Guest blog by Karen McLuskie, Political Officer at the Embassy.
I arrived at our Embassy in Tripoli last week and the last thing I expected to be doing with my first afternoon was dancing at a St Andrew’s day celidh. With fifty men and only a handful of women to make up the sets, my dance card had been marked before my plane arrived and my mutterings about getting down to business were ignored. At the party, held in the Residence garden in the fading winter sunshine I realized that I should have been more gracious. The embassy staff here work seven days a week from early in the morning until late at night and a few hours of distraction were welcome to them and well deserved. Also, the Caledonian society has been a pillar of the local British community and it was an important moment to celebrate their resilience over the past 10 months.
This time last year there were about 3,500 British citizens registered with the Embassy. Most of the workers in the health and energy sectors rightly left in February and few have returned yet. However, a core group remained and although we at the FCO strongly advised them to leave and get out while they still could, on a personal level, its difficult not to admire their grit, or ‘smeddum’ as those in Aberdeenshire might call it. And certainly the Scots are well represented here. I met Karen Graham, a theatre nurse from Clydebank who had been working at a private hospital for Libyan and Foreign oil workers. When a third of the foreign nurses left overnight she found herself suddenly promoted Matron. When the chefs and the laundry workers stopped showing up for work she started cooking and washing sheets too, working 18 hour shifts. The hospital treated Qadhafis soldiers as well as rebel fighters but as Karen explains, “ As medical professionals we weren’t interested in our patients’ politics. They were just human beings needing our help. And although my sister was urging me to go home I knew that staying was the right thing to do. It was up to me to step up and try and help people.”
Her colleague David McGonigle, a hematologist from Paisely tells a similar story. Many revolutionaries were keen to donate blood for treating the wounded at the front line and he and his team helped by screening the blood donations. He is modest about this contribution but he told me how glad Libyans were to see that some foreigners had stayed. “Strangers would hug me in the street. I supposed they were just grateful that not everyone had abandoned them”.
David and others in the Caledonian Society also played an essential role in sorting out the chaos left behind by those forced to flee. They spent much of the £14,000 in charity money that they had raised over the previous year helping the Nigerian and Ghanian employees of British households get back to their countries. They managed to rescue some pets and rehome them and they also helped out some of the members of the British community that stayed but who lost their homes and possessions.
At the center of this community was George Orr. Originally from Dumferline, George has been in Libya for 35 years managing oil sector technical training courses for various companies. Many of the Brits that remained leaned on his broad shoulder for advice and support. He continues to run a weekly dinner club in his home where the community can gather and where, as he puts it, they play Trivial Pursuits even though they’ve been through the cards so many times now that everyone knows the answers. It is testament to George’s staying power that he was invited by the Ambassador to be the one to raise the flag when our Embassy was reestablished on 17th October – a role he had performed previously when the Embassy re-opened back in 1999 following the closure due to the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy in London.
The St Andrews day celebration was no doubt a much more modest affair that it had been in previous years but kilts twirling to Strip the Willow, and Karen and her fiancé cooking up fish and chips for everyone against the back drop of the burned out Ambassador’s former Residence was an inspiring picture of a shaken but undaunted community. I don’t know whether they brought their ‘smeddum’ with them from Scotland, or whether the Libyan revolutionaries inspired them, but it seems to me that Scots and Libyans would recognize in each other at the moment the same indomitable spirit and optimism as the process of building afresh in Libya begins.