by Kirsten Russell
The daughter of an American technical expert sent to Libya to create an agricultural school in the early days of the U.S. foreign aid program, then known as Point Four, recalls the determined efforts of a poor orphan to become a student. – Ed.
My father, Ray Russell, grew up on a farm in Missouri, coming of age during the Great Depression. The poverty he experienced then was enviable wealth compared to what he began to witness early in 1952, after he joined the U.S. State Department’s technical assistance program unofficially known as Point Four (now the U.S. Agency for International Development) and moved our family to Tripoli, Libya, North Africa.
At the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C., Dad had learned that the newly independent nation of Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world. Only 13 Libyans had any college education, and the average annual wage was equivalent to 35 U.S. dollars. Over 90 percent of the population were illiterate, and over 10 percent were blind from trachoma, a contagious eye disease. We saw many trachoma victims in Libya, some with eyes hidden under white film, some with eyes missing.
Dad’s assignment in Tripoli was to establish and direct a farm school for Libyan boys. During most of 1952 he labored to open the school, ordering school supplies and equipment, supervising construction work on the school building, writing lesson plans and reference materials, and selecting students from scattered coastal and desert communities.
The student candidates had received no more than a sixth grade education in their communities, but their ability to read and write in Arabic qualified them to be considered for enrollment. At each community, Dad usually selected a candidate on the basis of his intelligence and motivation. In some places he had to base his choice on other criteria. In an oasis called Mizda – far into the desert, about 120 miles south of Tripoli – three of the four candidates exhibited symptoms of trachoma, so Dad selected the other boy.
On November 1, 1952, 32 teenage boys arrived by bus, truck, camel, donkey, or foot to attend the new farm school. Some had started walking three days earlier. At least half of the student body came barefoot, and many of the boys came wearing rags. But all arrived with their heads held high and their eyes aglow.
Shortly after the school opened, medical examinations revealed that two students suffered from advanced cases of trachoma. Dad had to dismiss the two boys, telling them they could not attend school until their trachoma was cured. One of them, a desperately poor orphan, was the boy Dad had selected over the other trachoma victims in Mizda. In a letter written a few weeks later, Dad related how the boy pleaded to remain at the school:
He stood before me with tears in his eyes and begged till I thought his heart would break. I could not help but think, ‘How cruel can this world really be?’ I gave him some terramycin ointment for his eyes and some of my old Navy clothes, and I bought him a bus ticket to his home in Mizda. I told him to come back to the school when his trachoma was cured and perhaps we would have a vacancy for him.
I tried to get the Libyan Ministry of Agriculture to hold his place open for three months, but they would not do it. They insisted his place must be filled. So I had to fill the vacancy.
Near the end of 1952, the farm school closed for an international holiday break. Dad sent the students home on December 23, telling them not to come back to school until December 29. My family and I, living in a private wing of the school building, spent our first Christmas in Libya on a nearly deserted school campus.
The Boy Returns
On the night before Christmas, Dad answered a knock on our back door and found the boy from Mizda.
He was exhausted and shivering with cold, his shoes in shreds. Dad took him into the school, where the bilingual instructor who lived in another wing of the building translated the boy’s request. “Mr. Russell, I want to come back to school. My eyes are well!”
Wondering how he had traveled the 120 miles from Mizda to the school, Dad asked the boy, “How did you get here?”
“I walked. I’ve been walking five days.”
“Have you had anything to eat?”
“Yes. Two loaves of bread.”
Dad suddenly believed that he could find room for one more student.
Further medical examination revealed that the boy from Mizda remained afflicted with trachoma in one eye.
Try, Try Again
Early in 1953, Dad wrote that he wanted to readmit the boy anyway. “It’s a shame that this boy should be denied an education. I’m trying to get the authorities to accept him.”
Later, Dad would tell a freelance writer that he’d given the boy more terramycin ointment, bought him another bus ticket to Mizda, and told him to try again.
Near Tripoli at that time was a bastion of American civilization, Wheelus Air Base, where young Air Force servicemen in the church community became interested in the farm school. When they heard about the plight of the boy from Mizda, they raised $78.60 – a significant amount in 1953 – to help him.
On the evening of March 11, about 60 servicemen and their chaplain visited the farm school. Dad took them on a tour of the school, and they showed the students a movie. Mother served refreshments of coffee, cocoa, tea, and cake. At the conclusion of the evening, the chaplain presented Dad with the funds the servicemen had raised for the boy from Mizda. The chaplain instructed Dad to use the money to cure the boy’s trachoma so that the boy could go to school.
“I thought that the servicemen’s deed was a wonderful act of good will,” Dad wrote the next day.
The freelance writer wrote a hopeful conclusion to the sad story of the boy from Mizda. “The chances are good that he will be in school next year.”
My brother, who was a preschooler in 1953, seems to recall hearing in later years that Dad had succeeded in bringing the boy from Mizda back to school. My brother also seems to remember hearing that the boy graduated to a better life in Libya.
But Dad, who died in 1983, never wrote about the boy again after March 1953.
Libya’s greatest natural resource, oil, was not discovered in vast reserves until 1959. Only then did Libya begin its transformation from a poor agrarian nation into one of the world’s major oil exporters.
We left Libya that same year, in the summer of 1959. By that time the farm school had produced 67 graduates. Other than six 1956 graduates who had won scholarships to attend college in the United States, all the graduates were employed as agriculture teachers, advisers, or specialists in Libya. Perhaps one of those 67 was the boy from Mizda.
Then, too, perhaps the boy had gone blind or died of starvation before Dad could reinstate him at the farm school.
Back in Missouri, Dad told a Columbia Tribune reporter about the boy’s 120-mile walk to the school in December 1952. Either the reporter left out the boy’s subsequent story or Dad didn’t tell it, but he added a comment on all his Libyan students: “You see, they have a great desire to learn.”
Kirsten Russell is a freelance copyeditor and writer in Cocoa, Florida. As the daughter of an American agricultural educator, she grew up in Libya, Jordan, and Egypt during the 1950s and early 1960s. “The Boy from Mizda” is adapted from a book she is completing, Tales from Tripoli, a memoir of her family’s seven years in Libya.