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Civil war half a world away hits close to home: U of S student rep. on her summer in Libya

By in News
Nour Abouhamra, who moved to Canada from Libya when she was three-years-old, represents the College of Kinesiology on students’ council. She returned to Libya this summer to the aftermath of the uprisings that blanketed the Arab world in 2011.

Kinesiology student councillor Nour Abouhamra has seen a nation torn apart by injustice unite in hope for a better tomorrow. Now she’s brought her experiences back to the University of Saskatchewan to help support students dealing with similar issues.

Ever since she was three years old, Abouhamra’s family has visited their home country of Libya each summer. The only exception was 2011 when they thought a visit was too dangerous due to the spring revolution.

This past summer Abouhamra and her family returned to their country, now ravaged by the atrocities of a civil war.

“The first thing you see when you walk out of the airplane there are bullet holes in the glass of the airport,” Abouhamra said. “You could see houses that had tonnes of bullet holes and shelling, tanks just parked on the side of the road and trucks that have anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back.”

Aside from the obvious physical damage done to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, Abouhamra said there had been a visceral change since the revolution. There was a sense of freedom in the country that she had never felt before.

“Things are different, people are different. You feel more free like you can do whatever you want, say whatever you want.”

One of the biggest changes she saw was that people were no longer living in fear.

With the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship and later his death, Abouhamra said that Libyans were no longer afraid to say his name. Prior to the revolution, they would refer to him as “the Leader” and his son as “the Principal” because if the wrong people heard you say his name, your life could be at risk.

With the country experiencing new beginnings, Abouhamra believes that the people of Libya will no longer suffer from the extreme poverty that was created under Gaddafi. She said despite Libya’s vast oil reserves, Gaddafi’s greed for money and power created a country with devastating poverty.

“What Gaddafi did was he didn’t care about the people. Libya is a really rich country,” Abouhamra said. “He took that money for himself. He didn’t give it to the people.”

The most remarkable thing that Abouhamra saw while she was in Tripoli was on the day of her arrival: There were people celebrating in the streets that each had one finger dyed blue.

It was July 7 and it was the first time in over 40 years that Libyans were allowed to vote.

She said that it was amazing seeing so many people taking pride in being allowed to cast a ballot compared with the people of Canada, who often take voting for granted.

“It was nice to see people going out and actually voting for once,” Abouhamra said. “Unless you are not given the chance to vote, I don’t think you understand how powerful it is.”

This new Libya that Abouhamra visited is becoming democratic. She said that the people now had futures that they could look forward to.

The Libyan people had changed, but it may not all have been for the better.

Abouhamra said that the new sense of freedom was strong in Tripoli, but it was not an absolute freedom. Even though the revolution was over, she was told not to go out late at night and to avoid certain areas.

The fighting had stopped, leaving weapons and soldiers in its wake.

“Now they have all these weapons and guns and people aren’t scared,” Abouhamra said. “They will go and get into a fight with someone and just kill them because they are so desensitized. They just don’t feel anything anymore.”

Once she returned to Saskatoon, Abouhamra felt the effects of the revolution. She was desensitized as well.

After spending hours every day of  last year on the Internet searching for the latest updates on the revolution, trying to contact family and friends in Libya and watching gruesome videos just in case someone she knew were in them. Everything that had to do with the revolution seemed normal to her.

Vicious attacks on civilians, brutal shootings and the shelling of homes and their occupants no longer shocked her like it first had.

“I’ve watched gruesome videos and it becomes normal. If I feel like this, what do Libyan people feel like?”

Abouhamra watched the revolution closely for its eight month duration in 2011 and followed the Libyan news even after a rebel group started working on a constitution for the democracy-bound country.

Keeping in contact with family and friends quickly became a priority for the kinesiology student, who let her academics take a hit during that time.

“As a student here at the U of S, it was really hard to go to class every day and study for exams during the revolution because I have family there, I have friends there,” Abouhamra said. “To know that my friends and family might die any day, how can I focus on school and stuff when this is going on?”

She said that she has met many students at the U of S who have gone through situations similar to hers — students affected by the ongoing Syrian Revolution and the devastating earthquakes in Japan — and knows how it can affect a student’s life.

Building from her personal experience, Abouhamra has offered to help students dealing with a personal crisis, like turmoil breaking out in their home country. She has also worked with the students’ union to set up roundtable discussions to raise awareness on campus of world events.

“I try to support them and tell them that if you need an extension on an assignment or something, don’t be afraid to go and talk to your professor because they understand,” Abouhamra said.

After a more stressful year than most, Abouhamra is currently completing her fourth year of a kinesiology degree.

Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf

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