From Refugee Camp to Successful Entrepreneur

Karin Kamp at The Story Exchange By Karin Kamp at 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, she 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, which was meant to be a stopgap solution to their crisis.

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.
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. Growing up there was an extremely painful experience: one that 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.

See: Who are America’s Immigrant Women Entrepreneurs?

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.

It will be realized some day that nobody should be born a refugee. Nobody should be born deprived of having a homeland.

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.’”

Watch: Immigrant Makes Peace, Near and Far

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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Posted: April 25, 2013

Karin Kamp at The Story ExchangeFrom Refugee Camp to Successful Entrepreneur
  • Suhad


    my daughter, Jill, forwarded me your story. your life is very inspiring to all our children, you make us all proud to be Palestinians.

    • thestoryexchange


      • nada kiblawi

        Thank you for the encouraging comment. I hope that no child from Palestine or anywhere else has to struggle through childhood to attain the minimum level of a normal life. Every human being is entitled to have a homeland and a peaceful life.

  • 6TSET

    Dear Mrs Kiblawi

    We are 5 students from a school in Belgium and we have
    seen your inspirational life story during the English lesson. We are amazed of
    what you have accomplished in your life.

    We believe it was a good idea from your parents to get
    you well-educated. We admire you because you excelled at school in spite of the
    bad circumstances you were living in. You must have been very brave travelling
    from one country to another to find a safe home for your family.

    We hope you can give a lot of advice to young

    Your story has inspired us to study well and to chase
    our dreams. 🙂

    Kind regards

    Tiffany Marteel, Lieze Platevoet, Jelke Mares, Jolien
    Pinceel, Annaïs Note and Mrs Louf

  • 6tha

    Dear Ms Kiblawi

    I have seen your video about your life. I admire you for what you have done in your life. It really inspired me. I like the way you have fought so much for a better life. The part when you talked about your father really touched my feelings.

    I admire how you have made your company one of the biggest in the world. It’s not
    something everyone can do and certainly not someone who lived in such bad
    conditions as you.

    I hope to hear from you soon.

    Yours sincerely

  • Basil

    Dear Mrs Kiblawi

    We’re students from a school at the Belgian Coast. We’ve seen your story in ‘The Story Exchange’ video. We were very impressed by your life story. We can’t understand the way you and your family were treated in Lebanon. Growing up in a Refugee-camp without any luxury and comfort. I think moving out of Israel was the best way to have a good job as an engineer. Your children haven’t seen the war and the way you grew up, they had the opportunity to start life in a safe country with a good education.

    We hope to hear from you soon.

    Yours sincerely

    6TBI IB