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The Columbus Dispatch
Wednesday, 2 April, 2003

Brief Period In Libya
Gives Couple Perspective On How Iraqis Might Feel

Arabian Nightmare
Brief period in Libya gives couple perspective on how Iraqis might feel

Wednesday, April 2, 2003     Illustration: Photo
Features - Accent & Arts 01G

By Mark Ellis
The Columbus Dispatch

A Pickerington family that tasted life under a dictator supports the removal of the one in Iraq.

The Sheikh family -- Susan and Abdussalam, and their two elder children -- slipped out of Libya in 1982, a few months into a planned two-year stay.

Life under Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi had proved too daunting and too dangerous.

Two decades ago, away from his homeland for six years, Mr. Sheikh was studying electrical engineering abroad.

The Ohio State University student crossed paths in a campus-area nightclub with Susan Brigner, an OSU student who had grown up in the German Village neighborhood.

Marrying in 1978, the couple had two children before he graduated and prepared to return to Libya -- as a condition of his scholarship.

He was going back with his new family "to a country which I no longer knew."

Mrs. Sheikh ignored advice from the U.S. State Department not to join her husband near Tripoli.

"There was never any question about that," she said. "My husband is a wonderful family man.

"We just had to get our family back together."

Sacrifices were expected: The family shipped some supplies, including baby food, furniture and a car.

"We knew things weren't good, but we had no idea how bad they were."

The U.S. Embassy had closed.

"I didn't feel the full impact of there not being many Americans there until I got there."

Soldiers stood watch at markets that had little food.

"These guys could blow you away. There's no American consulate or embassy there to protect your rights."

Mrs. Sheikh, 26 at the time, refused to cover her face in public.

"I got stared at a lot, and that bothered me after a while. I got a real attitude about that. Inside, I felt like 'I dress like everyone else in the world.'

"But that constant staring really wears on you. I stood out."

Gadhafi's socialist reforms included the seizure and reallocation of rental property, so finding a home was difficult. The family spent a couple of months living with relatives about 45 miles outside Tripoli.

Little English was spoken.

"I couldn't communicate," she said.

Although Mr. Sheikh had a job, food was hard to find.

"The markets that Gadhafi built had nothing on the shelves," Mrs. Sheikh said. "You couldn't find enough to eat. You couldn't find things.

"We had money. There was nothing to buy."

Bellies were filled with the crushed-grain dish couscous, mixed with meat and vegetables when available.

Milk was not an option. The water supply was erratic.

The children got sores and chronic diarrhea.

Television and radio programs were limited to patriotic fare. Even the lyrics of traditional children's songs had been rewritten to praise the Gadhafi regime.

"I remember driving down the street in Tripoli. It was 100 degrees, and the windows were rolled down," she said. "People were around in the street.

"I said something about Gadhafi, and those windows went up so fast. They said, 'Do not, do not, do not speak like that in public.'

"The people couldn't stand Gadhafi."

And the people, "very family-oriented," impressed Mrs. Sheikh.

"Gadhafi expected them to live on bread and water. They didn't do a lot of complaining," she said. "They were kind.

"I loved the people."

The Sheikhs feared letters were being screened, and all news home was cheery. An English business acquaintance finally took a letter out of the country and mailed it, alerting Mrs. Sheikh's Columbus family that a move was afoot.

The couple sold as much as they could to friends without raising suspicion. They were officially embarking on a two-week vacation to Germany, where Mrs. Sheikh had relatives.

She destroyed her journal that revealed too much of her feelings about the government.

Visa problems at the airport delayed the trip a week, and anxiety grew.

"He could go to jail for something like this," she said of her husband. "They could kill him.

"Everybody always talked about this blacklist. Gadhafi had a blacklist," she said. "It was awful."

Mr. Sheikh's contacts helped iron out the paperwork, and the family was gone from Libya less than six months after they arrived.

"I'm not the type of person who lets anything upset me," she said. "But the minute we were airborne, I remember going to the restroom and just throwing up."

Safe in Germany, Mrs. Sheikh first move was to order a cheeseburger.

Back in the United States, Mr. Sheikh resumed his career and is now a project coordinator for a telecommunications company. Mrs. Sheikh is personnel director for the city of Pickerington.

The focus is on Nadia, who has wedding plans within weeks of graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

"It's scary," Mrs. Sheikh said of her daughter's future role in the Navy, "but I'm so proud."

The war in Iraq?

"I really support it," Mrs. Sheikh said. "I think the Iraqi people have been oppressed by this man for a long time.

"I'm sure the Iraqi people feel the exact way the Libyan people felt in 1982. You suffer with the embargoes.

"I think the people in Libya are happy to see it, too. I don't think anybody likes Saddam Hussein.

"Any responsible person, any decent person, knows this guy is evil.

"I think the Iraqis are for the war," he said. "I would think the same thing."

mellis@dispatch.com


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