THE BLOG
04/25/2013 05:24 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

How a Stateless Refugee Overcame Low Self-Esteem to Become a Successful Entrepreneur

The Story Exchange

Nada Kiblawi was born in a refugee camp, lived through regional wars and finally found safe haven and economic independence as an entrepreneur in the U.S.

As a child born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp, Nada suffered from low self-esteem, despite feeling love and affection from her parents.

Nada's family fled to Lebanon during the 1948 Arab-Israel war, losing all of their possessions and the land they owned in the process. They ended up north of Beirut, in a United Nations refugee camp meant to be a stopgap solution to their crisis.

Nada, her six siblings and her parents were allocated two rooms in the camp in what she describes as "miserable" conditions.

"There was no running water in the houses. There were common toilets in another building that were shared by all the refugees. People would wash and bathe in small containers and then take the water out and throw it in the common sanitary," Nada told The Story Exchange.

Nada and her family remained in the camp as stateless refugees until her early 20s, and the experience shaped Nada's future: "having the humiliation that we were subjected to every second of our life, that didn't give me high self-esteem but it gave me the push to succeed," she said.

Nada's father also was a major part of that push. He believed education was the only way his children could move beyond the refugee camp, and he worked as a laborer, crushing rocks to pave the streets, so his children could attend school.

Nada studied hard, at times by candlelight, earning a scholarship to the American University of Beirut. She graduated at the top of her class and was the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from the university.

Despite the accolades, finding a job after graduation was difficult. As a Palestinian refugee, Nada was only allowed to work in certain jobs, typically those meant for unskilled laborers. She attended graduate school, married a classmate, and a more settled life began to emerge.

But it didn't last long. When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, Nada and her husband fled to Kuwait, where they found engineering jobs and started a family.

Then, in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, and once again Nada feared for the safety of her family. "I told my husband, 'I will not forgive myself if we keep these children raised in this area. Israel is not going to stop there. This region is gonna be hell for generations.'"

Nada and her husband saw the United States as the land of opportunity, in part due to its culture of entrepreneurship. "We always looked up to America and I thought that's where I should be," she said. Nada and her husband picked up and moved to America determined to provide a better, more peaceful life for their three young children.

The family thrived and Nada started her own company -- NHK consulting -- which provides engineering services to some of the world's top companies.

She has come a long way from her beginnings in the refugee camp, but has not forgotten where she was born and raised. "It will be realized some day that nobody should be born a refugee. Nobody should be born deprived of having a homeland."

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