The civil war in Libya is about to inflict new casualties far from the battle zone – Libyan students studying abroad whose stipends are about to dry up as a result of the U.N. Security Council’s freezing of Libyan government assets.
More than 2,500 Libyan students studying in North America and Canada are facing an end to their funding next month.
Among them is Talal Amara, a 36-year-old graduate education student at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash.
“To have enough money to stay here, I will have to sell my car,” said Amara, who lives 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.”
Some 40 Libyan students at WSU have been at the forefront of the issue, traveling to Washington, D.C., drafting letters to President Barack Obama asking for the release of the frozen funds, 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 university’s Libyan Student Union and a graduate student at WSU.
Earlier this month, the Canadian Bureau for International Education, which helps oversee an international scholarship program, said it received $1.3 million this year from Libya, but that those funds are not sufficient to sustain the program after May 31. In March, the U.N. froze billions of dollars in Libyan assets in an attempt to keep Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi from using them to wage war on the Libyan opposition.
The Libyan-North American Scholarship Program is a joint collaboration between the Libya, Canada and host universities in Canada and the United States. The program provides the students with 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 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 US, they will face returning to a volatile political environment. Several of the students have publicly criticized the Gadhafi regime and fear retribution if they return. Last week, WSU students held a fundraiser for anti-Gadhafi rebels.
“All my family are pro-Gadhafi, (so) they don’t have problems,” said Abdalhamid Alkar, a graduate student at WSU. “I am not pro-Gaddafi. 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 he and his brothers collected 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, he said.
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 many of the Libyan students may attempt to seek asylum if their funding dries up.
“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.”