances forced dictator Moammar Gadhafi into hiding—allowing hundreds like Read, associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke, to reunite with their loved ones who were oppressed under Gadhafi’s regime.
Born a U.S citizen, Read grew up in Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya, with her American mother and brother and Libyan father. Her family was living in Libya in 1986 when Ronald Reagan ordered airstrikes on the country—a time when it was very unpopular to be American, Read said. Hiding their American passports in their tennis shoes to avoid being found by officials of Gadhafi’s regime, Read’s family escaped Libya to the U.S. but her father, Mahmoud Bashir Ghazi, had his passport confiscated by Libyan officials and could not go to the U.S.
“Over time I became used to the idea that this was how things were going to be, and I began to give up hope I would ever see him again,” Read said.
Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science, said what happened to Ghazi was not an uncommon practice under Gadhafi’s dictatorship.
“Dictators rule by the fear of torture, imprisonment and murder,” Jentleson said. “They do pretty much what they want to do to their people.”
The conflict in Libya between rebel forces and Gadhafi presented Ghazi with a unique opportunity to escape by traveling from Tripoli to Tunisia, and back to Benghazi—Libya’s second-largest city and a rebel stronghold, where he was then able to reach Egypt. Read, who was traveling to the Middle East for her work with the Duke Islamic Studies Center, said when she reunited with her father in Cairo, she recognized him right away.
“It was nice to sit down and talk open and honestly for the first time in a long time,” she said. “You didn’t dare jeopardize your family by saying something on a phone call because of Gadhafi. It feels good to know he is safe and in Cairo now.”
‘We are free’
Read is not the only member of the Duke community with familial ties to Libya.
Hassan Khalil, who is earning a master’s degree in engineering management at Duke, was born in Libya, where he completed his undergraduate degree. Khalil, a 24-year-old Fulbright recipient, said everything in his home country was controlled by Gadhafi and his family. From singing songs about Gadhafi in the classroom to seeing his picture in every corridor of every building, Gadhafi was omnipresent in the lives of all Libyans, Khalil explained.
“Gadhafi built a circle around him and he sent people to kill anyone who was against him even if they weren’t Libyan,” he said. “In my university, there were people who were killed right in front of everyone because that is just how he governed… with fear.”
Khalil said he was shocked when he heard Gadhafi was in the process of being overthrown. Talking with friends back home during the beginning of the revolution, Khalil said experiencing the uprising outside of Libya was an emotional experience.
“My friend was crying on the phone telling me, ‘We did it. We are free,’” he said. “I am very positive of what can happen from here. We have all the potential to be a good country.”
When the Libyan people started to revolt in February, President Barack Obama declared in a March 26 radio address that if the United States did not intervene, there would be a mass slaughter in Benghazi.
Jentleson strongly agreed with the U.S. decision to get involved in the conflicts in Libya, but added that the campaign for democracy in Libya has been far from perfect.
“This is something we needed to do,” he said. “It wasn’t about oil. It was about protecting human beings.... What happens in Libya is far from over. Democracy doesn’t spring forward like Athena from Zeus’s head.”
An ongoing fight
Read also knows the struggle in her home country is not yet finished. While Read’s father may now be safe from Gadhafi and his administration, Read said her half-brother chose to stay on the front lines in Tripoli and fight until the dictator officially gives up power.
“It was hard hearing that he decided to stay behind and fight, which of course made my family upset,” Read said. “But at the same time you are pulled because you are proud of them.”
Despite the excitement surrounding the reunion with her father and the hope the revolution has brought to the Libyan community, Read said until Gadhafi officially relinquishes power, there is still more work to be done.
“It’s all about getting rid of Gadhafi,” she said. “Once that happens, we are in good shape. Until that happens, we are not. It’s as simple as that.”
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