Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 July 2019

American student who joined Libya rebels to fight Qaddafi plans full-time 'road trip'

It's been a life-changing 12 months for Chris Jeon, the California undergraduate who became an internet sensation after he joined the rebels in Libya before the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.
American student Chris Jeon, 21, decided to travel to Libya to join the rebels for six weeks during his summer vacation last year.
American student Chris Jeon, 21, decided to travel to Libya to join the rebels for six weeks during his summer vacation last year.
CAIRO // It's been a life-changing 12 months for Chris Jeon, the California undergraduate who became an internet sensation after he joined the rebels in Libya before the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.

On August 30, 2011, he was standing in the middle of a circle of cheering fighters in a blue basketball jersey, struggling to communicate to them why he had travelled more than 13,000 kilometres to join their cause in a mixture of Arabic words and gesticulations.

A year later, he is considering dropping out of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), where he was a maths major, to pursue a life of what he calls "adventure" full-time.

Once a fresh-faced intern at Blackrock, the global asset management company, he has lost any interest in a finance career and spends his nights chatting with his friends in Benghazi while puffing his way through half a pack of cigarettes.

He's started charging customers $1,000 (Dh3,670) for a weekend - or $2,000 for a week - on what he calls a "dollar trip", where he travels to a city with only $1 in his pocket and survives through begging, cajoling and sleeping on the streets.

"It changes their lives," Mr Jeon, 22, said of the trips. "I'm turning this into a business now, an adventure consultancy . You walk onto the plane with only the clothes you have on. You leave behind your wallet, your phone. You eat food from the trash."

But Mr Jeon hasn't had his fill of the front lines. He recently sent a request to join the Libyan brigade of rebels, called the Umma Brigade, who are making their way to Syria to help with the battle against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

"I sent a message to one of the guys who speaks English, but I'm waiting for a response," Mr Jeon said, adding that he would first get certified as an emergency medical technician so that he could work as a medic.

His first trip to Libya a year ago helped him to crystallise just what Mr Jeon wants to do with his life, he said. It was the "material disconnect" of returning to university that made him realise that he did not want a life of comfort.

"It was hard for me to go to school and talk to people, relate to them," he said. "Some girl would be complaining about the high speed internet connection."

He began reading up on the great adventurers of the past for inspiration, but came to the conclusion that "every single spot on earth has been pretty much explored, except the depths of the ocean".

"The next wave of great adventurers are not going to be the ones that take you to mountains or deserts," he said. "It is going to be hanging out with rebels in Libya, experiencing life as a transvestite in Thailand for a month, surviving in a city with a dollar. I feel that this is what a great modern-day explorer does and I'm going to be doing that."

Reporters from The National and the Christian Science Monitor first discovered Chris Jeon in the small town of An Nawfaliyah on August 30 last year. It was less than two months before rebels discovered Qaddafi hiding in a drain pipe and killed the former Brother Leader.

"I want to fight in Sirte!", Mr Jeon told the group of rebels that surrounded him.

Mr Jeon, carrying a Russian-made shotgun, was handed an AK-47. "How do you fire this thing?" he asked, before unlatching the safety and letting off a few rounds into the air.

At the time he pleaded with the reporters not to tell his parents he had hitchhiked from Cairo - where they thought he was enjoying the pyramids and Egyptian culture - to Libya and fallen in with a rag-tag brigade.

He ended up spending several weeks travelling around the coastal road near Sirte with several brigades of rebels and had a few close-encounters with shelling and sporadic gunfire from suspected Qaddafi loyalists.

His story spread far and wide. When he finally returned to the US, he was hosted on CNN and morning talk shows to talk about his experience.

Last April, over his spring break, Mr Jeon returned to Benghazi. He was joined by a writer for Men's Journal, Joshua Davis, who detailed several hair-raising encounters.

Mr Jeon decided he wanted to attend a "drifting" session in Benghazi, where young men swerved their cars dangerously before a crowd of 1,000 spectators. Mr Jeon's friend decided to try it, with Mr Davis and Mr Jeon in the car.

"We spin sideways at about 40 mph, heeling up on two wheels before the truck crashes on its side," Mr Davis wrote in his account, Arab Spring Break in the August edition of Men's Journal. "Ten minutes after we crawl from the wreckage, we are taken hostage."

A group of men with guns, believing the two Americans to be CIA operatives, took them to a militia compound for several hours. They were eventually released.

It wasn't until his return to Libya and a subsequent visit to New York City on a "dollar trip" that he realised he did not want the adventure to stop, Mr Jeon said. "I have my own vision for what I want to do," he said. "I am going to just keep doing it . Hopefully, I don't end up dead like the guy in Into the Wild."

The next "dollar trip" will take place in his hometown of Los Angeles in the coming weeks, followed by Boston and then the capitals of Europe. He said his customers range from "personal fitness trainers to a Fortune 500 vice president of finance, Harvard sociology PhDs to a small business owner who sells custom hair-cutting shears to salons".

"Some want to go through a spiritual and personal transformation and see eating food from trash and sleeping on subways for a week as a trial by fire," he said. "Others want to learn the techniques to be an effective social navigator. For many though it's a test and a big challenge that they put themselves through to find out what they're made of in situations they can't safely replicate on their own, but aren't nearly as dangerous as putting themselves in a near death situation like an airplane crash."

Mr Jeon, who has been spending the summer as a marketing intern for an iPhone application company, also signed on with YouTube to film his experiences on a recent dollar trip to New York City for one of the website's premium channels.

But even living for days in poverty are not enough. Mr Jeon said he has been trying to negotiate with a "coyote" - a slang term for smugglers who help immigrants illegally cross the US-Mexico border - to smuggle him into California.

"There is a big illegal immigration problem from Mexico to the US," he said. "I was going to go last February, but my coyote disappeared on the day we were supposed to go."


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Updated: August 29, 2012 04:00 AM