Libyans in Columbia ready to return home, help in revolution

Monday, March 21, 2011 | 8:13 p.m. CDT; updated 9:29 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 21, 2011
Rashid Kikhia, owner of Rush's Pizzeria and Bakery, sits in his restaurant with the 1951 Libyan Flag in the foreground Monday. Kikhia is planning to travel to Benghazi, Libya as a part of the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition to help the National Transitional Council, which is composed of anti-Gadhafi members.

COLUMBIA — While most students and families in Columbia are making their plans for spring break, Rashid Kikhia is spending the coming weeks trying to find a way into Libya.

Kikhia, who owns Rush’s Pizzeria and Bakery in downtown Columbia, grew up in Libya but moved to Columbia 15 years ago. He hopes to leave soon for Libya in order to help with the creation of a new, post-Gadhafi government.

A month after the start of the revolution in Libya, the U.S. and U.N. allies have begun air attacks and implemented a no-fly zone. As the situation on the ground changes daily, Libyans around the world, including some in Columbia, are making plans for where they fit into the future of their country.

“It is a duty that I have to go,” Kikhia said. “In Libya, there is not infrastructure at all. Gadhafi never built anything for the Libyan people. For now, (the goal) is to build it all over again with a new base.”

Kikhia thinks that Gadhafi will fall soon, and when he does, the first things that must happen are the creation of a constitution and the forming of new relationships with the international community.

Since 2006, Kikhia has worked with the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition, an international group that seeks to bring together the wide scope of Libyan opposition groups. Some members of the conference have already returned to Libya, but getting back into the country is not easy.

Individuals trying to return to Libya must first get into Egypt — which is still rebuilding after ts recent revolution — then find passage over the Libyan-Egyptian border and, finally, find a way to travel through the country to their final destination.

For Kikhia, that final goal is the opposition headquarters in Benghazi, his home.

Growing up in Benghazi, Kikhia was part of a family of Libyan politicians. His uncle, Mansour Kikhia, had been foreign minister and ambassador to the U.N. under Gadhafi before becoming an outspoken critic of the regime.

Mansour fled to Columbia, where he lived for 13 years. In 1983, Mansour disappeared while attending a human rights convention in Egypt. The Kikhia family thinks Mansour was kidnapped and killed by Gadhafi, a theory shared by the CIA, according to a Washington Post article published in September 1997.

While Kikhia is planning an immediate return to Libya, other members of Columbia's Libyan community are looking at more long-term options.

“I hope, God willing, I will go back,” Ahmed El-Tayash said.

El-Tayash, part-owner of Campus Eastern Foods in Columbia, plans not only to travel to Libya but to make it his permanent home. Born in Columbia soon after his parents left Libya in 1979, El-Tayash said he has always planned on moving back.

“Growing up, we’d ask for stuff from our parents,” El-Tayash said. The response was always: “When we go home.”

“We thought at any time we might be packing up and leaving,” El-Tayash said. “After 10, 11 years of that, you kind of settle in and stop thinking about going home because you don’t know how long it is going to last. But now it’s here. It’s been a dream. It’s been a dream.”

The majority of Libyans living outside of Libya would like to return, El-Tayash said. He also believes it is vital for the future of the country.

“It’s really crucial for most Libyans in America or England or outside of Libya that are educated to come back to help build Libya,” El-Tayash said.

While many Libyans hope to return soon, plans are constantly changing as the situation in Libya evolves.

“I’m planning to go for two weeks first and then come back and see what I can do after that,” Kikhia said. “I’m leaving my family behind and I’m going.”

As Kikhia finalizes the details of getting back into Libya, others look forward to a day in the near future when their feet will touch down on Libyan soil.

“I’m here,” El-Tayash said. “What can I do for the country?”

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