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Young Libyans in exile: Separate tribes, united dream

By Steven Jiang, CNN
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Young Libyan exiles dream of going home
  • Hundreds of Libyans live in exile in the United Arab Emirates
  • "Most of us have families in Tripoli, Misrata or Benghazi," one exile says
  • They are helping the Libyan opposition by donating food and medical supplies

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) -- They looked like just another group of young Arab professionals unwinding at the popular Zyara café in Dubai's Media City district after a long day at work, checking messages on their BlackBerry phones in between sipping drinks and chatting with friends.

While other patrons discussed plans for the upcoming weekend on this balmy Thursday night, these five well-dressed young men and women were engaged in a heated conversation about their troubled homeland more than 2,000 miles away.

"For 42 years it's been under a very repressive and brutal regime -- and the oil we supposedly have? Most of us haven't seen it," said Hala, 37, an investment banker who has lived in Dubai for eight years. "We see a lack of infrastructure, lack of education, lack of healthcare -- and people don't have jobs."

"There was built-up anger," echoed Ahmed, a 28-year-old consultant who was in Benghazi, Libya, last month when rebels began to battle pro-government forces. "I was amazed to see how people fought with no weapons -- especially in the first few days -- but with determination."

They are among the hundreds of Libyans living in exile -- many self-imposed to flee Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorship -- in the United Arab Emirates. Hailing from cities now synonymous with civil war, they have been watching events unfold on their native land with both anxiety and anticipation.

"Most of us have families in Tripoli, Misrata or Benghazi," Hala said. "It's been very difficult to get hold of people, and we just hope for the best."

Across the coffee table, Anas, a 27-year-old business manager, inhaled deeply.

"We want to smell life, which we don't have," he said. "We want a normal life there."

Having lived under Gadhafi's rule in different stages of their lives, the five young Libyans say they know only too well of the colonel's iron fist. For the safety of families left behind, they declined to have their surnames printed and a few asked their faces not to be filmed.

Anas' friends have warned him that he is on a government hit list after he talked to the news media. He worries about what would happen to his family in Libya if Gadhafi -- or his people -- saw another TV appearance.

"He would torture them," he said. "He would kill my brothers and sisters, and he would make my mom and dad watch it -- and then he would kill them eventually."

"That's how he controlled us for over 40 years," added Reem, a 30-year-old owner of an IT firm, pointing to an extensive global spy network maintained by the regime. "Nobody could speak out because we all lived in fear. Even Libyans abroad didn't want to interact with each other."

With mass uprisings toppling other strongmen in the region, the young group see such fears start to dissipate -- replaced by newfound unity and courage. They say the once-fractured exile community has banded together to support the opposition in Libya, donating food and medical supplies and volunteering services.

While battles on the ground continue to rage, warplanes from a coalition of nations -- backed up by a United Nations mandate to enforce a "no-fly" zone -- have roared through Libyan skies on recent nights to destroy Gadhafi's military bases.

The exiled Libyans say reports of pro-Gadhafi rallies after coalition air strikes are state propaganda, calling genuine support for the colonel minimal in the country.

"Without the no-fly zone, he was this close to wiping out the nation," said Yousef, a 29-year-old advertising executive who was working in Libya before the rebellion.

Others agree, describing Gadhafi as an increasingly delusional figure whose days are numbered.

"He believes he's a legend," Anas said.

"But I think he will reach a point that he will not let anyone else kill him," Yousef chimed in. "He will kill himself."

Amid the aromas of coffee and shisha smoke at the brightly colored Dubai café, the young exiles say they realize they are so much luckier than their compatriots back in Libya.

"They're the ones who have sacrificed their lives," Hala said. "There's been too much sacrifice to allow someone else to come in, replace Gadhafi and do the same thing. We want a democracy and we want to vote for our next leader."

For now, they are counting down to the day when their motherland is no longer associated with a pariah leader. Despite coming from different tribes, they emphasize they are all Libyan first and foremost.

"My dream is to be able to live in my country," Hala said, as others at the table nodded. "For the first time, I realize, my god, we've got a chance here."

"It's a very simple dream -- just to go home."

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