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Alleged Libyan rape victim struggling to start anew in America

By Suzanne Malveaux and Moni Basu, CNN
updated 3:17 PM EST, Tue December 13, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eman al-Obeidi arrived in the United States in July
  • It has been hard to get a job, learn a new language, adapt to a new culture
  • She bought a one-way ticket to seek help at the Libyan Embassy in Washington
  • Al-Obeidi says Moammar Gadhafi's militiamen gang-raped her

Washington (CNN) -- Hers is a struggle shared by all freshly arrived refugees in the United States. Learning English. Getting a job. Adapting to American culture.

But starting life anew has been that much tougher for Eman al-Obeidi, the woman who came to embody the cruelty of Moammar Gadhafi's regime in the midst of Libya's brutal civil war. She lives every day with the scars of the rape she alleges was committed by Gadhafi's thugs.

Sometimes, she said in an exclusive interview with CNN, she gets so depressed that she doesn't leave her apartment for days. Other times, she can't even get out of bed for three or four days.

"I cry all the time just like little children," she says wiping dry her moist eyes. "And I always smile, too."

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Al-Obeidi found relief on these shores when she arrived here last summer. She finally felt safe, unlike in Libya, where she felt constantly in danger and her family was threatened.

But she has found it hard to make ends meet. She said she has been going to the employment office for four months but job opportunities have been slim.

"When I came, I never imagined life would be this hard," she said. "As we say in Libya, you have to kill yourself working. I wish there was work. There are no work opportunities."

Her family in Libya sends her $300 a month. Without that, she said, she would not have made it so far.

Out of desperation, last week, al-Obeidi bought a one-way ticket from Colorado to Washington with money from an Iraqi family. She had all but $100 in her bag; she used $65 of it and took a taxi to the Libyan Embassy in Washington.

She came with a distrust of politicians and diplomats but with hope in her heart that her compatriots would not turn her away. But Libyan Ambassador Ali Aujali, she said, spoke to her like a father.

He offered her an educational stipend. And health insurance.

"It means everything to me," she said, opening up an envelope containing check for $1,800.

"It's not about whether it's a lot or little. It's about the time that I got it," she said.

It was like winning the lottery. Otherwise, she might have wound up on the street in a few days.

Aujali said he thought al-Obeidi needs help.

"I told her one thing," he said. "You have to close the doors to the past and look to the future. She cannot live in misery the rest of her life."

Al-Obeidi first caught the world's attention in March when she burst into Tripoli's Rixos Hotel, where foreign journalists were staying, and publicly accused members of Gadhafi's forces of gang-raping her.

She was hysterical. She screamed that she had been taken from a checkpoint and held against her will for two days while being beaten and raped by 15 of Gadhafi's militiamen.

Security officials said al-Obeidi was "mentally ill" and was being taken to a "hospital." They dragged her unceremoniously to a waiting white car and whisked her away. She wasn't heard from for more than a week, but eventually in media interviews, she spoke of her ordeal.

She fled to Tunisia in May with the help of a defected military officer and the Libyan rebels, then in the thick of civil war. She found temporary sanctuary in Qatar before being granted asylum in the United States.

Al-Obeidi arrived in New York at the end of July and with the help of a refugee agency, she was resettled in Colorado.

She has no family in the United States, and she would perhaps like to return to her homeland one day.

"Of course, there is no one who doesn't wish to go back to his country," she said. "But I am not mentally ready for that. I also feel personally I am not ready to integrate back into society, I am not ready. I feel life is hard for me because it is different -- in culture ... language -- everything is different here."

Al-Obeidi cannot know the twists and turns her life will take from here. She wants to finish schooling. Marry. Five years from now, she pictures herself as a mother.

One thing she knows though. If and when she returns home, it will be to a Libya without Gadhafi.

She just wishes Gadhafi had met proper justice. She felt his killers did him a favor by ending his life. In the eyes of some, he became a martyr.

"They shouldn't have given him this honor," she said.

He should have been tried for his crimes, she said -- for what he did to the people of Libya, for what he did to her.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux reported from Washington and Moni Basu reported from Atlanta. CNN's Khalil Abdallah contributed to this report.

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