UVA Community Responds to Libyan Humanitarian Crisis With Hearts and Minds

September 18, 2023 By Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu

The loss is staggering and the numbers hard to comprehend.

Students and professors in the University of Virginia community say the damage and destruction in Libya in the wake of dam collapses caused by a massive storm, and the ensuing humanitarian crisis that unfolded, is difficult to imagine.

“It’s hard to wrap our heads around,” said Nadeen Kattan, vice president of the Middle Eastern and North African Law Student Association.

Kattan was the lead organizer of a fundraiser Monday at the Law School aimed not only at helping victims of the Sept. 10 flooding in Libya, but also victims of the earthquake that struck days earlier in Morocco. Her group teamed up with the Muslim Law Students Association and the International Refugee Assistance Project.

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“The most impactful way we could show solidarity with those affected by these tragedies is to support them with the enormous task of rebuilding their lives,” she said.

Mediterranean storm Daniel collapsed two dams in eastern Libya, allowing 20-foot waves to breach the port city of Derna. Conflicting reports have emerged about the death toll; on Sunday, CNN reported at least 3,958 people were dead and more than 9,000 remained missing, citing figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The country estimates at least 30,000 residents were displaced from the city, which had a population of about 90,000, according to reports.

Kattan, whose family is originally Palestinian, grew up in Jordan, Abu Dhabi and then Arizona. She said she felt a strong emotional response to the disaster.

Nadeen Katten

Nadeen Kattan, vice president of the Middle Eastern and North African Law Student Association, coordinated the fundraising effort with the Muslim Law Students Association and the International Refugee Assistance Project. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“I felt hopeless and heartbroken when I heard the news,” she said. “I was looking for meaningful ways to lend a hand, and seeking the help of the UVA community was a way to do that.”

A Humanitarian Crisis Unfolds

Libya is dealing with a new crisis on top of multiple older ones, noted Kirsten Gelsdorf, a professor who worked with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs before coming to UVA. She is a professor of practice of public policy and leadership and the director of global humanitarian policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

The nation’s problems included the pre-existing collapse of civil institutions and conflict between warring factions. Families were already struggling as a result.

“There were already thousands of migrants, internally displaced people, and refugees living in the northeast, where the storm and floods hit. Before the storm, there were already over 300,000 people in Libya who were in need of humanitarian aid,” Gelsdorf said.

She added that about 880,000 people in five provinces live in areas directly affected by the storm and flash floods.

“One lesson that we are unfortunately learning is that when countries are struggling with ongoing insecurity, unexpected disasters driven by climate and degraded infrastructure are more likely to happen,” she said.

Conditions for Infectious Disease

As Libyans struggle to find clean food and water, Dr. William Petri, an international infectious disease expert, said gut infections could prove troublesome, with babies and young children being the most vulnerable.

Among his many roles at UVA, Petri serves as the Wade Hampton Professor of Medicine and performs on-the-ground health research and outreach in foreign nations.

“The breakdown in sanitation with flooding predictably leads to increased gastrointestinal infections, which are spread primarily by contaminated food, water and person-to-person transmission,” Petri said. “In just one example, as part of our UVA-Bangladesh collaboration, we have discovered that infection with cryptosporidium – a parasite that causes diarrhea – is most common during monsoons.”

He added that a key part of disaster relief should entail providing clean water for all and rehydration solutions for those with diarrhea.

“Infants are especially susceptible to diarrhea and deserve special attention,” he said.

Dams Serve as Cautionary Reminder

Right away, Libya will need an extraordinary influx of funds to cover its most pressing human needs. Then it will need more, to cover the costs of reliable infrastructure that will prevent such floods in the future.

Jonathan Goodall teaches in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and is the director of Engineering School’s Link Lab. He reflected on what he’s observed via news reports.

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“From my understanding, there was a dam that had not been inspected recently, and there were questions about its maintenance,” he said. “At the same time, they received a lot of rain in a short period of time. The dam that failed was not too far upstream from the city, so there was limited time to warn people once the dam showed signs of failing.”

As Libya looks to rebuild its dam system, Goodall says other nations, including the U.S., should examine their own safeguards. Maintenance and preparedness are a lesson for every nation, he said.

“It is important to know that dams in the U.S. have been given a grade of ‘D’ by the American Society of Civil Engineering,” he said. “For me, it is largely about how we invest and maintain our civil infrastructure to avoid tragedies like this. That’s a problem for many countries, and it is especially challenging for those with fewer resources.”

A Community of Caring and Giving

Kattan, the law student, anticipates that diverse student groups on Grounds will continue to bring awareness to the human needs that remain unfilled, and encourage their classmates to give generously.

“Fundraisers and relief efforts provide an opportunity to create a bridge of solidarity between communities, showing that people from different parts of the world can come together to support one another in times of need,” she said. “This strengthens the sense of a global community.”

She said the three Law School groups are deciding to which organizations they’ll donate to have the most impact. Among the charities directing relief to the country are UNICEF, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and GlobalGiving.

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Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications