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Colleen Fitzgerald '07 outside the Misrata Martyr Museum
in Misrata, Libya. The eagle was taken from the Gadhafi
compound in Tripoli. Below left, outside the Benghazi
courthouse, where families gathered to pray.

 

Colleen Fitzgerald ’07 Witnesses History in Libya

As a child growing up in a small Connecticut town, Colleen Fitzgerald ’07 dreamed of a career overseas, perhaps in the Peace Corps.

While at Providence College, she studied abroad in Spain and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. As part of her master’s degree in social work at Boston College, she served a six-month internship in Jordan, just as the Arab Spring was unfolding.

But it was in her next assignment — Libya — that Fitzgerald witnessed history.

In July 2011, Fitzgerald became one of the first American women to enter the country after the revolution that led to the downfall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. For 16 months, she traveled through a nation that had been closed to the world for four decades — without Western influences, with signs reading only in Arabic.

Fitzgerald worked with International Medical Corps, an American organization that has been a first responder to the world’s most volatile conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Iraq. Her job was to develop a training program for Libyan social workers who were supporting women and children affected by the conflict.

She dressed conservatively in the Arab country and worked to combat stereotypes to earn people’s trust. When she left in November 2012, two months after the attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi, it was with a heavy heart.

Since her return home, she finds herself educating people about Libya wherever she goes.

“I’m really protective of the country,” Fitzgerald said. “In every way I can, I try to explain that the people in Libya are good and that they want to improve their country.”

A commitment to service

The daughter of a police officer and a teacher, with a brother and a brother-in-law who served in Afghanistan, Fitzgerald grew up in a family dedicated to service.

At PC, she took many of her courses through the Feinstein Institute for Public Service, where she “learned the difference between service and charity, about building relationships with someone and not just giving them something.”

In Jordan, Fitzgerald worked in a community mental health program for Iraqi refugees, coaching, supporting, and mentoring Jordanian case managers and psychologists. When she finished the internship, she was offered a job in Libya.

She knew it came with risks. To prepare, she underwent security training in Pennsylvania, where she learned, for example, what to do if she was riding in a car and the driver was shot.

During her first months in Libya, as the civil war raged, she was stationed in Benghazi, a secure city at the time. 

“It was interesting to me to see how, in a country at war, life goes on,” said Fitzgerald. “People wake up and go to their jobs.”      

Asleep in Benghazi

As the civil war ended and Libya became more stable, Fitzgerald’s base shifted to Tripoli, but she continued to travel throughout the country, being driven to rural towns and flying back and forth between cities.

On September 11, 2012, when terrorists attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, Fitzgerald was five miles away, asleep in her agency’s compound.

She didn’t learn of the attack until morning, when she logged in to the BBC News. She called her supervisor in Tripoli and was advised to fly out of Benghazi immediately.

“I was sad and disappointed, but less concerned for my own safety,” Fitzgerald said. “There was a weird sensation in the city that day. Other workers and my Libyan friends kept calling me and saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I sent emails to my family and friends in the U.S., telling them, ‘This does not represent the country at all. The Libyan people loved Chris Stevens.’

“I met the ambassador,” Fitzgerald said. “He was a wonderful man.”

In the days after the attack, Libyan people told her, “We’re so much more than this,” Fitzgerald said. At rallies throughout the country, they held signs reading, “We’re sorry, America,” and “We will miss Christopher Stevens.”

A changed mood

After the attack, Fitzgerald’s family just wanted her to come home.

“I poured my heart and soul into the country for more than a year,” said Fitzgerald. “I sacrificed relationships, my time, my mental and physical health — all were given to this cause. To up and leave felt impossible.” 

So Fitzgerald stayed in Libya, working until her assignment ended in November. In her final months, security increased, and she sensed other changes as well.

When she arrived in the country, months before the overthrow of Gadhafi, “there was intense jubilation all over,” Fitzgerald said. “People had gained the freedom of expression, to say whatever they wanted. By the time we left, there was frustration and fatigue. The transition to democracy was going to be a long and difficult process.”

Since her return home, Fitzgerald has been traveling in the United States, visiting friends she’d missed during her overseas assignments and planning her next career move. 

During a visit to PC, she reflected on how “Civ” — PC’s required Development of Western Civilization Program — proved useful in her Middle East travels.

“The largest Roman ruins outside of Rome are in Libya,” said Fitzgerald. “Who knew?”  

 

— Vicki-Ann Downing

 
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