Amidst the gentrification currently spreading over our landscapes, there is nothing better than small places with some grit around the edges that are owned by everyday people who you can talk to and get to know. Like this.
I wandered into this store – Olive Tree – here in Ft. Collins, CO one day, to just chat with a stranger and to check out their interesting international products. It turns out the owner and his family were from Libya, and had moved to Ft. Collins in 2014.
Curious about their story and knowing a civil war was ravaging the country, I arranged to sit down with the owner, Taher Misurati, and find out exactly how he, his family and the store all came to be here. In several hangouts over coffee, tea and snacks, this amazing story unfolded.
THE ARAB SPRING IN LIBYA
Taher said it all started with the Arab Spring protests in 2011, which saw millions of people in the streets demanding better lives and the end to dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s corrupt reign.
Although Libya is Taher’s home country, he was living in Qatar at that time, cultivating an amazing career as an airline pilot – flying commercial planes all over the world and enjoying a great lifestyle for himself and his family.
But Taher said he loved his country, and like so many around the world he was eager to see a new day arise for people after Gaddafi was gone.
“I really wanted to go back to Libya and rebuild my country,” he said. “I wanted to make Libya the place everybody knew it could be. So, I left everything I had in Qatar – great job, great salary, great apartment, and went back to Libya.
MOVING LIBYA FORWARD AFTER THE REVOLUTION
“Once I arrived, I began working as an operations manager for an aviation holding company, where I worked with lots of airlines and tried to build up the airline industry in Libya,” Taher said.
“I know a lot of people in the business. I worked hard, and was able to bring people into it all. We were able to lay some important foundational things for an airline industry to get going, and even make plans for some dream projects. I helped design an international airport that included a runway that jutted out into the Mediterranean.”
Taher described the time just after the Arab Spring as a promising and magical time for Libya.
“Everything was going great. People were expecting our economy, which had impoverished people under Gaddafi for decades, to be on par with Europe’s in 4 – 5 years. We were very happy people. We were putting the past behind us. We were dancing, singing and partying in the streets. We had 2 great years after the Arab Spring where everything was really going up and getting better.”
Unfortunately though, it wasn’t long before Libya took a dark turn toward serious unrest.
GADDAFI’S GANGSTERS RETURN
“All the while, the gangsters of Gaddafi – the people who were loyal to him when he ruled – were organizing themselves. Soon, they returned. And they started to hit back against those who had taken him down. All of my hard work and those plans for the airport got tossed away,” Taher said.
“What did the gangsters do? What was it like when they came back?” I asked.
“They would not let the country settle down and civilize like we were trying to do. They wanted to come back into power. And, they wanted revenge against everyone who took Gaddafi out.
“They made things as terrible for people as possible. The idea was to get average people to hate the Arab Spring, so they’d miss the days of Gaddafi and think the revolution was stupid. So, they made sure there was no money in the banks. No gas at the gas stations. No electricity for the whole day sometimes. Life got very expensive. And dangerous. You’d hear about somebody getting killed, somebody getting murdered.”
A STREET WAR ERUPTS
Violence in Taher’s city of Tripoli grew and became more intense, and Taher could see that a collapse of civility and safety was on its way.
“I can remember during one Ramadan dinner I sat down with my brother’s family to break our fast with a delicious soup. We were just about to eat when fighting started. It was downstairs, in our apartment complex, between the government and militias. Gunfire. Tanks. It was so loud, so close, you had the feeling that someone with those weapons was right next to you, that they were coming straight to you.”
I mentioned that most Americans had no idea what it was like to live through war.
“Living through war is terrible. You cannot imagine! You cannot imagine. It’s not like it is watching it in the movies. You can SMELL the gunpowder. You can SMELL the blood. You are always scared. You never know who’s going to die next.”
The conflict heated up, and tanks and gunfire began filling his neighborhood. Taher could see he might not survive if he stayed there. Check out this video footage of Tripoli at that time. This is what Taher’s neighborhood was basically like.
FLEEING TRIPOLI, AVERTING MURDERERS
Taher decided to leave his home in Tripoli to live with his brother in a house his family owned about 10 miles outside the city, around some of Libya’s farmlands.
He had to be careful getting out of town, though.
“There is a city in Libya called Misrata, and the people who hailed from that city had launched a heavy offense against Gaddfi during his ousting. So, gangsters were roaming the streets of Tripoli looking for people from Misrata, and killing them based on identity. As you can see from my name, Taher Misurati, I am from Misrata. I knew they would be targeting me.
“I lived near the airport, which of course was a strategic location the fighters wanted to control. I found out that near there was a blockade of the gangsters who would have seen my identity, kidnapped me and killed me.”
Taher found a different way out of Tripoli and luckily was able to get out. He set up his life in the basement of his family’s house outside Tripoli, and lived there with his brother for what would turn into 3 – 4 months.
AN ATTEMPT ON HIS LIFE
On an out-of-town trip for an engagement party, Taher got a call that would be the beginning of the end of his efforts to rebuild Libya and create a life there.
“A friend called me while I was driving around with my wife and told me my apartment had been hit by tanks and was burning down. I put the details of what he had to say together, and I knew the gangsters had tried to kill me.”
The gangs out hunting down Misratans in Tripoli had nearly caught up with Taher. Taher’s friend informed him that armed men had asked his building’s doorperson if a pilot from Misrata resided there, and the doorman replied with a yes. A short time later, the apartment was attacked. As you can see in these photos, there’s only one apartment out of 28 here that had been hit, and it is Taher’s.
“I was so upset! I couldn’t really drive. I didn’t know what to do! I was out of the area so I couldn’t do anything. I lost my way, I got out of the car and was just standing there, I was so upset.
“My friend asked if he could break into the apartment, so he could gather neighbors and try to put the fire out. I told him, go ahead – I didn’t know what to do! So he broke into the place and started putting the fires out.
“He said a bomb from a tank had hit through 3 walls – the wall of the living room, then the wall of my son’s, and then the wall of the kitchen.
“This giant steel thing from the tank was just sitting in my kitchen!”
“My friend went into the bedroom and found a huge mess. Some kids – bad guys, stupid guys – had ravaged my room. It was all upside down.
LEAVING LIBYA FOR COLORADO
Taher returned from his short trip. Despite the hit on his life and his destroyed apartment he was still determined that a great post-Gaddafi Libya was going to happen and that he was going to be a part of it. But the peace and giddiness that occurred after the Arab Spring was becoming a fading memory.
Nevertheless, he began the process of repairing his place.
While he tried to fix it up, the fighting unfortunately continued, and even got worse. Here’s another video clip of Tripoli, as the heavily armed gangsters unleashed on the city.
Taher wanted to get back into his home, but even if he repaired everything he knew he’d be rolling the dice with his life if he went back to live in Tripoli again.
“I survived the first time I was there, but I wasn’t sure I’d survive the second time. I decided to just get out of there all together and go be with my kids, in the United States – here in Ft. Collins.”
FT. COLLINS, OLIVE TREE AND A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA
“I had visited Ft. Collins before and knew it was a nice, quiet place, and 3 of my kids were already living here. I’d been coming to the United States and visiting since the 1970s and I liked it. Americans are some of the best people in the world. So, I left and came here.
“I got connected with the store here once I arrived. It has been owned by 3 different Libyan families. Now, I’m running it. I’m the 4th.”
For awhile Taher had hoped he’d return to his Tripoli apartment and continue his dream of rebuilding Libya. After 42 years of enduring Gaddafi, there isn’t much that means more to him than that.
“I really thought I would just be here 1 month, 3 or 4 months, just till things settle down, then I thought I’d go back.
“But the fighting has just continued, and gotten so bad, so bad. After awhile I could see that I was not just visiting here anymore. I was going to move to the United States. Finally I decided to apply for asylum.
“Now I’ve been here about 5 years.”
After reflecting on all this I couldn’t imagine how Taher could have had his life destroyed, his dreams taken away and been through so much terror without being deeply angry and resentful about it all.
“Yeah. It’s disappointing, losing so much. I was forced to do all of this! I was living very happily in Qatar before all of this happened. Now, as things are, I have no country. Nothing I can do about it.”
Taher mostly draws on his religious faith to get through it all.
“You have to take life as it is. Life is difficult, and we are here to learn things. It’s a big class, every day is different. You don’t get to refuse what is written for you,” he said.
“When I lived in Qatar and everything was great and we had everything, I used to tell my kids: this is not reality. Don’t forget – anything can happen. You can go from rich to poor. But no matter what happens, you have to be able to find your way.”
TAHER’S WORDS OF WISDOM
I asked Taher if he had any advice for people after his experiences living through Gaddafi, the Arab Spring, war, and all of this.
“First, a bad guy might pull up to your house and take something from your yard. Next, he parks his car in your driveway. Next he might come in the kitchen and make himself some food. Next, he’s reaching into your wallet and taking your credit card. Before you know it, he’s watching TV in your living room and taking over your house while you’re locked outside standing in the front yard wondering what the hell happened.
“It starts small. And for some bad leaders, as they get a little bit of power and start doing things in the world, they love it and become amazed at what they can do. And so, they take more and more power.
“Soon, they think they are God, and are doing whatever they want with no limits. The things Gaddafi did to people were unspeakable and outrageous. He got to the point where he didn’t care about humanity at all and did exactly as he pleased.
“So: stop it from the very beginning. Don’t go down this road. Period. If you see someone in government doing something wrong, stand up and say something the second you see it. Never ignore bad behavior from leaders, not for a moment. Speak up and speak out!
“Always fight for your freedom to do this!”
VISIT TAHER AND OLIVE TREE IN FT. COLLINS
Taher loves meeting new people, telling stories about Libya and showing customers cool Middle Eastern foods and snacks. Don’t hesitate to stop by and meet him if you’re in Ft. Collins.