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Panel urges support of U.S. role in rebuilding Libya

Rep. Ellison said students can help bridge the gap between the U.S. and the new Arab world.
October 11, 2011

Hussam Alwafi made the equivalent of $150 a month as a pediatrician in Libya — an amount he said didn’t even cover gas for his trips to and from the capital city, Tripoli.

“Most students don’t have a clear idea or picture of the situation in Libya,” he said. “It is our duty to clarify it.”

Monday, Alwafi made a four-hour trip from South Dakota, where he goes to school, to the University of Minnesota with a group of Libyan-Americans for an event he said he hoped would do just that.

The Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Medical Teams International, an international humanitarian organization, co-sponsored a forum Monday on the role of humanitarian aid in rebuilding Libya.

In February, unrest swept much of the Middle East. Revolts ousted government leaders in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia before demonstrations in Libya were met with bloodshed at the hands of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime — which controlled the country for 40 years — according to the Associated Press.

The forum discussed the humanitarian crisis these revolts have presented and what Americans can and have done to help.

“As a public university, we have to give the audience the chance to reflect on what’s going on in and outside of the U.S.,” said Cyrus Bina, a professor from the University’s Morris campus who moderated the event.

Speakers included U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Medical Teams International CEO Bas Vanderzalm and Jamal Tarhuni, a board member of the Libyan Council of North America.

Each encouraged the audience to support political decision-making that reflects the uprisings in the Arab world.

“Tomorrow’s going to get here sooner than we think,” Ellison said. “As Americans, we need to know that as the Middle East changes, we cannot stay the same.”

In an interview after the event, Ellison called specifically on students to bridge the gap between America and the new Arab world.

He encouraged students to use the resources available to them to travel during their time in college.

“Students should travel the world,” he said. “You’ll see that in the world, every place is different, but all people are basically the same.”

Speakers and audience members said they hoped the event would inspire new types of relationships in Libya that go beyond “oil, counter-terrorism and religious affiliations.”

But while panelists called for continued dialogue and the support of work by non-governmental organizations like MTI, which exports medical aid and supplies to countries in need, a few attendees voiced support for Gadhafi’s regime, which sparked a continued debate during and after the event.

Alwafi, who moved to the U.S. in 2008 to pursue his doctorate at South Dakota State University, said his personal story reflects the poor quality of life that sparked the uprising.

He said he wished more students came to the event to gain the Libyan-American perspective beyond the headlines.

Margaret Li, a senior officer for MTI and event organizer, said audience members will look back on the events in Libya as part of a “turning point in our history.”

Li said she had just spoken with a Libyan doctor who said there are 7,000 more amputees in Libya as a result of the war within the country.

“We cannot let those who are suffering be forgotten,” she said. “This event is part of nurturing public ideas about the changing world around us.” 

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