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A birthday wish from Libyan waters

Libya, April 27, 2011

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I haven’t always worked for Mercy Corps. Just before I joined the organization for a job in Iraq, I was studying mathematics in Italy. Before that, I was a captain in the U.S. Army after graduating from West Point. I guess you could say I jump around a little — which could explain why strange things happen to me, but today…

So backtrack, oh, 12 years or so. To say I was lucky with my first assignment in the army is an understatement — Vicenza, Italy. I had a great group of friends for my lieutenant years:Rich, Emily, Matt, Ahmed and Gavin, among a number of others. What an amazing time of exploring Europe and life together: road trips, ski trips, beach trips and a little bit of work in between.

But whether skiing in the Alps, drinking good Italian wine or doing intense training rotations in Germany, there was always time for a little philosophizing and storytelling. The bonds you develop, not just as soldiers together, but also as a group living far from your homes, is almost like family.

Many of us spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some people close to us never came back. We were a tight group for three or four years — but, as with all army assignments, we all eventually went our separate ways. Some stayed in. Some got out. Through the miracle of Facebook, we occasional stayed in touch but it’s been over a year since hearing from any of them. Last time I talked to Ahmed, he was in London. And single. And no kids. (Congrats, bro!)

Things change it seems.

However, despite the impact that social media has had on the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya over the past few months, the following Facebook exchange has proven for me the true power of connectivity. (For those that don’t know where Misrata is and what’s going on there, well, check out some of the most recent blog entries from Libya or Google it.)

Ahmed’s dad emigrated from Libya before Ahmed was born. They eventually landed in the United States. Like most Americans, I had no idea where Misrata was until a few months ago, so would have never guessed that his father was originally from there, or that he had returned a few years ago.

(For that matter, I never imagined I’d have Facebook in Misrata in the middle of a conflict while sleeping in an abandoned bank — but that’s a different story.)

So armed with only his father’s name — Ibrahim --------- — and my friend’s desire for his father to leave Misrata, I set out in the morning and started asking a few of our local contacts. No one knew him at the port. Unfortunately, we missed our morning ride from the port to meet with the town’s relief committee (which is doing an amazing job taking care of all of the displaced Libyans around the city — also another story). Our last chance was that they would have him in their database.

As with most periods of waiting, it involved a lot of tea and chatting — and usually Fadl and I arguing about which one of us snores (it’s him by the way). At a certain point, a gentle elderly man with white beard and a twinkle in his eye walked up to me and kindly asked where we are going (seemingly normal question at a port, no?). Unfortunately for the man, I’m not very good at giving straight answers so I respond “Misrata.”

He laughed at my attempt at humor (which made me instantly like him), and said he’s trying to go to Malta. I hadn’t heard of any boats going to Malta but maybe he’d get lucky. The conversation continued and I thought, well, may as well ask him too.

“Strange question sir, but do you happen to know Ibrahim ---------?”

The bearded gentleman tilted his head a little to the side, looked at me a little like I’m crazy but oddly, without suspicion, touched his chest with his finger.

“I’m Ibrahim ----------.”

The hours of conversation that followed I can’t even begin to summarize.We all sat mesmerized in conversation (and tea after tea). From Libyan history, to family history, to stories of Ahmed as a child (sorry Ahmed), to stories of Ahmed from our years in Italy (sorry again), to theories of change and revolution, to personal relations and international relations, to life and relationships, and…and…and…

The fighting seemed so distant — even the attempts of the explosions just a few miles away to bring it back didn’t work.

Fadl grabbed the chance in a momentary lull to remind me that we still needed to meet with the relief committee. Understanding their highly efficient, yet equally highly-complicated distribution system was the one major item remaining on the Misrata "to-do” list.

After the meeting, we joined Ibrahim and his old friend Hamid — a former airline pilot — for another round of debate and discussion, tea, discussion, food, discussion and, of course, more tea until the late hours of the night.

Fadl, true to form, had found a pastry shop (yes, a pastry shop, in Misrata, at night — where did I find this guy?), Hamid provided a candle, and at midnight they helped me ring in my 35th year of life.

My birthday wish: peace for this beautiful city.

(P.S. I’m writing this from a boat leaving Misrata. Ibrahim is next to me.)