Salaam Alaykum, if I were to meet you for the first time, what would I learn about you?
My name is Khadija. As an American hijab wearing Muslim I come across a lot of preconceived ideas as to which box I should fit in. When I meet people for the first time, especially since I’ve been back to the US, the first thing they notice is my hijab, and immediately they assume I’m an immigrant, refugee, or newcomer to the country. As soon as I open my mouth they realize that I have either been here for very long, or I’m not who I seem to be. As we get talking, and I introduce myself, they realize that I’m not a housewife, but that I have a career, I earn my living, and probably what surprises them most is that I am also very active in the community.
I volunteer with my city’s CERT team (Community Emergency Response Team). We help people in our community in times of emergency (last year it was Hurricane Irma) and are trained in first aid and to help in such things as search and rescue, firefighter rehab as well as helping out at ‘blue sky’ community events like crowd control at parades or festivals. At first when I attended CERT meetings, I think that attendees would look at me expecting me to be one of the people looking for assistance, and they’d be surprised to learn that I was there to help. Eventually they found that my background, qualifications, and experience were ideal to be able to train other volunteers in the field, so I’ve become a much more integral part of the team. Through it I’ve gotten to know many people, including the Mayor of my town, who not incidentally has also been active in helping women in North Africa, specifically Libyan women, become more involved in the political process.
I initially got interested in CERT because of an ad I saw in the paper back in 2015, when I came to visit my mother – a visit that turned into a more permanent move back to the US for me and four of my kids – and it’s kept me busy since then. My hope is that with this experience and training I will be able to apply this knowledge and help people back in Libya, when or if it settles down to a point of being able to deal with these issues. It certainly is a service that is very useful, and badly needed in Libya.
I also work as an ESOL teacher for a language program sponsored by an NGO. I teach immigrants and refugees and more recently Puerto Ricans that were displaced by Hurricane Maria. One way I help my students is by assessing their needs and finding resources available that can help when they have an urgent need of assistance, be it looking for housing, a job, language courses, various services, you name it.
What were your goals when you set out on your biggest journey?
I would say that the biggest journey in my life was set forth upon my conversion to Islam. I became Muslim thirty-six years ago, when I was still quite young. Things have evolved and changed a lot since then. My initial goal was to master the Arabic language and learn the Qur’an, but then I realized that the whole feeling of Islam, to be at peace with one’s self and the world is a much more central issue of my faith, since it’s not a religion meant only for Arabic speakers; you should be able to benefit from it whether you speak Arabic or not. When I met my husband we always thought that we’d be moving to his country (Libya) and raise our family there, and that I’d be the one to take on the bulk of the responsibility of taking care of our children. Things have changed, the circumstances always change around for us, like with the Revolution. Everybody’s goals shifted. Thank Goodness I’m pretty good about going with the flow, but it can be quite stressful sometimes.
When did you move to Libya?
I moved to Libya six years after marrying my husband, and I was pregnant with our oldest son. We lived there for 26 years, so all our kids were born there. I must say that the facilities, even in private settings, aren’t up to par with what you’d find here in the US, but as far as the medical staff, we were in excellent hands, because doctors and nurses there have to deal with all sorts of really complicated issues with very little equipment, so I certainly can’t complain on that front!
From the beginning we had in mind to stay in Libya permanently, but the situation forced us to make different decisions as life went on. It was hard leaving, because I’ve spent nearly half my life there! I don’t want to say that I’ll never go back, but right now it’s not easy to predict when, or how often we’ll be able to return there. I miss the home we built there, but right now, because of everything going on there, it’s really just a concrete structure, you can’t really call it a safe place, a home, any longer. I’m more settled here in the US now because I have a job, and my kids need to have their own chance at intellectual and cultural stimulation right now, it’s just not feasible to get it in Libya at the moment. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss my in laws! We just had Eid celebrations recently, and talking with them over the phone for half an hour just doesn’t feel like it’s enough. I miss the people there, I miss having my own place to call home.
What was the best advice you ever got?
As far as advice goes, I haven’t really listened to anyone’s advice; everyone likes to give it, but very few people actually heed it. I did listen to one of my mentor’s advice though, and although I wasn’t always thrilled about it, I am certainly glad I did, because it basically charted the path to my future career. She insisted I teach English as a Second Language, instead of just concentrating on teaching computers to women. When a position opened up at the language lab I took it, and then she pushed me to get certified as an ESL instructor. I begrudgingly agreed, but I’m so glad I did, because doing so opened up so many doors for me since then. I started the Teachers’ Forum in Libya, to be able to provide training to English Teachers, to raise the level of English education in Libya. I also became involved in IELTS preparation instruction, so I could help students achieve the score they needed in IELTS. That’s a big one, because it can really change one’s life to get a good score in that, it opens up all sorts of doors. In Libya it was a challenge just for me to work, none of the women in my husband’s family worked at the time, I was the only one. I really had to push to be able to do it, and I certainly tried to make the best of it!
I was really fortunate to be an ESL teacher in Libya, because it put me right out there in the community. If I hadn’t done that it would have been a limited world for me. I met people from all over the country, even from other countries, from different walks of life, and people who have gone on to do great things. I’d like to think that I helped people improve their lives, though I might have indirectly contributed to the brain drain in the country… I had a direct effect on people’s lives, especially when I prepared students for IELTS exams, because that’s a test that can change a person’s life. As an ESL teacher I had hundreds of students over the years, you don’t get this much exposure if you work for a company, or if you stay at home.
Two examples come to mind as sticking out more than the rest, one in Libya and one here through my work teaching immigrants and refugees. In Libya, I had a female student, a nurse who had left her husband and young son behind in India to take up a two year nursing contract at one of the hospitals in Tripoli. She had come in to take an IELTS preparation course. Upon arrival to Libya she realized she was pregnant, and she’d be giving birth alone in Libya, and then have an extra mouth to feed, who would, by the end of her contract, be far removed from her. She lacked confidence, but she felt she had to do something to improve her situation. At the end of her two-year contract she returned home to India with her daughter, only to leave her in the care of her husband and return back to Libya. She was the sole means of support for her family. With an IELTS certificate she might be able to apply for other jobs in the UK, Canada or Australia and be able to emigrate with her husband and children. I believed in her, and made all the resources available to her, whenever she could find the time between shift work and taking care of her infant daughter, and she did it! She scored well, much higher than she expected, and was able to apply for and get a job that would allow her family to be reunited.
The other story, was of an immigrant woman here in the US, who came to me not knowing where to go or who to ask, because her husband had given her social security number, credit card number and drivers license number to a scammer over the phone, and she feared that her identity might have been stolen, with all the complications that could arise from that. She was in a desperate situation. I was her English teacher. I didn’t have to do anything about it if I didn’t want to, but I could, so I did. I told her the steps to take to protect herself, and she was able to go ahead and stabilize her situation. The consequences could have been devastating for her and her family.
I think that believing in your students, treating them as human beings above being just students, adds richness and meaning to my job, and it can be quite rewarding. Sometimes they have other issues, like joblessness, needing housing. I can help asses their needs, and if I can help them meet those needs, why not? If I can advocate for people who don’t have the wherewithal to understand how the system works, why would I withhold that knowledge from them? Just because it isn’t part of my job description? That seems absurd to me.
What surprised you most in life?
Although I’ve come to expect the unexpected in life, one thing that really surprised me and I still can’t wrap my head around, is my sisters’ attitude towards my mother. I had originally come to the US in 2015 to see her for her birthday, but as I got here I found her health failing, and my sisters actively trying to sell her house in order to put her in assisted care. And this is despite the fact that two of them are in the medical profession. I couldn’t fathom my mother leaving the home she had lived in with her husband and family for over forty years near the end of her life, and have to be taken care of by strangers. It was unacceptable to me, and my mother wasn’t partial to the idea either. She initially resisted my offer of moving in with her so I could help her out, thinking that I’d be leaving my life behind, but I felt it was my duty as her daughter to give her reassurance and comfort, especially since she had spent her entire life taking care of us, and this was the last part of her life, where you’d think you’d be allowed to rest where you’re most comfortable. I think that one of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is because I lived nearly half my life in a country where putting your elderly parent in assistant living not only isn’t the norm, but would be considered shameful. Islam of course plays a big part in this as well. It surprises me that my own sisters, with whom I shared my childhood and early adulthood were completely devoid of this compassion towards our mother. Now of course they’re after her estate, in spite of the fact that they were trying to hasten her demise, rather than help make her remaining days more comfortable. It’s ironic, because if they had sold her house and used up her savings to put her in assisted care, there would be nothing left. It’s unfortunate, but it seems to be the norm here in the US nowadays, not the exception.
How do you motivate yourself to keep doing what you do?
Sometimes I’m not sure I’m quite through a lot of the things that have been happening, I just keep telling myself that I need to keep going and move forward, nothing else, just sheer will. My issue now is that I don’t know what’s going to happen. My husband is still in Libya with two of my kids, while I’m here with the other four. Most of my kids don’t want to go back to Libya, they’re moving on to have lives of their own here in the US, but at least one is determined to get married and settle there in Libya. Libya is where my husband and I designed, built, and furnished our house, we raised our children there, we were an active part of the community there, and it was home. Unfortunately it’s become too unpredictable and unstable to be able to continue to have any sort of a meaningful life, unless you are satisfied to sit in your garden not knowing if you’ll have electricity or food on the table any given day. I imagine that we’ll end up having to go back and forth a lot to be able to keep up with our responsibilities here and there, but who knows? We’re still trying to figure things out right now.
Safety is a major concern. We have a safe spot, for now, in the US, don’t know for how long (we’ll see how the estate distribution works out), and in Libya we had a safe spot, our house, but right now you can’t really call it a home, it’s a building, because the country around it is collapsing. It’s not ideal. We desperately want to see it improve, but if I have to be frank with myself I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime. Libya’s reached a point in which it’ll be extremely difficult to find any sort of amiable solution and find peace and stability in the near future. It’s unfortunate, but we must face the facts.
What’s friendship to you?
I used to think that friends were very important in life, but now I feel that my relationship with my kids, who are mostly adults now, is much more important. I have three daughters and three sons. I’m done with mothering now, they don’t need me to be their mom anymore, especially my daughters, so we’re much more like friends, and that’s enough for me, it’s good. As far as someone I can tell my secrets to, there’s only my husband. He’s also the one that basically changed my life, marrying him set my life’s course in a completely unexpected trajectory, for the better, I think, and right now not having him here is probably the hardest thing, on top of everything else. My family, in short, is where I rest, they’re my truest friends. The rest I guess are more like acquaintances.
You’ve been blogging for many years, how did you start?
My blog actually started off as a website at first. I was teaching myself web-design, coding, and the website was a combination of graphic arts, computer generated design, and Libya. I was learning about Libya at the time, so I posted about that while I was learning about computers. At that time you had to pay for the domain and keep it up yourself which was expensive in Libya then, so that was an added challenge. Then I found blogging, which was free and I liked that you could change a blog, move it and make it as different as you wanted it to be. Back in 2004, the internet connection in Libya was so slow, it was hard to keep my family constantly updated with my situation, so the blog was a way for them to know what and how I was doing. The audience then grew to people interested in Libya, either because they were married to or dating a Libyan, or because they were Libyans of the diaspora wanting to learn about what was going on in Libya outside the news. There were many ex-pat readers who had lived or worked in Libya in the past. I was getting a lot of requests from people asking to show them pictures of places where they’d grown up, that they hadn’t seen in decades, so for a while I was posting pictures of places and asking people to tell me where it was, it was fun, because I had to make it challenging enough so they wouldn’t be able to guess on first try. The blog’s audience grew because people were really engaged. As Facebook and other social media platforms grew, though, people diverted their attention to that rather than reading blogs, so the dust has settled a bit. FB and Twitter is where it’s at right now, I remember after Tripoli was liberated and work resumed, that I would check both before heading out for work to see if it was safe enough to venture out, or if I’d have to cancel classes for the day. To this day people in Libya spend a tremendous amount of time on FB, partly because they have nothing else to do, and it’s unsafe to be out and about, and partly because it feeds itself, that’s where you get all the news (deaths, births, accidents, and so on and so forth), it’s become a necessity almost.
How has the internet changed life in Libya?
Back when the internet use started in Libya it was only for government employees, then it spread to universities, then internet cafes started to open, and they were ridiculous! 15-20 LD for one hour of surfing (on a dial up connection) but as the technology improved, its uses changed as well. It’s still slow, relatively speaking, you couldn’t hold online courses if you wanted to, but I wish they’d improve the internet service there, which right now is heavily dependent on an already unreliable supply of electricity. So many things are done online now, and if they got it working well, they could improve so much in the country.
I don’t post much on my blog anymore, just because it’s hard to find anything positive to talk about, and nowadays you have to be very careful what you say. Bloggers have been attacked and kidnapped in Libya, because you just don’t know who your readers are. Now I find that I spend more time taking care of the CERT FB page, which I volunteered to do, because I have to spend so much time on FB anyhow to keep track of things within the family and beyond.
Back in 2005 I think, my colleague and I were thinking of ways to get out students writing and reading more, so we set up a student blog, where they could share their ideas. We encouraged them to start their own blogs. Some did and still work on them, some moved on to bigger and better things, others didn’t because of a series of limitations. But I still get notifications every time someone comments on the blog, so I know they are still engaging with it to this day! Many of my students have kept in touch with me through the years, some visited, some referred family and friends to me, many of them I have as connections on FB. To me, once you’re my student you’re always my student, and I don’t mind it if they keep me updated on their happenings, as long as they don’t cause trouble, they are welcome!
What major changes have you noticed in the decades you spent in Libya?
In terms of changes, I find that Libyan women have become a much more active labor force. There are many more opportunities for women in Libya now than there ever were. Before women would either get married very young, or get an education and marry as soon as they graduated, now more and more women are choosing to continue working and have a career after they graduate, and they marry later in life. But this is from a Tripoli perspective, I imagine that in smaller towns it’s a different story. My hope is that women will continue to increase their presence in the labor force, and especially in the political sphere. There are many women who are up to the task, they’re just not given the opportunity.
What would be the most valuable contribution one could make today?
The most valuable thing that could happen right now in Libya is for there to be peace and reconciliation. It would solve a lot of problems, my problems for sure, because it would make it safe to return. But I really don’t think it’s going to happen at this stage. They might end up splitting up the country, like some people suggested way back after Tripoli was Liberated, who knows? That might actually be the only workable solution right now. They’d have to sort out the nitty gritty, but it might actually work. One can only hope that something good can come out of all this tragedy. There needs to be peace in order to make progress.
What’s the spice of life?
I think that in life you have to have a sense of humor, even if it’s dark humor, if you look hard enough, in any circumstance, no matter how hard, you can find something to laugh at. That’s important. There are a lot of bad things, and we tend to dwell a lot on the negative, but if you look for the positive, you can always find it, and it’s worth the effort.
How would you like to be remembered?
I think different people will remember me for different things. But I hope that all of them will remember that I was adaptable, I always looked for the positive, and that I’m not who they expected me to be. I think it’s important to continue to learn and grow, rather than place monetary value on everything, the most important things in life are free, as they say. I believe it, and live by it. I hope people remember that about me as well.
Khadija’s blog can be found on blogspot: http://khadijateri.blogspot.com/