Libyans and Muslims in Columbia react to rebel takeover of Tripoli

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 | 11:41 a.m. CDT; updated 6:09 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Mohamed Gumati talks on the phone to his Libyan friends and family Tuesday at the International Cafe in Columbia. Gumati is the owner of International Cafe and has been following the news about Libya on Al Jazeera.

COLUMBIA — In recent days, Salim Kumati has had more to worry about than studying for his entrance exam to the MU master's of business program. He has been following the developments in Libya with a keen interest.

Kumati, 28, moved to Columbia from Libya a year ago, but his father, Ali, mother, Soaad, and four brothers are still in his native city of Benghazi. He also has aunts, uncles and cousins in Tripoli. Kumati has found it difficult to communicate with his family because Internet service in Benghazi is not reliable. He did manage to speak with them Sunday on a cell phone.

“They were very happy because Gadhafi regime was collapsing,” Kumati said Monday evening at International Cafe on Ninth Street.

Before the revolution, Kumati had planned to study business at the University of Missouri and look for work outside of Libya. He did not think that he could earn a good wage at home.

Now his plans look a bit different.

“Big companies will invest their money in Libya and bring good opportunities,” Kumati said. “This is what I expect.”

Growing up in Libya, Kumati never imagined he would witness the end of the 42-year rule of Moammar Gadhafi. “We were thinking Gadhafi will never step down,” Kumati said. 

Like so many other Libyans, the Gadhafi regime has affected Kumati at a personal level. For one, it hampered his ability to learn English while he was still living in Libya. 

Gadhafi cut English in the schools, Kumati said. “(We learned) just the basics — how to make a plural.”

Kumati said that Gadhafi's regime did not want Libyans to learn English because they wanted foreigners to deal with Libyans in Arabic, and this policy held him back. He struggled with English when he arrived in Columbia.

Kumati experienced the oppression of the Gadhafi regime in other ways as well. He said three of his college friends were arrested and sent to prison in Tripoli, and he hasn't heard from them since.

“I want to say they are OK, but you can’t trust this regime after what he did with people in 1996,” Kumati said. 

Kumati was referring to the massacre of more than 1,000 prisoners at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. The government did not start informing the relatives of the deceased until 2001.  

When Kumati’s father and brothers took to the streets against the Gadhafi regime in February, he wished he could be with them. 

“I wanted to go there to help,” Kumati said. “I am here. I am doing nothing compared to other people in Libya.” 

Kumati was worried about the safety of his family. When the protests reached Benghazi, he could not reach them and heard of many deaths in the news. 

“It was very, very hard,” Kumati said. “I couldn’t concentrate on my studies. I was waiting to hear bad news.”

No bad news ever came and now the family is celebrating. The rebels started an attack on Tripoli on Saturday and appeared to be taking control of the city. Gadhafi was nowhere to be found.

Kumati is hopeful about Libya’s future.

“I think Gadhafi will step down,” Kumati said. “I don’t care what happens to him. I don’t want to hear about more blood.”

Kumati wants all killings to stop and for Libyans to start rebuilding.

“It will be a free country,” Kumati said. “It will be better. I can’t imagine a situation that is worse.”

Kumati believes that Libyans will have to learn to vocalize their newfound freedom. He said that under Gadhafi, Libyans had to listen and could not express their opinions.

“I want Libyans to see that they have the freedom to speak,” Kumati said.

Mohamad Gumati, the uncle of Salim Kumati and owner of International Cafe, 26 S. Ninth St., has been living in the U.S. for 30 years. He sat at the cafe on Monday night and shared his views on Libya while monitoring the latest developments on the television network Al-Jazeera Arabic.

A picture of Gadhafi flashed across the screen.

“He was the most horrible dictator in the world,” Gumati said. “The language he speaks is killing. He doesn’t do anything for the Libyan people. … that is why most Libyans ran away from the country in the '80s.”

Gumati has kept in touch with his family and friends in Tripoli and Benghazi. He, too, has received updates from phone calls with relatives.

“It was hard to know exactly what was going on because of the censorship in Tripoli,” Gumati said.

“My cousin called me (on Sunday) from Tripoli, and he was very happy. Rebels advanced into the city,” Gumati said. “They can talk freely now.”

Gumati wishes he could be with the Libyan people, but the developments happened so quickly there was no time to act. Still, he did what he could.

“I pray for my brothers, and I sent money,” Gumati said.

Members at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, 201 S Fifth St., shared a sense of solidarity with the Libyans. Ibrahim Felifal, an Egyptian member of the Center, took time out of Iftar, the evening meal eaten after fasting all day during Ramadan,  to reflect on the situation is Libya.   

“Libya is free now,” Felifal said. “We have to work all together.” 

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