The turmoil in Libya has threatened the financial aid of thousands of students in the U.S., including Talal Amara, a 36-year-old graduate student at Washington State University.
“To have enough money to stay here, I will have to sell my car,” said Amara, an education student who lives here with his wife and two young children. “It will only allow to me survive here another two to three months, but it is the only option for me.”
More than 2,500 Libyan students studying in North America and Canada will face an end to their funding next month after the U.N. Security Council froze the assets of the Libyan government, which had helped fund the exchange students in graduate programs. With their country in a civil war and funding frozen, students say money is running low and time is running out.
Students at Washington State University, where some 40 Libyan students study, have been at the forefront of the issue, traveling to Washington, D.C., drafting letters to President Barack Obama, and organizing students nationally.
“We are going to do whatever it takes to stay strong for our families,” said Mohamed Elcataani, the spokesman for the Libyan Student Union and a graduate student at Washington State University.
Earlier this month, the Canadian Bureau for International Education, which helps oversee an international scholarship program, said it received $1.3 million for Libyan students, but that those funds are not sufficient to sustain the scholarship program after May 31. In March, the U.N. froze billions of dollars in Libyan assets in an attempt to keep them from Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“The CBIE is working diligently to ensure ongoing support of the students,” Kemale Pinar, director of U.S. Operations for the CBIE, said in an email recently.
The Libyan-North American Scholarship Program is a joint collaboration between Libya, Canada, and host universities in Canada and the United States. The program includes tuition fees, living allowance and medical insurance.
Candace Chenoweth, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at WSU, said university leaders are meeting with students to discuss legal options that would allow them to remain in the U.S., if the funding remains frozen.
“No one knows if it will, but we want to discuss options in case it does,” Chenoweth said. “This isn’t just a WSU problem - it’s an American problem.”
Elcataani, a 34-year-old graduate student in education, said his efforts have been stymied at every attempt.
“The university has given up, so I am feeling lost and I have no options,” he said. “I told them, ‘this is shocking me.’ I was trying not to lose my temper.”
The students say that if do not have enough money to stay in the U.S., they will face returning to a volatile political environment. Several of the students have publicly criticized the Qaddafi regime and fear retribution if they return. Last week, students held a fundraiser for anti-Qaddafi rebels.
“All my family are pro-Qaddafi, (so) they don’t have problems,” said Abdalhamid Alkar, a WSU graduate student. “I am not pro-Qaddafi. I told them at the beginning of the revolution and my father was so mad. I’m not sure how they would be with me if I went back.”
In the 1990s, Elcaatani was detained in a Libyan prison for two years after collecting money for the poor in his hometown of Benghazi. He said Libyan officials were angry that the brothers had highlighted poverty in the region and arrested them in 1995. One brother died in prison, and a second suffered a brain injury from beatings by prison guards.
Human Rights Watch, which interviewed Elcaatani in 2009, has accused Libyan officials of a long list of human rights abuses in the country.
Elcaatani said the students may attempt to seek asylum in the U.S. “We need all the time possible to try and help this situation,” Elcataani said.
In the meantime, the Libyan students say they are scrambling to stay afloat. Elcataani shuttled families to the state’s Department of Social and Health Services to appeal for food stamps. The program can only provide help to children born in the U.S., not to the students, an agency official said.
“I took families there who don’t have children that were born in the USA and they were rejected,” Elcataani said. “Because my daughter was born here, she got the benefits, but this is only $88 in food stamps per month.”
The strains have begun to show, students said. Omran Akasha, a doctoral student in language, said oil, not humanitarian concerns, was driving western intervention in Libya.
“They don’t care about us, they care about our oil,” Akasha said. “Libya is totally safe. There is no problem. The problem we face is allied forces. If they let Libyan people by themselves, they can solve it in five days.”
Akasha declined to say if he was pro-Qaddafi or in support of the rebels, but said that he was against the violence.
Students said they have also been visited by representatives of the FBI. A spokesperson for the agency acknowledged the Bureau is assessing the potential threat to Americans and to the students.
“The contact will also assist them in understanding what to do in the event of incidents or threats against them,” said Kathy Wright from the FBI National Press Office. “The goal is to minimize the potential for both.”
Many of the Libyan students said that the agents were very friendly in their visits.
“They just turned up, one man, one woman,” Elcataani said. “I invited them for juice.”
The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.