Big stories can unfold in small places.

Recently I wandered into the welcoming Olive Tree Mediterranean Market looking for interesting international foods and perhaps, conversation. After browsing their intriguing variety of Middle Eastern dates, olive oils and sodas I felt compelled learn more about the gentleman working behind the counter.

He turned out to be the store’s owner and had moved to Ft. Collins in 2014 with his family from Libya.

Knowing a civil war was ravaging the country, I kindly asked if I could find out more about how he, his family and the store came to be here. In several conversations over tea and exotic international snacks, Taher Misurati shared his amazing story.

Taher Misurati, owner of Olive Tree Mediterranean Foods in Ft. Collins, CO

THE ARAB SPRING IN LIBYA  

Taher said it all started with the Arab Spring protests of 2011 that saw millions of people in the streets demanding better lives and the end to dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s reign.

Although Libya is Taher’s home country, he was living in Qatar at that time cultivating a great career as an airline pilot, flying commercial planes all over the world and enjoying a very comfortable lifestyle for himself and his family.

Taher with his Qatar Airways crew. He keeps this photo hanging behind the register.

This was taken after Taher’s last flight as a pilot, from London to Qatar.

Despite the fact that he wasn’t living there at the time Taher said he loved his country, and like so many around the world he was eager to see a new day arise for Libya 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 starting foundations for an airline industry 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 getting better.”

Unfortunately it wasn’t long before Libya took a dark turn toward 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 they 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 reject the revolution. 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. This video footage from Tripoli during that time captures well what Taher’s neighborhood was 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 where he lived 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. I put the details he relayed to me together and it became clear that the gangsters had tried to kill me.”

The gangs 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. The apartment was attacked a short time later. As you can see in these photos, there’s only one apartment out of all 28 that had been hit. That apartment is Taher’s.

 

 

Tanks fired at Taher’s place, leaving his apartment in flames and this gaping hole in the living room wall.

“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, 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 blasted through 3 walls – first through the wall of the living room, then the wall of my son’s room, then the wall of the kitchen.

Taher’s bombed living room.

“This giant steel thing from the tank was just sitting in my kitchen!”

 

Taher’s burned apartment. He of course felt lucky he wasn’t there when the tank hit.

“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 decided to return to Tripoli. Despite the hit on his life and his destroyed apartment he was determined that a great post-Gaddafi Libya was going to come to be and that he was going to be a part of it. But he had to admit that the peace and excitement that had occurred after the Arab Spring was becoming a fading memory.

Nevertheless, he began the process of repairing his home.

The fighting continued and even got worse while he worked on his apartment, as shown in this footage of Tripoli. The heavily armed gangsters had begun unleashing on the city.

Taher started to see that making his apartment livable again could be futile amidst the turn Tripoli seemed to be taking toward all-out war.

“I survived the first time I was there, but I wasn’t sure I’d survive the second. So I decided to 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 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 interesting Middle Eastern foods and snacks. Don’t hesitate to stop by and meet him if you’re in Ft. Collins.

 Driving Directions and Olive Tree Reviews on Yelp

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