New Brunswick

'When I opened the phone, he cried': Libyan immigrants frantic about war-torn city

Omar Garbi and Sagda Elnihum fled Derna, Libya, in 2014 for Canada. After an air strike tore into a civilian area Oct. 31, they are worried about their friends and family.

An air strike killed at least 17 and wounded dozens more in Derna, Libya, on Oct. 31

Omar Garbi and his family left Libya for Canada in 2014. In their native Derna, Libya, civil war has put friends and family in danger. (CBC)

For a family of Libyan immigrants in Fredericton, one phone call can be a vivid reminder of the violence in the country they fled —  and where friends and other family members still live.

"I received call from my friend," Omar Garbi said. "He phoned me. When I opened the phone, he cried, and he told me, 'Omar, my son's died,' and closed his phone."

The man was calling from Derna, Libya, the city Garbi and his wife, Sagda Elnihum, fled with their two children in 2014.

The city was hit by an air strike Oct. 31 that killed at least 17 and wounded more than 30 people. Many of the victims were children.

Friends and family in danger

Garbi tried calling his friend back for days afterwards to no response — but after the first phone call the family frantically took to the internet to find out had happened.

After seeing reports of an air strike, they became worried for family who still live in Derna.

"I'm feeling sad, and take a breath, and call my sister, try to call my sister three or four times," Elnihum said. "Nobody answers me. But when I see the names of the victims there, I say, 'Thank god my sister is not included.'"

Omar Garbi and Sagda Elnihum with their two children, Mustafa and Fatima. The family immigrated to Canada from Derna, Libya in 2014. (CBC)

Shortly after, she reached a friend in nearby Tobruk. He told her there are reports that 20 people are dead, and two houses destroyed. In one, women and children were having a party.

No group has claimed responsibility for the air strike.

Years of civil war

Derna is a city of 100,000 to 150,000 people in northeast Libya, about 275 kilometres west of the border with Egypt. 

It's a very, very miserable crisis against human rights in Libya.- Omar Garbi

It has been in a state of siege for more than a year, caught in the violence of Libya's second civil war since 2010.

As a result of the siege, Garbi said, his family cannot leave the city, and there is a shortage of basic necessities, including medical supplies.

Garbi wants people in Canada to know what's going on.

"The Canadian people, if they don't know about this situation, they don't try and do anything," he said. "It's a very, very miserable crisis against human rights in Libya."

Garbi and Elnihum brought their children to safety in Canada in 2014, and Garbi is doing a PhD in human rights.

The couple say they feel helpless so far away.

"If [I] pray for them, that is good," Garbi said. "I need only sharing."

Sharing makes things a little easier, he said.

With files from Catherine Harrop