Arab Spring refugees bring memories of war, revolution to Nebraska

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May 31st, 2012

Lincoln, NE – The Arab Spring and accompanying violence might seem far away to most Nebraskans, but for some refugees now living in Lincoln, that devastation took place in their backyards.

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Abdelbaset Hamza (left) and Lamjed Zahrouni (right, pictured with daughter) both saw their countries endure civil war and revolution. (Photo by Ben Bohall)

It was a typical, quiet afternoon at the Loren C. Eiseley library in Lincoln. Parents perused tall bookshelves boasting the latest bestsellers, while their children played in scattered groups. A large, curvy-wired roller coaster toy with multicolored beads garnered the biggest crowd of nearby kids.

On the opposite end of the library’s long lobby, Lamjed Zahrouni shared a small lounge chair with his daughter. Afternoon visits to the library have given the Tunisian native a chance to spend time with the three-year-old, over a book she’s picked out from the long rows of children’s stories.

It was a pleasant setting in a comfortable place, one that was far removed from where Zahrouni was a year ago: on the front steps of the Tunisian revolution.

“It was really bad, people were scared,” Zahrouni recalled. “(At that time) there was more fear than happiness with the revolution.”

Amateur footage all across the Internet provided an inside look at the small north African country as protests and violence erupted in the midst of a revolution. Zahrouni watched firsthand as many of his countrymen took to the streets demanding social justice and economic change. Although the revolution was a success, Zahrouni said it came with a price.

“Everything we had before that could be considered the little freedom – we lost it,” Zahrouni said. “We wanted freedom, but we didn’t have freedom. We had less freedom than before So, it was really frightening. It was a long, long nightmare.”

Instead of fleeing the conflict in his country, Zahrouni chose to experience it head-on. He’d originally left Tunisia in December of 2007 when his wife was accepted into one of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s doctorate programs. But when news of the revolution first broke, he decided to return to his family in his home country, and witnessed a new beginning. Zahrouni would ultimately stay in Tunisia until the small country settled down before returning to Lincoln with his family.

For some, the possibility of leaving a country stricken by war or revolution meant leaving home entirely.

Abdelbaset Hamza is from Cairo, Egypt and Mohammed Amar is from Zawiya, Libya. Both are now students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The revolution in Tunisia triggered a chain reaction for the neighboring nations of the small country. Reformers in both Egypt and Libya looked to the events that had unfolded in Tunisia as a model for a successful revolution. Soon protests and violence erupted in both countries. It began with Egypt.

“After the Tunisian revolution, people were encouraged to continue,” Hamza explained. “They raised the ceiling of their demands. Instead of just demonstrating against the Ministry of Interior Affairs, they went to this point where they wanted a complete change in the country.”

Hamza witnessed thousands filling the infamous Tahrir Square to protest against the now-displaced Hosni Mubarak and his oppressive regime. As government forces clashed with protestors, Hamza said many, like himself, were left to watch and protect local neighborhoods from burglars and criminals.

“There was no more security there,” Hamza said. “There were bad (people) everywhere, breaking into shops and stealing everything. For some places in Egypt they would attack people in their houses. (We had to) protect neighborhoods at all times and be there to face them if they tried to get in… We started to sit together. Actually it made us become closer with the neighborhood. It was interesting.”

It was a comparable experience for Amar as he watched Libya fall into civil strife. He vividly recalled the day Moammar Gadhafi unleashed government troops on protestors in his home city of Zawiya.

“We heard frightening sounds coming from three directions,” Amar said. “We had never heard that it was the sound of tanks coming very fast. They sieged the area and started shooting, using anti-aircraft machine guns and tanks on people. We lost about 2,000 people. We saw people scattering bodies scattered. No one believed this was real, but it was real.”

Hamza said the experience is one he would remember for the rest of his life.

“It was really sad because these people lost their eyes and souls It was really hard to see these things,” he said. “And somehow, one guy from the same country is firing at him and shooting him down. This was the sad part about it.”

As for Zahrouni, he has remained optimistic about his small country’s future. He knows there’s still a long road ahead, but one he feels his former countrymen can handle.

“I suffered what they suffered, I’ve seen what they have seen, and I say, Guess what, they can survive it,'” he said. “If I didn’t go there (during the revolution), I would feel really bad to stay here. But now I feel comfortable and confident that Tunisia has a chance to survive, and probably, it already did.”

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