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‘I Had to Do It’: One Syrian’s Astonishing Journey to the United States

14 minute read

Laurel Hilbert arrived in the United States in August of 2013 as a blind, homeless 17-year-old named Ahmad. His birthplace — Deir al-Zour, in Syria — was in the process of being destroyed by war. He was completely alone and unable to speak or understand English. Almost four years later, Laurel has a job, a green card and a new life as a college student in San Francisco. The journey has included stops in Saudi Arabia, Los Angeles and New York City, and more than a little luck, pluck and determination.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I had to do it,” Laurel says of his decision to leave his family and move to the U.S. “Being blind, going to a completely different culture, and not knowing the language — I mean, who does that? ‘You’re crazy,’ some people say to me. Maybe they’re right, but if I wasn’t crazy I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

When Laurel was a child, before the current conflict began in Syria, his family moved to Saudi Arabia for his father’s work. The business thrived, but the boy did not. He says Saudi Arabia was not a welcoming place for a disabled foreigner who was prone to asking questions, and he felt that he was considered “a burden on society.” The word from the country he left was not encouraging, either: the family home had been broken into. Friends were killed. A cousin, forced to join the join the Syrian army, died in service. An uncle simply disappeared.

Despite not speaking a word of English, he applied to study the language in the U.S. He was granted a student visa on his third attempt. Laurel left Saudi Arabia alone, buying a ticket on borrowed cash, and flew to Los Angeles — a place he picked because he knew of it, and because he thought wrongly that Harvard, which he had heard described online as the best college in the U.S., must be nearby. He spent one night in a hotel and left his luggage in the lobby; he never returned for it, unable to find his way back, and began sleeping in a park instead.

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When he got a chance to speak to his family back in Saudi Arabia, he lied and said he was doing well and staying with friends.

There was a boy in the park who spoke no English.

That was the message that Samar Ghannoum got in late 2013, from a person she knew through volunteer work in her community in Southern California. As someone who spoke Arabic, would she mind trying to find out what he needed? After all, even in L.A., nights get cold. Ghannoum called the phone number she had been given and reached the boy, and then told her husband they had to leave immediately. They brought sandwiches, in case the boy was hungry. Outside the mall where he had said they could find him, she called his name.

“I heard yes, in Arabic, I’m here. And both of us were so devastated, me and my husband, to see he was finding his way with a stick,” she recalls.

He said he was 17, but he looked younger to her. By the way he ate the sandwiches it was clear that he had been in the park for a while. Ghannoum and her husband felt they had no choice but to bring him to their house. Ghannoum later helped him get a place in a high school, find a place to live, and connect with someone who could introduce him to a lawyer, Nabil Atalla, who would help him apply for asylum. Though Laurel had come to the U.S. lawfully on his student visa, he would need to be reclassified if he wanted to stay legally.

Atalla recalls that one of his first thoughts about Laurel was being impressed that he had managed to navigate the city’s complicated bus system to make their appointment on time. Even L.A. natives with full sight who speak perfect English might have trouble with that, he notes. It’s a small point, but telling: Laurel’s ability to figure out complicated systems — from bus routes to bureaucracy — has shaped his life just as much as his innate perseverance. Even his adopted name is an illustration of his combination of stubbornness and preternatural skill with red tape: When a mix-up at his L.A. high school left him with another student’s ID card, he was irritated by a teacher’s insistence that Laurel — the name on the card — surely couldn’t be his real name. He changed his own first name legally so that it was, and picked Hilbert as a last name after the German mathematician David Hilbert, in hopes that would inspire him to like math more. (It hasn’t worked yet, he acknowledges.) Laurel says changing his name was an assertion that his new life is so different that he has become, in some ways, a new person.

Laurel began the process of applying for affirmative asylum, as opposed to a defensive application. In this situation, people who have come to the U.S. legally but temporarily bring their cases to the asylum office. They undergo a full background check, with fingerprinting, and then are thoroughly interviewed by officials about their claims. The process often takes months, depending on the backlog.

He remembers the immigration interview as terrifying. Though he had already written out his statement explaining why he could not return to Syria — detailing the abuse he had suffered for being different from others, the fear he felt about what would happen if he were forced to return to a war zone — he found that it was something else to speak those words in front of an interpreter, his lawyer and an immigration officer, knowing that more people were listening in on the phone.

His application was granted in April of 2014, which he credits to a higher power — not quite the God of Islam with which he grew up, but a nebulous spirit he feels at work in the way that things sometimes fall into place.

“You know that kind of joy,” he says, recalling the day he got the good news. “A friend of mine was asking me, ‘Why are you crying?’ I’m like, ‘I’m just really joyful. I feel that I am getting closer to my goal every single day that passes by.’”

By this point, Laurel had been living in a shelter for young people and attending a public high school in L.A. His English had become strong. But in the summer of 2015, he found himself in a bind: his educational assistance was contingent on having a permanent address, while the shelter he was in would not allow him to stay longer because he received social security benefits for his disability. So he decided to move to New York City. A new city would be nothing compared to moving to a new country, he thought.

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Once again homeless, he was in Union Square during rush hour when, in what might be called the second serendipitous chapter of Laurel’s American life, a man named Steven McLaurin noticed a boy with a white cane being practically trampled by pedestrians. McLaurin offered to walk with him to his destination — which happened to be the Department of Education, so he could register for school and disability services.

“I later learned that, on a regular basis, his walking cane was broken by people who would just step on it. I think when I met him, the struggle was very real for him,” McLaurin says. “My first impression of him was that he was just a kid, and that there was a definite kindness to him. He didn’t ask for much, but he respected what I had to give to him in that moment.”

Laurel got back into high school, starting at a city public school before switching to an online high school — the same one from which Kylie Jenner received a diploma, he points out — so that he would have the flexibility to work. He also began classes, sponsored by the Department of Education, to learn how to use technology that would allow him to hold a job despite his blindness, discovering the growing world of vision-assistance apps. (A fastidious dresser, he also uses an app to make sure his clothes match.) He found a place in a shelter. He began to volunteer for organizations like New York Cares. He has a stubborn streak — something his mother, speaking to TIME via Skype in late 2016, attributed to his being a Capricorn — and insists on his ability to get what’s best. Everywhere he went, he talked to people about what he hoped to achieve. Some of them, like McLaurin, became his friends.

And he had more reason than ever to be glad that he had come to the U.S. His father’s business in Saudi Arabia had collapsed and the family was forced to move back to Syria in 2014, as the civil war ramped up.

There, Laurel’s oldest brother, who is also blind, was arrested for not having fulfilled his military service. The family paid to get their son released, but with another brother approaching his mandatory service age they knew they could not stay. Laurel’s mother and five siblings fled to Turkey. His father, with whom Laurel has had a distant and strained relationship, fled to the U.S. in the hopes of establishing a beachhead for the family. He successfully applied for asylum and became an Uber driver in New Jersey and New York.

As Laurel got settled in New York, he began to look for a job. One day, on the subway, his thoughts were interrupted by a woman asking him whether he had run the Brooklyn half-marathon. It turned out Laurel was wearing a T-shirt from the event. Though normally meticulous about his clothes, he was having a bad day and had thrown something on without paying much attention.

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They got to talking and the woman, Dawn Henning, told him that she worked at a language school and translation company, Rennert International. She gave him her card and, in a turn by then typical of Laurel’s life story, he was soon working there as an intern. (It was another random subway encounter that brought him to the attention of TIME; he asked this writer’s then-boyfriend for directions and soon shared his life story.)

“I think one thing about Laurel is he always approaches everything with a big smile. So it kind of sets the person at ease who’s talking to him,” Henning says. “The only time we ever had a little bit of an issue, Laurel called me one day and he said that he really needed to talk to me. It was really serious, and I was like, uh-oh. And he said he wanted me to stop treating him like he was blind. Just treat him like everybody else.”

His internship at Rennert became a job as as an international outreach assistant, manning the front desk and communicating with the company’s representatives abroad. Henning says that Laurel is the most ambitious person she’s ever met and one of the most inspiring.

It makes sense, because before anyone else helped Laurel Hilbert, Laurel Hilbert helped himself.

True, his goals change, like any young person’s will — in the time this story has been in the works, he has wanted to be a neurologist, a linguist, an interpreter, a real-estate agent and a business person. He has become something of an activist for jobs for the blind, speaking at a conference about what it’s like to be an employee with vision impairments, and about how technology can help. He even joined Toastmasters for a while, polishing his public speaking. Now, he hopes to study abroad in Japan, after becoming enchanted with the country. It was that same hope that brought him to San Francisco this June, to take Japanese classes and make another fresh start.

It sounds unlikely, but so did everything else that’s happened to him in the last few years.

Laurel received his green card in 2015 and is one step closer to becoming a citizen, a milestone for which he’ll be eligible in 2020. Since then, his mother and five siblings have joined him in the U.S., renting a home in New York City’s Staten Island. There, before Laurel moved out west, his mother stoically described what her son has been through as “a great adventure” — and she would know, having been through one of her own.

It was Jan. 27, 2017, when the family, in Istanbul, finally received the visas they had applied for in 2014 and that had been approved last summer. They were planning to come quickly, to see Laurel and his father for the first time in years. But on the same day the visas arrived, President Donald Trump signed his executive order on immigration, indefinitely suspending the admission of all refugees and immigrants from Syria. An email from the consulate informed Laurel’s family that their visas were no longer valid, they say, and officials at the airport in Turkey would not let them through security.

When a judge blocked the implementation of Trump’s order, the family rushed back to the airport, trying to secure a flight in the midst of the ensuing confusion. On Feb. 5, the six of them finally arrived at Kennedy Airport in New York. There have been some difficult adjustments since then — physical distance can sometimes disappear more quickly than emotional distance does — but you don’t need a visa to bridge the latter.

What the family has gone through has not changed Laurel’s opinion of his adopted country as a place full of people who are willing to help, if only you ask. When he has gone to protest immigration issues, it has been with appreciation for the rights he has not always enjoyed.

“This country is not brutal. It’s not perverse. It’s not regressive. It’s not insular. This country is the place for all those who are hopeful or want to better their lives,” Laurel says. “My opinion never changed about America or the American people.”

But Samar Ghannoum and Steven McLaurin and Dawn Henning and the many other people who have helped Laurel make it, know that that’s not always the case. It’s easier to say no.

It would have been easy for Ghannoum to give the boy a sandwich but stop short of inviting him into her home. It would have been easy for McLaurin to point him in the right direction but not walk the rest of the way. It would have been easy for Henning to make polite small talk but not give her business card, to offer an internship but not a job, to offer a job but not a seat at her Thanksgiving table.

There will always be obstacles for Laurel to overcome. San Francisco’s infamously difficult housing market has been especially tough to navigate with a service dog, and though Rennert has allowed him to work remotely, he’s finding the lack of an office to be a big adjustment. But he has the experience to keep it all in perspective. “Moving to a new place is always a little bit challenging at first,” Laurel says. And odds are, Laurel will find more new friends to help ease his way.

Video by Arpita Aneja – Story by Lily Rothman

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Write to Arpita Aneja at arpita.aneja@time.com and Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com