Saturday, February 20, 2016

Leaving Libya

“Do you know that there’s a halfway world between each ending and each new beginning? It’s called the hurting time, Jean Perdu. It’s a bog; it’s where your dreams and worries and forgotten plans gather. Your steps are heavier during that time. Don’t underestimate the transition, Jeanno, between farewell and new departure. Give yourself the time you need. Some thresholds are too wide to be taken in one stride.” 
― Nina GeorgeThe Little Paris Bookshop

        My daughter and I have had many endings and new beginnings-some planned, some highly anticipated, others unexpected or dreaded.  It is fair to say that I have greatly underestimated transitions between each farewell and new departure. With each goodbye, you lose a little of yourself. I read this book after my mom died last August. It spoke to my grief. We were in Bali waiting for a work visa to come through for my current teaching job in Papua.  I know, tough life. 'Stuck' in Bali.  But my daughter and I had driven directly from my mother's memorial in New York to Logan airport to board a flight to Indonesia. The delayed work visa had already held us up for four weeks, so at the time, I felt a sense of urgency to get there-- to get started, to get settled. I was torn between my grief and sense of duty to stay and my sense of being completely unsettled and unmoored.  I was given the impression that the visa MUST be coming soon.  We rushed to Bali to wait for what I thought would be just a few more days. We ended up with 6 more weeks of suitcase living,  of financial stress, of uncertainty, of living week to week, unable to plan ahead, totally alone and overwhelmed with grief,  all in a holiday paradise.  The experience brought me back to another taxing time of uncertainty, another waiting time, another halfway world. That time occurred after we fled Libya in 2011 at the start of the revolt against Gaddafi's regime.
Niamh in the Sahara, Ubari Lakes region, November 2010.

         February 21st marks 5 years since I fled Tripoli, Libya with my three-year-old daughter.  I was employed by the American School of Tripoli, a small, international community school. Friends and family questioned my sanity when I announced we would be moving there.  Libya conjured images of Lockerbie and  Gaddafi's Amazon guards in their heads.  Indeed, life in Libya was a challenge and required people to seek one another out. It was too difficult to manage day-to-day things sometimes there without help, support and advice from others. Consequently, it was one of the places where I have felt the most at home and part of a supportive community because people were genuinely caring.

Niamh meeting a little girl in the market area
      There were power outages on a daily basis. The internet was there in word only most of the time, and to drive there was to take your life in your own hands. I was told that the motto there for drivers was, 'If there is pavement, fill it up.' The shop and road signs were entirely in Arabic so elaborate, hand-drawn road maps were photocopied and shared. Mile markers and directions like, 'go past the first mosque and then two olive groves and then the third set of two speedbumps not three and then make a right,' were the norm.  The hardships and stress were balanced by the adventurous and inclusive community. People organized caravans to explore the beautiful Mediterranean beaches, or the Roman ruins at Sabratha, or a Troglodyte cave dwelling, or even expeditions to the desert. By February, 7 months into my contract, I was thinking long-term. I could see a future there. Niamh was happy in preschool and we were making life-long friends. And then, I was throwing toothbrushes, underwear, my diplomas, and a teddy bear into a tiny green suitcase and we were running away. Listen to the radio interview about that at the link here.

Radio Interview with PRI/NPR about evacuation from Libya

        But fleeing wasn't the end of it and it wasn't the worst of it.  I didn't know where to go or what to do for weeks. Thankfully, our school continued to pay our salary and our benefits and provided our travel allowance. My head of school, despite her own uncertainty, did all she could to provide references for all us. I found myself wandering Europe and North America with my three-year-old and my battered green suitcase in tow. We stayed with kind-hearted friends while trying not to wear out the welcome, run out of money or have a nervous breakdown. And through it all, looking for a new job--writing e-mails to schools and having skype interviews--trying to sound cool and calm. That was life for four months. We went from Malta to Milan, back to Malta to Ireland then to Vancouver then Seattle.  

        I remember saying to an Irish friend who works for the UN that I felt like a refugee. Since she worked with refugees in South Sudan, she kindly corrected me, "You are not a refugee." she said, "You are displaced. There's a difference."  She was right, of course. I had my US passport and some money in the bank and people to stay with and my health. I was one of the lucky ones.         
         In late May I was offered a job at an international school in Bangkok and by mid June we were on a plane to Thailand. Two years later, we recovered a few small boxes of our belongings, now musty and ruined. The school never re-opened and life for the Libyans we encountered there has never been the same. I have kept in touch with many of the people we knew there, Libyans and foreigners, through the miracle that is social media. I learned that you never know  and cannot control what lies ahead, despite the best laid plans and intentions.  I am thankful for the time we had in Libya and for the friends we made there. I am learning how to respect the time between endings and new beginnings.  


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you Grier! I will keep writing if you keep reading! :)

  2. Really terrific Kerry. You are striking a chord here with anyone who has felt uncertain, supported, and displaced in their own context.

    1. Thanks Em! Doesn't everyone feel uncertain, unsupported and displaced at times?

  3. Excellent writing, Kerry! Also, love getting to know more about your journey. Please continue. Un'abbraccio, MTG

  4. This helps me put your exprerience--when I met you i Bangkok--into perspective.