Egyptian Workers Who Fled Libya Struggle At Home

Egyptians who fled fighting in Libya carry their belongings at the Egyptian-Libyan border in Salloum, Egypt. The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 105,000 Egyptians have returned from Libya. i i

Egyptians who fled fighting in Libya carry their belongings at the Egyptian-Libyan border in Salloum, Egypt. The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 105,000 Egyptians have returned from Libya. Hussein Malla/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Hussein Malla/AP
Egyptians who fled fighting in Libya carry their belongings at the Egyptian-Libyan border in Salloum, Egypt. The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 105,000 Egyptians have returned from Libya.

Egyptians who fled fighting in Libya carry their belongings at the Egyptian-Libyan border in Salloum, Egypt. The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 105,000 Egyptians have returned from Libya.

Hussein Malla/AP

For the Egyptian youth who spearheaded the protests that led to the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February, the revolution was an exhilarating, crowning moment.

But for young Egyptian laborers caught in the violent backwash of the region's revolts, the Arab spring has proved financially and psychologically crippling.

Egyptian workers who fled the fighting in Libya — more than 100,000 according to the International Organization for Migration — are now back home, jobless and struggling to make sense of their lives.

Employment Challenges

Ceiling fans in Walid Abdul Rahman's dusty office in the Egyptian city of Fayoum drone on softly in the heat as flies buzz around well-worn plastic furniture. His two assistants sit quietly and attentively at empty wooden desks by the phone, waiting for calls that never seem to come.

In one corner, bundles of job application paperwork are stacked like cordwood 4 feet high. Abdul Rahman heads the Office of Manpower in Fayoum governorate, one of the poorest areas of Egypt. Manpower is the government branch responsible for helping people find work and that tracks the jobless rate.

Abdul Rahman offers tea and excuses, and he insists he can't talk about the jobless challenges here or even statistics on unemployment. That would require special permission from local security people, he says. When that's obtained, he says more permission is required — from Cairo.

A visit here illustrates why some Egyptians are calling for a second uprising — a jobs revolution.

An Adopted Home In Libya

Mohammed Ismail, 27, is jobless. He says the January 25 uprising may have improved things in other parts of Egypt. But here in Fayoum, he says, the situation has only worsened: An entrenched bureaucracy seems even more out of touch and ineffectual.

Ismail is just one of the tens of thousands of Egyptians who fled the fighting in Libya and have returned home. Like Ismail, many are now jobless, broke and feel broken down.

"Our government didn't even help us get back home from Libya. They didn't care," he says. "And since we came back, they've done nothing to help us in any way. There is no care at all; not even emotional care to lift up our spirits, so that we can start our lives over."

Ismail says he could use emotional care after all he went through in Libya, once his adopted home. Ismail couldn't find work here in Fayoum, so almost seven years ago — like thousands of other men from this impoverished region two hours north of Cairo — he left Egypt in search of work.

Ismail landed in the Libyan port city of Misrata, and he says that for those seven satisfied years, he worked there as a marble and ceramic tile technician. He would install marble in kitchens, bathrooms, shops and offices for wealthy Libyans. Eventually, he became a shift manager and helped his boss import Egyptian marble.

Sitting in a local Fayoum cafe, he says that when Libya's uprising started, "we thought it would be like Egypt and Tunisia — that Gadhafi would step down, and that everything would be fine."

Mohammed Ismail had made Libya his adopted home and worked in marble and ceramic tile installation there. He says he feels like a stranger in Egypt and would go back to Libya if Gadhafi falls. i i

Mohammed Ismail had made Libya his adopted home and worked in marble and ceramic tile installation there. He says he feels like a stranger in Egypt and would go back to Libya if Gadhafi falls. Eric Westervelt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Eric Westervelt/NPR
Mohammed Ismail had made Libya his adopted home and worked in marble and ceramic tile installation there. He says he feels like a stranger in Egypt and would go back to Libya if Gadhafi falls.

Mohammed Ismail had made Libya his adopted home and worked in marble and ceramic tile installation there. He says he feels like a stranger in Egypt and would go back to Libya if Gadhafi falls.

Eric Westervelt/NPR

'People Here Are Unable To Comprehend What War Is'

But then Gadhafi's heavy artillery began battering the city. Terrified, Ismail fled with friends to Misrata's port. He had lost his money, his car, his job and loved ones. His once comfortable, air-conditioned life was descending into terrifying chaos.

"I saw things that I never thought I would experience. I slept for more than a month on the street after our houses were shelled. There was little food. Suddenly people are getting killed all around me, including the people closest to me, my friends. Some were killed right in front of me," Ismail says.

In Misrata he was dating Khadija, a young woman and daughter of a well-known local family. This summer, he says, he was going to ask her to marry him.

He says she was killed in a government artillery strike.

"I lost everything, but my life isn't about money. I am still young; I can start again somewhere else," Ismail says. "But it is about psychological damage. I feel like I'm not capable of dealing with anything in the world right now. I'm unable to make decisions about my life."

"Even my beard, I let it grow — I don't take care of myself anymore. I've been through things," he says as his voice trails off.

The 27-year-old now spends his days smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and wondering what he'll do next. He's applied for work, but nothing's come of it. He says these days he's often paralyzed by a sense that no one back in Egypt really understands what he's been through.

"I feel like I'm a stranger here, I feel broken. Everything feels different," he says. "The food is different; the atmosphere feels different. And the people here are unable to comprehend what war is, to know people's suffering, and what I experienced."

When asked if he wants to eventually go back to Libya, he says, "If Gadhafi falls or is killed I'd gladly return."

"There'd be some chaos and problems of course," he adds, "but it would probably be better than my life here."

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