Escape From Libya

As many of you know from Facebook, or personal emails, our good family friend and neighbor out in the desert, Paula Raymond, was among those Americans working in Libya when the current political revolt struck.  It was touch and go for days, but thank God she is home safe and sound now. 

Here is her story from the local newspaper,  the Hi-Desert Star:


Paula Libya
Teacher finds camaraderie, chaos while fleeing country
By Jimmy Biggerstaff
Hi-Desert Star

TRIPOLI, Libya — A former Morongo Unified School District teacher was part of the recent evacuation of Americans from Libya because of civil unrest there. Paula Raymond taught third grade at Oasis Elementary School in Twentynine Palms for 11 years before accepting a teaching assignment last fall in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Raymond described how American Embassy representatives organized a town hall meeting Feb. 15 to review events happening in Benghazi, the center of the civil rebellion against Libya’s government. The officials evaluated the situation then as a low-level threat.

“On this same day,” Raymond said, “all of the other foreign schools in Tripoli closed. Wednesday, everyone was skittish. After school I checked my gas tank and water supply at home.”

Raymond said two days later, half of her students didn’t show up for class because of the political and military tensions. In a local Turkish restaurant, a small group met to discuss events.

“We were concerned about the optimistic official report when clearly conditions were deteriorating. It was the last normal day for all of us in Tripoli.”

The teachers lived in villas scattered throughout Tripoli.

“During the night, we heard the first disturbances in our area,” Raymond said. “Watching from our flat roof, a group of young men were shouting and throwing blocks. I felt very vulnerable.

“On Saturday, I packed my backpack and laptop. In the afternoon, I dyed my roots — priorities in a crisis,” Raymond noted dryly. “Only about half of the shops were open that day.”

The teachers were instructed Sunday to bring their overnight bags and be prepared to spend the night at school.

“Our school is surrounded by a high wall — typical Mediterranean architecture. We had three guards at the two gates, so we’d be somewhat protected,” Raymond said. “My group arrived just fine; the other was not as lucky. They were stopped by the new armed-guard checkpoints.

“At the 8:15 a.m. meeting, it was announced we were on our own to escape from the country. The embassy would try to help us, and the school board — all three who were found — would reimburse us later on. We sat in stunned silence.

“We spent all morning trying to get connections from the reduced communications. By 2:30 p.m., one teacher borrowed a Magic Jack and made a connection through Expedia. I felt a hundred pounds lighter.”

Shadowing their joy were rumors the airport would close.

As the teachers tried to get some sleep at the school, they heard gunshots firing throughout the night.

Not by air, but over choppy sea

“On Tuesday, our principal announced we would all fly out together tomorrow. We spent the remainder of the day completing student records,” Raymond said.

One of two teachers who were able to leave from the airport that day relayed to her colleagues the chaos she found on the way to her 4 a.m. flight. “The luggage carousel was broken, the staff was skeletal, armed guards weren’t allowing anyone inside without confirmed tickets, the road was lined with desperate people trying to escape,” Raymond said.

People who were able to get to the airport helped each other as best they could.

“Another young family had their flight cancelled, but a school secretary spotted them and got them aboard her chartered UN flight,” Raymond recalled. “One oil company representative told me later he was arrested and jailed at the airport because he was carrying passports from escapees out in the field who’d left them at the office.”

Back at the school, two teachers assumed kitchen duty, making a hot pasta dinner that Ramond said helped the group’s morale tremendously.

“On Wednesday, they served Libyan Surprise. I helped peel, cut and slice veggies and fruits — no easy task with a butter knife.”

The teachers learned they wouldn’t be escaping by air after all — their flight was cancelled. Instead, they were scheduled to depart Wednesday via Maltese ferry. Chartered vans took them downtown.

“There were about 285 passengers on the ferry. Most of the phones didn’t work. There were a dozen laptops that did; the oil company guys had the right attachments and shared them with all of us. It was a relief to get messages to our families.”

The crew kept the travelers fed, the facilities clean and the bathrooms running, but there was deprivation everywhere. “There were babies with no diapers, young girls with no monthly supplies, kids with no toys,” she said.

“The captain determined we could leave Friday afternoon. It was the trip from hell, 8.5 hours battling 15-foot waves, 12-knot winds. Many people fell and were injured; one teacher was hospitalized. We arrived in Malta just before midnight.

Grateful for a flight and freedom

“The Maltese government was beyond overtime. There were 5,000 refugees just the day we arrived. There was a box meal for each of us, bank representatives to change money into Euros and a travel representative. My group wound up in the red light district, but I was grateful for a mattress as we’d all slept on the floor for the past five nights.”

Raymond wore the same clothes for 11 days.

“I had on four shirts, two pair of pants, two pairs of socks. I had a scarf, thank goodness — it kept the lights out of my eyes as I slept on the floor of the ferry.”

The ferry offered pre-wrapped sandwiches, soda and “the world’s worst coffee.” Raymond ate two hot meals during the 11-day ordeal.

“Saturday, we went to a travel agent to make onward arrangements. My ATM card was frozen as a routine security precaution, so I only got flights to Los Angeles International. I arrived Sunday and found my family had made reservations for me. My neighbors, Steve and Kathy Sahl, even drove all the way to LAX to make sure I wasn’t stranded.

“Though I had to leave behind a 20-year collection of professional goods, this has certainly reminded of what’s really important: That I am lucky to live in a democratic country that allows true freedom of speech.”

Raymond was philosophical about her adventure, and about the loss of family heirlooms including her late husband’s chiming mantle clock, her mom’s 1950s-era cookbook and silverware given to her by her dad.

“What I am most grateful for are the friendships that have now been permanently bonded through the sharing of this difficult and adventurous week,” Raymond said.

“What I regret most besides the loss of the sentimental objets d’art left behind, is the loss of control over my daily life and this terrible feeling of being in limbo. We all assumed we’d be taken care of. It was a big lesson to learn.”

Raymond’s future is uncertain. She is applying for other overseas teaching positions.

The teacher said one of the questions she will ask any potential future employer about is details of their evacuation plan.

I’m happy to report that Paula’s proud American adverturous spirt is intact.  She’s accepted a new position for next year in  a location most Americans couldn’t find on a map.