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Libya, One Year Later

GSSW grad Colleen Fitzgerald came to work in Libya about a month before the overthrow of Gaddafi; 12 months later, she sees a country facing many challenges, but whose people have great hopes for the future

Colleen Fitzgerald, a 2011 graduate of the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work, arrived in Libya just before its liberation last August and has been working there ever since. Here she is shown in a training session with primary health care nurses in Quassim, a rural community in the western mountains of Libya. “To have an opportunity like this, fresh out of grad school, is amazing," she says. "It really has been a case of being in the right place at the right time."

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Aug. 15, 2012

Colleen Fitzgerald thought she was simply embarking on an international field placement last year to complete her studies in the Graduate School of Social Work. Instead, she wound up being a witness to history.

Upon completing her internship with the International Medical Corps in Jordan, Fitzgerald was offered an opportunity by the organization to work in an unlikely, and dangerous, setting: Libya, which at the time was in the throes of an uprising against long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But Fitzgerald decided to go. Now, with the first anniversary of Gaddafi’s overthrow this month, she is reflecting on what has been an eventful year, both for her and the country she has called home.

“Libya was essentially closed off to the world for four decades, so this is not just a country experiencing a change of government — it’s going through a time warp,” said Fitzgerald, in a recent phone interview while enjoying a brief visit to her home in Connecticut.

“To have an opportunity like this, fresh out of grad school, is amazing. It really has been a case of being in the right place at the right time. I’m passionate about the work I do, and I feel privileged to be able to help.”

A native of Ellington, Conn., Fitzgerald is currently employed as manager for International Medical Corps’ Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) program in Libya. Her role has changed over the past year, from assessing mental health needs through conversations with community members as well as teachers, hospital directors and local organizations, to helping train 30 Libyan social workers in foundational practice and child protection.

“The focus of the program is how to listen and respond compassionately, and provide necessary support,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s a vital component that has been missing in Libya’s social work training.”

When she first came to Libya, Fitzgerald was based in Benghazi, in the eastern part of the country, away from the heaviest fighting. Even then, she says, the impact of the civil war was more than noticeable.

“While I wasn’t there to do clinical work, just the simple act of listening was a way to help. I heard story after story from co-workers, training participants, and community members who had experienced significant losses, whether family members, loved ones, friends or their homes.

“But in spite of all this, I received wonderful hospitality from the Libyan people. Everywhere I went, I was welcomed with tea or coffee, and sometimes even a meal. Libyans are proud and generous, and most of them have great dreams for the future of their country.”

Fitzgerald and her International Medical Corps colleagues were able to get news on the progress of the war through occasional Internet access and other sources, but there were other indicators.

“Any time there was a gain by the rebels, everyone in Benghazi would shoot off their guns to celebrate,” she explained. “As they got closer to Tripoli, red tracers lit up the sky constantly, and you could hear ‘Allahu Akbar (God is Great)’ being called from the mosques’ loudspeakers over and over.”

Tripoli was liberated on Aug. 20 — it would be another two months before Gaddafi was captured and slain — and Benghazi was awash in jubilation. “Everyone seemed to be rushing out into the street and driving cars around while honking and cheering,” recalled Fitzgerald. “But we were under tight security, so we stayed inside and watched the news, and listened to all the celebrations going on outside.”

The next day was “back to work” for Fitzgerald, as International Medical Corps made preparations to shift operations to Tripoli. The emergency response team entered the city on Aug. 22, and Fitzgerald arrived about two weeks later. Although the level of destruction was not as great as they had assumed, said Fitzgerald, restoring any kind of normalcy was a challenge.

“I was out in the city one day when it was raining,” she said, “and for every umbrella there were 10 AK-47s. In addition, there were checkpoints throughout the entire city, shortages in food, and we were extremely limited on our movements. I was anxious, but excited, to be a witness to the liberation of Tripoli.”

But Tripoli slowly began to recover in the weeks and months to follow, and Fitzgerald sees a vastly different place now.

“There are coffee shops opening up, new park spaces are being created, and people have had the experience of participating in their first election,” she said. “You can see the revitalization, and the hope.”

As satisfying as the work has been, Fitzgerald said she was grateful to have the time off to come back home. “It’s been very helpful to me to be able to take a step back and reflect on this past year. When you’re over there, your focus is on what’s happening in front of you all the time, and you don’t get a chance to think about what you’ve seen and heard.”

There is yet much work to be done to build up Libya’s community mental health and human services resources, said Fitzgerald. Many Libyans need support for various degrees of mental health problems, some of it related to the conflict. But mental illness carries a considerable stigma in Libyan society — those suffering from it are perceived as “having an incurable disease,” she said.

Yet Fitzgerald has found Libyans to be dedicated and committed to helping others. “I heard of Libyans opening their homes to complete strangers — sometimes to as many as three or four families — for months during the conflict. Reportedly, more than 1,000 local organizations were formed by Libyans to support each other.

“I am amazed at Libyans’ ability to organize under pressure. Many of these organizations have great ambitions to build a civil society in the country, which was forbidden under the previous regime.”

Fitzgerald may not be around to see much more of the rebuilding effort, however, as her International Medical Corps contract is up in October. At this point, she is undecided as to her next venture.

“I have loved doing this work, and hope I can find more ways to contribute. The world is constantly changing, so you never know what can happen, and where you will go.”