In the shadow of a mosque nestled in Libya’s Nefusa mountains, Giumaa Shawesh greets old acquaintances and new faces.
They have all gathered for an occasion unthinkable under Muammar Gaddafi's rule: the political rally of a long-term exile.
“I’ve been out of this village for about 32 years,” Shawesh said. “I left this country in 1980, but these people are my people and I’m coming back and trying to feel their struggles and their problems.”
Shawesh is trying to become their first-ever elected representative. His return, and possible election, marks a new chapter in a personal journey that has been, for more than three decades, blessed with fortunate timing.
“I was so lucky because I was the last group to be sent to the States,” he said.
The American embassy in Tripoli closed in 1980 after a mob of protesters burnt it down. Libyan authorities had granted Shawesh a scholarship to study in the United States just a few months earlier.
In 1984, Shawesh was on track to receive a Ph.D. in science at the University of Arizona when his father was thrown in jail on suspicion that he and others had plotted a coup. Shawesh was asked to fly back to Libya shortly thereafter to renew his government-sponsored scholarship.
“I knew it was a trick because I knew my father was in prison,” Shawesh said. “So immediately when they threatened me and said 'go back to Libya to sign this contract or we will cut off the scholarship,' I said, cut it off. I didn’t feel a degree is more important that the principles, values I need to live for.”
Shawesh never saw his father again.
Without financial backing, he had to drop out, but the strained relations between the United States and Libya actually played in his favour.
He was quickly granted political asylum, along with his wife and four children. In 1986, the family moved to Sacramento and they embraced the United States as their home. But Libya remained on his mind.
Shawesh became the West Coast representative of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an exiled group opposed to Gaddafi’s regime.
The group’s founder, Mohamed Yousef el-Magariaf lived in Atlanta during most of his time in exile. He is also back in Libya now. He said for three decades, the Front kept drumming the anti-Gaddafi beat — against all odds and naysayers.
“We heard many voices that tried to make us feel that whatever efforts we made have no impact, no results because of the simple fact that Gaddafi was still there,” El-Magariaf said. “But anyhow, we were wise enough to keep calling for (the) Gaddafi regime to be toppled and for the people to revolt against him until the last moment.”
When the uprising broke out in Benghazi in February 2011, members of the front set up a support committee that organized protests in the United States and raised funds to provide medical aid. Shawesh went to Tunisia to help Libyan refugees there. At one point he managed an impromptu visit to Kabao, 31 years after he’d left.
He said he couldn’t recognize his town or his family.
“Those of my age are elders and those youngsters who were not born are now running the show,” he said. “My father, mother, my grandmother all those who loved me, who hugged me when I left, I found them to be in the cemetery ground. I found myself (a) stranger within my family.”
Yet people in Kabao seemed eager to get him involved. After the revolution, friends asked him to run for office. They argued that the transition process needs help from those who’ve lived in democratic countries.
El-Magariaf, himself a candidate in another town, said former exiles have a clear edge in Libya’s new political landscape.
“Candidates are not known. They don’t have any history by which they can judge. It’s all promises,” he said. “So in that regard, where we have advantage, we did what we did for our country, and this is a credibility that we have that very few people do have.”
But Shawesh said outsiders face obvious challenges in bridging the gap with locals. He said the optimistic mind-set and can-do attitude he learned living in the United States stand at odds with the prevailing mood in Libya.
“All the time they talk about the past, about sufferings, about problems,” he said. “OK! There’s time for you to recover, but you can’t spend all your life talking about sufferings, all the time you’re adding salt on the injury.”
Back in Kabao, Shawesh sits in a circle with about 100 men, making his campaign pitch. After the rally, Juma Ajaj, a writer for a newly-created newspaper, said Shawesh’s voice stands out in Kabao’s field of candidates and so will, he hopes, in Libya’s new Congress.