Upon arriving in Benghazi, Libya in December 2013 and expecting to start working, Ahmed Gargoum found himself starting up his own organization for refugee children instead.
Gargoum is a fourth-year physiology and pharmacology student at the University of Saskatchewan. He flew to Libya on Dec. 23, hoping to start volunteering immediately but had to create his own program with the help of Volunteer Libya— a group dedicated to restoring the country’s prosperity and wealth — when he found the group he was to work with was not yet organized.
“Initially when I went to Libya during the winter break, I just wanted to help them in any way,” Gargoum said. “I had some organizations that could set something up with me, but when I got there, they bailed on me and I was panicking [and] kind of frustrated.”
Gargoum contacted Volunteer Libya who told him that if he was still invested in helping he could start his own program in Benghazi.
“I was only there for about two weeks,” Gargoum said, “But I did start a five-week educational program that’s going on right now for the kids there.”
Gift of Learning, Gargoum’s program, focuses on giving refugee children aged six to 10 an education unavailable in many of the refugee camps in Benghazi. Previously, Volunteer Libya had a similar program for orphans in the capital city of Tripoli.
Gargoum and a group of other volunteers began the program with two classes: English and art. There were additional subsections on health, physical education and music as well as lessons on gun and explosives safety. Gargoum worked with five to six volunteers, whom he said were willing to help him after meeting for only one day.
“I was really surprised how willing the people were there to come out and help,” Gargoum said. “They literally knew me for like one day, but they were willing to come out to this camp … and be committed to the program for another five weeks.
“It was a really nice surprise to have. It speaks a lot to the hospitality of the Libyan people. They were willing to help me out so much, like you were a long-time friend of theirs or a family member.”
Gargoum wanted to volunteer in Libya to help internally-displaced refugees who fled or were forced from their homes during and after the civil war. Many were supporters of Muammar Gaddafi — the fascist dictator of Libya for 42 years who was killed during the 2011 revolution — and have been living in refugee camps for as long as three years.
The refugees that Gargoum worked with were from from Tawergha, a town in northern Libya 38 kilometers south of Misrata. The Tawerghans were forced to leave their town in August of 2011 right before the peak of the revolution because the majority their population were Gaddafi supporters.
“When you typically think of refugees,” Gargoum said. “You think that they’re from a different country … I decided to help them because I identify as a Misrati person. My grandparents and my parents are from Misrata.”
After an extended period of widespread dissent, Libya was in civil war from February to October 2011. Though the conflict between the Gaddafi government and the uprising came to an official end on Oct. 23, 2011, the effects of the revolution are still apparent. Volunteer programs in the country that seek to help both sides affected by the war are often started with difficulty due to the rifts created in the communities by factors preceding the civil war.
“It’s hard, because there’s just such opposition from both sides of the spectrum,” Gargoum said. “For example, my cousin, he told me not to volunteer and start this program for [the children], because he fought in Misrata and some of his friends and family died. It’s a heartbreaking deal having your best friend go up to you and tell you, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do this.’”
Gargoum felt similar opposition from other groups during his time in Libya because his last name is commonly found in Misrata. He was advised not to use it to avoid any negative impacts on his program’s success.
Gift of Learning will see its first class — with approximately 40 children — graduate over the Feb. 15 weekend. Gargoum attributes the success of Gift of Learning to the community being able to set aside tribal affiliations. He said he hopes to see the program expand to accommodate all the children of the Tawergha camp.
“There are other camps in the city and I want all of them to have their own Gift of Learning program and their own educational program,” he said.
Gargoum returned to Canada on Jan. 11, though he has remained a counsellor and an organizer for Gift of Learning.
Photo: Jordan Dumba