Trouble in Tripoli

December 2011


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DAVID CRAIG talks to Wellington teachers John and Anna Young about their Libyan ordeal.

Recent protests in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, and violence in Tahrir Square in the capital, Cairo, reminded two Kiwi teachers they were still in a hotspot for civil unrest.

John and Anna Young, both teachers from Wellington, headed to Tripoli in Libya for offshore teaching experience last year.

They took up positions at the International School in Tripoli in September 2010 until Libya’s unrest obliged them to leave. John was head of a 500-pupil primary and kindergarten school and Anna was teaching year 6 (children closer in age to New Zealand year 8). The school also had a secondary section of three students. The roll was approximately 70 per cent Libyan, with the remainder largely the children of Italians, Spanish and various South American nationals employed by oil companies.

“There were very few first language English speakers,” Anna said. “The first major challenges were visa issues and late resignations of existing staff. The primary school was five teachers short when we opened for the school year. We had to ask untrained parents to fill in as teachers. Parents were very frustrated and made their thoughts clear. To be fair, they were paying a considerable amount of money in school fees. They had no concept of making appointments to see the principal or even waiting for a current meeting to finish before coming in to express their views,” Anna said.

Other challenges had positive results. The difficulty in getting regular classroom cleaning in place led to both John and Anna learning more Arabic. “Things we take for granted in New Zealand – having photocopiers that work, with paper in them, access to exercise books – these were also motivators for learning the language more quickly.

“It was an adventure for us, and we still say we really enjoyed living in Libya. The local people were very welcoming. We found them polite and helpful in all levels of society. They saw an increasing number of foreigners in the street as a positive sign; of Libya coming out of its many years of isolation and sanctions,” Anna said.

“The economy was booming, with new Western label shops opening up every week. We felt very safe and even told friends at Christmas time when we returned to New Zealand for bereavement that Tripoli was safer than Wellington. We look at that statement with some irony now,” Anna said.

She said the crisis that struck Libya in February seemed to happen very quickly. They asked local people when the uprisings happened in Tunisia and Egypt if they thought there would be problems in Libya. She said they were told there might be problems in Benghazi and the east but the locals doubted it would come to much, especially in Tripoli itself.

“Then we started to hear rumours of police stations being attacked, there were military helicopters in the air and sounds of some gunfire at night, and increasing numbers of children were not attending school,” Anna said.

February 22, the day of Christchurch’s second large quake, came in the midst of the Young’s “most challenging 48 hours” of their life.

“Three days before that it was decided to close the school early for mid-term break. We had gone into ‘standfast’ procedures, storing food and water and staying in our apartment and leaving only to attend a daily briefing at school. During this whole period right up until we left, we were getting good internet reception and were keeping abreast with New Zealand news,” Anna said.

The variety of nationalities at the school had various embassies giving them conflicting advice, with some telling their citizens to get out as soon as possible, and others warning that the airport was extremely dangerous and to keep away from there at all costs.

“On the Tuesday, we woke to the news of the Christchurch earthquake. We both had grown up in Christchurch and we have family there. We were absolutely devastated by the pictures and news that was coming out of Christchurch, and made contact to find out that all our family were safe,” Anna said.

“Most of the New Zealanders on the staff were Cantabrians, and all Kiwis at the school were very sombre that day.

“News came through that Gadaffi was going to make an important announcement that afternoon and we expected it to be conciliatory. We watched it translated live on Al Jazeera and soon discovered Gadaffi was not in the mood for reconciliation with the protesters.

“As soon as he started his broadcast five large military helicopters took to the air and circled the city. We could hear the sound of gunfire from them. As nightfall came the sound of gunfire increased. To our ears some of it sounded more like rocket fire. We could hear the sound of large crowds, and yelling and screaming.

“This went on all night and we were in constant contact with other staff members who lived close by. We armed ourselves with broomsticks – I don’t know what use they would have been but it made us feel better. Some of the shooting sounded very close to our house, only two or three streets away.

“At that stage, our future employment in Tripoli became a concern and John started searching the Education Gazette online for alternative employment. It was decided at 5am to gather all the expat staff and families and make for the airport. It took our three minivans about four hours of shuttling back and forth to get us all there, with both pro- and anti-Gadaffi roadblocks on the way.

“We will never forget the bravery of Mohamed, one of the school bus drivers who risked himself and drove all these trips. He farewelled each one of us and told us not to forget to come back to his country. We were one of the last busloads and got to the airport about 9.30am.

“The scenes at the airport will remain with us forever. Outside the airport there were about 15 to 20 thousand Egyptian menial workers whom we were told had been there for several days. They were constantly harassed by Libyan soldiers – the scariest of whom were wearing green bandanas indicating they were very pro-Gadaffi.”

Inside the terminal there were thousands trying to secure tickets and a safe passage out. After about 90 minutes of confusion the teachers were told to go outside the terminal and register with British Foreign Office officials who were organising a flight out for the British, Australians and New Zealanders.

“People may have an image of Libya being hot all year round, but this was the middle of winter, the temperature was in single figures, it rained constantly and at one stage there was hail. We were mostly outdoors and standing for the next 14 of the coldest 28 hours we have spent waiting for something to happen.

“We are grateful to the British government for getting us out despite huge problems getting the plane from Gatwick to Tripoli, which is only a three-hour flight. We finally left about 10am and had to fly to Malta.”

The most frightening moment was yet to come. A huge explosion shook the plane as it prepared to land at Malta, and the passengers thought they had been hit by the Libyan air force. It was a lightning strike. “It’s funny now, looking back,” Anna said. “It wasn’t at the time.”

After five hours in Malta they finally left for the UK. The Youngs had travelled very little before they went to Libya, and had planned to visit Britain eventually, but not as refugees.

“We had little more than the clothes we were wearing. Sometimes it’s good to come from a small country, as the New Zealand Embassy staff were there along with our son to see that we were safe and well. We spent a very cold week in England and didn’t feel like tourists, as we had thought our first visit would be.”

They were asked to go to Dubai by their education company’s head office and spent a month tracking down staff, placing their now very scattered students into schools around the world and setting up an online distance education programme. At the end of the month, John was offered a position for 12 months setting up a new school in Alexandria, Egypt.

“We arrived in Alexandria in early April. The Egyptians are very proud of their largely non-violent revolution and are both nervous and optimistic about their future. Alexandria has a population of four million and takes some time to adjust to. John is only now getting used to riding without a seatbelt and the organised chaos of Egyptian traffic. Overall, the experience has proven to be eventful and given us more adventure than we expected.

“We pray and hope for a resolution of the Libyan conflict – the country has enormous potential. We also hope that this will be a major turning point for Egypt,” Anna said.

“We thought we might be in for more excitement early in July when John had to close the school to ensure that all staff could get home safely with demonstrations here in Alexandria against the police and violence in Cairo’s Tahrir Square the day before. Even though we were quite safe, it surprised me when I got home how jumpy I was and how much the feelings from Libya resurfaced.”