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How a refugee found her ‘safe, free space’

Nour Bilal
Nour Bilal
Lee Benson

TAYLORSVILLE — Amid all the attention on asylum-seekers not getting into the United States of America, here’s a report about one who did.

Nour Bilal is from Syria. She was 14 years old in November of 2014 when her country’s civil unrest deposited her family of five on Salt Lake City’s doorstep. The list of things she didn’t know about her new Utah home amounted to just about everything, including the predominant language.

“I had zero, zero, zero English when I came,” remembers Nour as she enjoys a class break at Salt Lake Community College at a Starbucks just off campus. She’s a sophomore. Studying psychology. “I didn’t have a clue.”

Carve out a petulant 14-year-old’s worst nightmare and this was it. Back home in Damascus was her house, her room, her friends, her cousins, her clothes, her music, her ’hood, her language, her life.

Her upbringing was far from unprivileged. Nour’s father had a good job as a cook; her mother was a fashion designer. They owned their house. They owned their car.

“We were above middle class,” says Nour. “We didn’t have to worry about money. We had everything we needed.”

But then the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and her father, who had enemies in the wrong places, was arrested and spent three months in jail. When he got out, he fled to neighboring Lebanon and applied for political asylum with the United Nations. The Catholic Church, through Catholic Community Services, got involved and in time Nour, her baby brother, her younger sister and her mother were able to join her father in Lebanon and relocate to America.

“I’d always told my mother I wanted to travel,” says Nour. “But I never thought it would be as a refugee and we’d have to start from zero and live somewhere else forever.”

She pouted, of course, at first.

But then a light went on. Good old-fashioned envy did it. Nour looked around at the teenagers at her new school and thought ... hey, wait a minute ....

“I look at those kids, I get jealous,” she says. “I want to reach higher and be like them.”

It’s not possible in this short space to chronicle all she did and the effort it took to get there, but here’s one example: The girl who didn’t know a word of English when she arrived at Cottonwood High School was enrolled in an English as a second language class as a sophomore, in a regular English class as a junior and an AP English class as a senior.

She passed them all with flying colors and, to boot, won the oratory competition at the 2018 Utah high school speech and debate championships.

She’s now, at 19, starting her second year at SLCC. By next spring she expects to have her associate degree, after which she hopes to study criminal justice at Utah Valley University and then go to law school so she can work on immigration and women’s rights.

Nour is the first to acknowledge all the help that she and her family have received. Beyond the U.N., Catholic Community Services and the inestimable assistance from U.S. Immigration, she has been tireless in extolling the virtues, in particular, of the United Way of Salt Lake. She has written essays and given talks to companies during fundraising campaigns detailing the many services United Way provides.

“If it wasn’t for that help, I don’t know what would have happened to us,” she says. “There was no way we could live and continue on our own.”

But just because help is there, she emphasizes, doesn’t mean it falls in your lap.

“My message to refugees,” she says, “is to fight for what you want and need. You really have to fight to get others to give to you what is possible. If you don’t stand up and fight, they won’t pay attention to you.”

For younger refugees, especially, that means “to focus on getting your education, above all else. As soon as you do that, more doors will open up for you.”

And her message to those of us nonrefugees living in the land of the free?

“I would say be open-minded,” she says. “Be open to the idea that this country is open to more than one kind of people. The U.S. has always been that way; most everyone’s grandparents or great grandparents immigrated here from different countries. Make everyone feel welcome here. Make them feel like you’re glad they’re here and they’re safe. Don’t make them regret that they came.”

In time, Nour looks forward to the day the war is over in Syria and she can return.

“I can’t wait to go back,” she says. “My house is still there, my room is still there. But to visit, not to live. Because I found my safe little free space here, and I would like to stay.”