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Libyan researcher Ayat Mneina at home in Brantford, on Sept. 15.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Before she went to bed on Sunday, Ayat Mneina scrolled through her social-media feed, noticing several of her relatives in Libya make mention of a storm headed their way. The worst of it, they said, was likely to hit further west of them.

Ms. Mneina has lived in Canada since the age of six, after moving to Winnipeg with her parents. But Libya, her birthplace, holds a large piece of her heart. Almost all of her extended family live in the eastern city of Derna, and much of her life has been spent travelling between the two countries and cultures.

So when Ms. Mneina woke up on Monday to learn that overnight, Storm Daniel had devastated eastern Libya – and that Derna had been in the eye of the storm – she was horrified. The social-media feeds from her aunts and uncles and cousins had gone silent.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “The stuff of nightmares.”

For Canada’s small but tight-knit Libyan diaspora, this has been a week of dread and grief. Almost 8,000 Canadians originate from Libya, according to the 2021 census. And from thousands of kilometres away, many have spent the week watching the catastrophe unfold, all the while desperately trying to track down the whereabouts of loved ones.

The news has trickled out slowly: Two dams in Derna had collapsed overnight on Sunday, releasing a torrent of flood waters into the city. Entire apartment buildings and city blocks were washed away. In a city with a population of just 90,000, at least 11,000 have been confirmed dead. Another 10,000 are missing.

In recognition of this, federal Minister of International Development Ahmed Hussen promised $5-million in emergency humanitarian assistance for Libya on Friday.

In Ms. Mneina’s family, the death toll is at least three. An uncle died when the apartment building he was living in – the same apartment Ms. Mneina stayed in during a visit just last year – crumbled in the storm. Two other cousins have also died.

And that’s only what she’s been able to piece together so far. Emergency officials in the city, including its search and rescue teams, have been completely overwhelmed.

“Entire families, lineages and histories have been erased,” said Ms. Mneina.

She’s haunted by the fact that it happened while her relatives were sleeping.

“Their last moments would have been filled with fear,” she said. “I can’t imagine what that sounds like in the dark.”

In some cases, images from social media have amplified the horror among diaspora communities.

Zehra Buzreba, a Libyan-Canadian who splits her time between Calgary and Houston, Tex., has spent countless hours this week immersed in images from Derna. One of her father’s cousins died this week in the flood.

In photos: Mediterranean storm Daniel caused deadly flooding in towns across Libya but the worst hit was Derna

She described images of bodies piled up against sidewalks. Videos of men and women sobbing on the streets. “They’re saying ‘It smells like death,’ ” she said. “It’s just overwhelming.”

It’s also brought back painful memories from the 2011 uprising in Libya. Then, too, Libyan Canadians found themselves inundated by gruesome images, and similarly consumed with feelings of anxiety, helplessness and guilt.

“This is not new, unfortunately,” said Ms. Mneina. “It’s a mix of things. You’re sad. You’re devastated for the loss. You’re relieved for those who survived. And you’re horrified for the reality that they had to live through and will continue to carry,” she said.

“This is huge levels of trauma that a whole city has experienced.”

In the years since the revolution, Libya has been left divided between rival governments, and has been the site of major violent conflict. Officials at both the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization have said the disaster could have been at least partly avoided if not for neglected and aging infrastructure.

“You obviously feel a little helpless because you’re not there,” said Siraj Darbi, who was born in Libya and moved to Saskatchewan with his family at the age of three. Several of his father’s relatives in Derna died this week.

But he’s also using social media to try to help. Even before this week’s flooding, Mr. Darbi and his parents had planned a trip to visit Benghazi. They’re now planning on using the trip to personally deliver supplies and donations that they’re collecting online.

Another Libyan Canadian, Rabah Swaidek, who is based in Tripoli, has been working with a Calgary organization to help arrange fundraising for crucial supplies such as blankets, medicine and food.

Mr. Darbi said: “There’s still a lot of things that can be done even though we’re far away.”

Ms. Buzreba, too, has been using social media to raise awareness. Many of the 31-year-old’s friends rely solely on social media for information. And, she said, because of recent moves by social-media companies like Meta to block news from its platforms in Canada, many of her own friends weren’t even aware of the flooding until she began sharing about it.

So far, international organizations such as the Red Crescent Society and the UN have been working to arrange emergency aid in the region. Neighbouring countries including Egypt and Tunisia – as well as the United States, European Union and Britain – have also promised help.

Mr. Darbi describes the Derna of his memories: of the small city he would often visit, tucked into the valley between mountains and the Mediterranean Sea.

“It’s beautiful there,” he said. It’s where the best fruit he’s ever tasted in his life is grown, and where “everybody knows everybody.”

He’s filled with anguish when he imagines what awaits him there next month.

“It’s not going to be the same city any more.”

Rescue workers from Turkey have been searching for survivors of Derna's flooding, in East Libya on September 14 sometimes wading through water waist deep.


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