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Feeling anguish for their homelands; With upheaval across the Arab world, those now here identify with revolutionary stories written in blood

They watch. They worry. They pray.

Many count their friends, living and dead, and wish that they could be standing shoulder to shoulder with them in the Middle East rather than living a safe and quiet life here.

"I don't want to stay here," said Ramadan Ali, 40, a Libyan graduate student in Buffalo. "I have my country, and I'm sure it needs me. I hope to change the regime and go back and help, and use the experience from this freedom country, the United States of America, to try and free Libya."

Ali and other local immigrants referred to the "winds of change," the ongoing and turbulent drama that could forever reshape the political landscape in the Middle East. Protests, rebellions and calls for revolution have swept through the region, comprising more than a dozen countries now grappling with unrest.

What started as a revolutionary spark in Tunisia, was carried to its height in Egypt and has since inspired anti-government, anti-corruption and anti-poverty protests throughout neighboring countries with assistance from social networking and other online technology.

"Iraqis are trying to follow in the footsteps of Egyptians and let the world know what is going on through Internet and Facebook," said Kamal Jabar, a former Town of Tonawanda resident who now organizes protests in Iraq. "Imagine, under Saddam, having a satellite TV was a crime."

Immigrants and international students in this area have followed every piece of news from their home countries, watching Arabic and international news channels, surfing online and following protest developments through Facebook.

Some revel in victory. Others mourn friends as the days pass, with more and more protesters and other civilians paying for their desire for a better life in blood.

>Libya

Ali, a graduate student in electrical engineering at the University at Buffalo who comes from the now war-ravaged Libyan city of Zawiya, recounted the many atrocities he has followed in his home country as dictator Moammar Gadhafi fights back against his opposition.

"I have lost 60 of my friends," he said. "I know them by name."

One of those friends, Luay Lyas, was a civil engineering student who graduated from UB last year and was watching the fighting from a rooftop in the city of Derna, he said. A sniper shot him Feb. 20.

Every day, Ali said, more people die at the hands of Gadhafi's forces.

When he spoke with The Buffalo News a couple weeks of ago, his voice was filled with energy and hope for his home country. But that was before Gadhafi's forces overran and ravaged his hometown.

Gadhafi's forces shut down the city's only hospital, killed patients and rounded up the physicians.

"They took all the doctors, because they did their job -- they helped the wounded people -- and we don't know where he took them," Ali said.

Mercenary forces have gone from door-to-door, committing unspeakable atrocities on innocent civilians, he said.

Ali spoke of images he has seen of children killed in the city of Misurata, then told the story of an old neighbor in Zawiya. One night 2 1/2 weeks ago, a band of 30 or 40 Gadhafi forces came to his door, saying they needed to search his home for weapons.

The man, who lived there with his wife and five daughters ranging in age from 14 to 22, pleaded with the intruders, saying he had no weapons. They came in, anyway, ransacked his house and stole all its valuables.

"Then they raped all five of his daughters in front of his eyes," Ali said.

The father was so anguished by the sight, he said, that he suffered a heart attack on the spot and died. Ali's own family has fled from the city to the countryside.

This is not the way the protests in Libya were supposed to go, he said. But Gadhafi's willingness to shed the blood of his own people has reduced the country to civil war.

His friend, UB dental student Khalid Shaikhi, 36, comes from Benghazi, the birthplace of the current revolt, where opposition forces have created their own provisional government.

Benghazi has had a history of brutal victimization under Gadhafi's regime.

The residents of that city have not forgiven Gadhafi for the Abu Salim prison massacre of 1996. Human rights agencies believe that 1,270 inmates, including many held for political reasons, were ushered into prison yards and gunned down over the course of several hours after inmates rioted in response to their inhumane treatment.

There isn't a street in this city, Shaikhi said, where residents haven't lost a neighbor or friend to imprisonment, disappearance or death over the last 40 years.

He expressed contempt for Gadhafi's relative success in recent years, prior to the current conflict, at remaking the country's image as a more progressive and Western-friendly nation when political freedom is still nonexistent and corruption runs rampant.

Like other Arab countries, Libya is rich in resources and outside investment, but the majority of the people are poor, and basic infrastructure needs are going unmet, Shaikhi said.

"I know some streets in my city take more than 25 years to complete," he said. "That's crazy."

Although a United Nations resolution has led to a no-fly zone in Libya and military action by a U.S.-led coalition to halt the advance of Gadhafi forces, Libyans living in the United States fear that it won't be enough to thwart Gadhafi's quest for revenge.

"It came so late," Ali despaired. "He killed all the hope in us. We don't know what we're going to do."

Though both Ali and Shaikhi are married with young children here, they said they yearn to return home, and find it difficult to pursue academics when their extended families and friends are so invested in freeing their own countries.

No matter how long it takes, they said, one day Libya will be free.

"He cannot reach our soul," Ali said of Gadhafi. "He cannot do that. He cannot reach our soul. We're going to fight him, no problem. We must do it."

>Egypt

Local Egyptians also wish to return to their homeland to participate in the remaking of their nation as open and democratic.

One of the few bright spots on the landscape of the Arab world, the comparatively peaceful revolution in Egypt, led to the abdication of 30-year President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 after 18 days of protests.

"Things were going from bad to worse, so a revolution was bound to happen," said Adel Sadek, a UB associate engineering professor. "I think a lot of it had to do with the media and the press, because obviously, the whole world was watching. The government and the ruling party knew they couldn't hide things anymore."

The most populous country in the Arab world, with a well-educated middle class, Egyptians protested their increasing slide into poverty in a country otherwise known for its history of civilization, tourism and wealth.

The protests in Egypt didn't just start in late January, said Rubie Ghazal, a writing teacher at Niagara University and UB graduate student. They simply grew and grew through a youth movement connected through Facebook.

Before coming to the United States to study in 2009, Ghazal said, she taught at the American University in Cairo. As a teacher in Egypt for 15 years, she said, she and her fellow instructors have taught thousands of students to find their voice and speak against injustice.

"Yes, we took part in the revolution," Ghazal said. "We took part in the protests even though we weren't there. Our students -- we were able to help them find a voice because we helped them find out who they were. They didn't accept the status quo."

Like other local Egyptians, Mohammad Salem Agwa, watched the unfolding revolution with joy.

"I was watching day and night, all the channels," said Agwa, president of the Islamic Cultural Center in Niagara Falls and an Arabic culture and language professor at Niagara U.

As someone who travels to Egypt just about every year since coming to live in the United States in 1992, he had been astonished by the growing and rampant corruption and abuse of human rights in recent years.

"Now it's time for the people to wake up," he said, "to feel their own freedom."

>Iraq

Kamal Jabar seems determined to follow in his father's footsteps. Jabar's father was tortured and killed in Iraq for insulting dictator Saddam Hussein in 1970. He was 34.

Jabar, 50, has already been beaten once for organizing a protest in Baghdad on Feb. 19 and pitching a tent in Iraq's Tahrir (Liberty) Square. Military police tore down the tent and assaulted him and five others inside. One died of his injuries.

The U.S. citizen reflected on the fact that he has lived longer than his own father and become an absentee parent since 2003, when he started working for the U.S. government during the Iraq War. He now operates a radio station there.

Jabar, also known locally as Steve Sharrif, speaks six languages and earned the Army's Superior Civilian Service Award in 2007 for his service as a cultural adviser and translator to the U.S. envoy and generals there.

"When Saddam was there, I fought against Saddam to get rid of him," he said, "to get to the same result I'm hoping to get [now] -- a peaceful, democratic, secular and united Iraq. When that is not there, you will not see me sitting here being happy."

Jabar is reluctantly in town this month for a court appearance. He was one of two charged in 2009 for misusing $65,000 from a U.N. grant to start a Baghdad radio station that promotes women's rights.

He said he has U.S. generals ready to testify on his behalf and expects to be fully exonerated. In the meantime, he has been meeting with elected officials in Washington, D.C., and New York to help gain more U.S. support for Iraqi protesters.

"The level of corruption in Iraq is unimaginable -- $40 billion out of Iraqi's national budget for 2011 disappeared," he said, "and nobody's holding the Iraqi government accountable."

Iraq may not be the dictatorship it was under Saddam, but if the Iraqi people don't demand government reforms, it may very well become one, he said.

Jabar still suffers pain in his left arm and left leg, and doctors fear that he has broken bones in his face. He plans to smuggle himself back into Iraq in time for planned protests in April even though he has heard there's a warrant out for his arrest, he said.

"Honestly, I don't know if I will survive one more time going back to Iraq," he said. "I have children here, and I'm a proud American citizen. I would like to come here and live in peace, but my priority right now is to win Iraq back."

Not every local Iraqi remains so committed to their homeland. Some have given up hope.

One Iraqi refugee who landed stateside with his family in September after being subjected to kidnapping and a car bombing in his home country. The former Iraqi newspaper reporter, who asked to be identified only as Dorrai, had spent three years as a print journalist.

Because he occasionally made use of the same facilities used by American reporters to file his stories, he said, he became a government target. He was kidnapped and questioned for a couple of months about his association with foreign reporters and was finally released when he promised to leave the country.

At age 40, Dorrai, his wife and his five children are now homeless refugees in Buffalo. They had been initially resettled in Queens but found it too expensive to live there.

Safety is all Dorrai wants, he said. Despite his weak grasp of English, that one word he repeated over and over.

He doesn't want to know people like Jabar. He doesn't want to meet any other Iraqis here, and he doesn't believe that the government leaders in Iraq will ever come to care for their own people enough to provide them clean water and electricity. "I don't think it will make a change," Dorrai said of the protests there. "This is not Egypt or Tunisia."

>Yemen

Like the other Arab countries in turmoil, Yemen is a country of wealth with too many people who remain poor and lack basic government services. While the country's president has promised sweeping changes, many protesters remain unsatisfied.

Abdul Noman, 51, a First Ward councilman for the City of Lackawanna who came here as a teenager, said his home country's government is corrupt. "We should not be poor," he said of the people in Yemen. "We have oil. We have gas. We have the sea."

Noman, who has lived here since 1975 and serves as the director of the Lackawanna Soccer Club, said Yemenites have lived in Lackawanna since the 1940s. About 5,000 live in the city now and continue to follow the happenings in their former homeland.

"They watch the news through the other international stations and CNN," he said. "It's easier now than it was before. They watch it live."

Ali Fadhel, 42, of Buffalo, said the constitutional and parliamentary reforms recently pledged by 32-year President Ali Abdullah Saleh are encouraging and long overdue.

These concessions, however, have only emboldened some protesters who now seek the president's resignation. Fadhel expressed concern that the ongoing protests will ultimately cause more harm than good.

A Yemeni immigrant who came to the United States 16 years ago, Fadhel said there are so many political and tribal factions in his country that he's worried that continued calls for the resignation of the president will lead to increasing violence and destabilize the country's unified government.

That appears to be the way the wind is blowing right now. A recent crackdown on protesters led to the death of more than 50 people. Some military and elected leaders then joined the opposition. Saleh has recently talked about finding a face-saving way to step down.

Fadhel worries that the power struggle for the president's seat is bound to get uglier in the coming weeks.

"The country is going to blow up," he said. "It's going to be bad."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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