I recently read that people with indomitable spirits don’t need pep talks or protein shakes, but that their strength comes from within. That is the distinct impression I had as I walked away from my short interview with Nahla Nasser. This woman has one indomitable spirit.
Nahla was just a young college student living in Tripoli when the Lebanese Civil War began. After graduating teaching school at only 18 years of age, she enrolled at the Lebanese University in Beirut to study French literature. On the days she was not teaching French, she rode the bus from Tripoli to Beirut to attend classes at the university.
It was on one of these days, February 26, 1975; gunfire erupted across the city. Unsure of what was happening and unable to find a bus that would take her back to Tripoli, she found herself in the middle of utter chaos. Standing on a random street corner in Beirut at the beginning of what we now know as the Lebanese Civil War, Nahla was stranded. It was at this very moment that a friend of her family happened to pull up to that very corner and notice her standing there.
I heard tires and chaos down on the street. I was only 18 years old, stranded in Beirut and the busses had stopped running. I looked around at the chaos and saw a person pulling up in a car. It was my cousin’s husband. That was a miracle.
Nahla quickly got into the car, and the two of them were able to find their way out of the gunfire and all the way back to Tripoli. But even that wouldn’t remain a safe place for long.
We had to flee Tripoli to go to Syria. We went there to escape the violence and stayed there several months. We had some relatives there and rented an apartment. The Syrians opened their doors to the Lebanese and opened schools for people who didn’t have places to stay.
Several years had passed before things were safe enough for the University in Beirut to re-open, but just as soon as it did, Nahla was right back in class. It was there where she met and married her husband, Mustapha.
I met my husband in 1977, and we got married in 1978. He had studied interior design in the United States, then went back to Lebanon and worked in his father’s shop. He custom made all of our furniture. It was so nice. He was ambitious and had big dreams.
The second year we were married we had our first child. One day we were going to take him for his first immunization in Tripoli, he was one month old, and that is when we heard bullets ring out. We had been going on with our lives, and had gotten used to it (the violence).
With civil war still pressing down on her country, and a new baby to consider, Mustapha, her husband, made the suggestion that they come to America. He had a brother already living in Houston, and he thought they could have a good life there.
One day he just looked at me and said ‘do you want to go to the United States?’ I said ‘yes, sure, why not.’ I didn’t think about it, I didn’t process it, I just said ‘yes, let’s go.’
I really did not give it deep thought for some reason. I think probably it was the violence. Probably I was also intrigued by what was going on there in the US, and it was not a good life for us, just living in fear all the time.
Unknown to her, Mustapha’s brother had begun the lengthy paperwork process almost a year earlier, and everything was already in order for them to move. So Nahla and Mustapha bought plane tickets, packed two small suitcases, left everything else behind, including the custom hand-made furniture, and set off on the dangerous trip to the American Embassy in Beirut.
We packed our suitcases; that’s all we had to bring with us. We already had airline tickets and we thought we would just leave from right there. But we had a big shock waiting for us.
Once they made it to the Embassy, they discovered that the paperwork was in order for Nahla and her husband, but that their son had not yet been born when the process began, and therefore was not allowed to leave the country with them. They had to make the decision right then and there whether they would start the process all over again, likely postponing their emigration at least another year, or leave the baby behind with relatives for one month while Nahla came to the US and obtained her green card.
I sat in that office and cried and cried. He said ‘you need to make a decision.’ Either leave him there for one month, when I could get my green card and go back. Or stay there and lose everything, and start the process all over again. I made the hard decision to leave him there.
After weighing all of the options, Nahla, a new mother, made the gut-wrenching decision to leave her two-month-old baby behind. When one month had passed, however, and she was able to get a green card, Nahla returned to Lebanon to be with her child. It was another year, however, before she and the baby would be able to come back to the US together.
Sometimes things happen for a reason. I needed one more year to finish my degree.
It was during that year that she finished her degree and got teaching experience. Surrounded by family, she is the oldest of 8 siblings, and her parents, she had help and support with her studies and the baby.
All the while, Mustapha was here in the US working and saving what he could. Although he was trained as an interior designer, he was not able to find work here in that field, so he began working in the food and hospitality industry, and got a job as a restaurant assistant manager.
When Ady and I were finally able to come back to the US we bought a condo on the SW side of Houston. Then we started from scratch.
Nahla knew almost no one and had a young son at home. She filled her days with playing with her son, watching American television, and learning English.
Mustapha was working two jobs so he could support us. We only had one car, so I took advantage of that time at home to learn English. I bought a dictionary and a book called “English Without Pain,” it was in French. I saw more similarities with French to English than Arabic to English. I was always motivated, I was ambitious, I really wanted to learn the English language well, but I had trouble with idioms, so I bought a book on idioms so I could teach myself.
It was lonely, and she missed her family. She cried almost every day. They had come here with the idea in the back of their mind that after a year or two, when things settled back down, they would go back home.
There were no people on the streets; I wondered where the people were. I felt I was disconnected from people. I didn’t know my neighbors. I felt in a cold place at that point; I was very lonely.
At the end of one year, she said she felt ready to get back out into the world, so she returned to her roots and began looking for a teaching position. She met with Camille, the founder of Palmer Montessori School (now St. Stephen’s Episcopal School Houston) and she began working as a teacher in the toddler class. She loved it because her son could come to school with her, was in the classroom right next door, and she was able to contribute to her family’s income.
This is when I started to feel a sense of community again. I had left all of my family back in Lebanon, and we were close, but I started to make community with my work. I gave work 110% because that was like my second family. I gave it a lot; I connected a lot with my work, and that was my community.
After being in the US for five years, Nahla and her husband were able to become nationalized citizens. She remembers the day of the ceremony and that news crews were there and one of them even interviewed her husband. By that time, she said, all ideas of going back to Lebanon had vanished. They knew they were here to stay.
I started teaching when I was 15 years old, so, that’s all I’ve known. I think by nature I am a peaceful person, and I found peace in it. And I found that building that relationship with students and connecting with them, is so important to teaching. Anybody can go and give an algebra lesson or math or language, but it doesn’t mean that you are teaching children. Teaching children means that you build that relationship, you connect with them and then you see that sparkle in their eyes when they get something. I am so happy to be a teacher because you touch their lives right there.
The first thing I always tell my student teachers at the Houston Montessori Center is You can teach everything you want to teach after you connect with your students and you build that relationship with them.
The day Nahla found out that she had breast cancer was a shock to everyone. No one in her family had breast cancer, she was a vegetarian, she worked out, got regular mammograms–did everything right. But her doctor called her to say that some of her cells were not normal and that she needed to come in immediately. She discovered that the cyst was already a stage 2 cancer and that it had metastasized into the lymph nodes under her right arm.
In 2001 there was a big surprise in our lives that I had breast cancer. I did mammograms and everything. It was really bizarre. I didn’t even believe it. I said ‘no I don’t. What do you mean I do? Nobody in my family has breast cancer.’ That is the hard part when you have no one around you, no family when you have moments like this.
We went home, and we were in shock. We couldn’t even talk. But then the next day we said ‘Okay, we can conquer this. Now, what are we going to do?’
They brought their oldest son, Ady, back home. He was attending college at Baylor University but transferred to UH immediately. The family stuck together and made sacrifices for each other.
Ali, our youngest son who is now 25, he said to me ‘are you going to die?’
I couldn’t say no to him; I could not make that promise. I said ‘technology is great right now, and there is a higher survival rate for people with breast cancer, so we are going to try really hard for me to get better and I am hopeful, so I just want you to pray for me.’
Nahla continued teaching the entire time, only taking days off during chemotherapy. She lost all of her hair and had to wear a wig.
I think what helped me is just to accept what was happening, and not be angry about it. Once in a while I would feel sorry for myself, and I cried for myself, but then I would say okay, come on, just deal with it. This is what happened to you, be strong about it, have faith, and whatever the outcome is just deal with it.
It seems that the family’s faith played a big role in helping them deal with this crisis.
I do have faith, and it helps me to deal with the situations, whatever they are. Faith is thinking that something out there that is good and is looking after us. I call myself a progressive Muslim. I believe in God. I believe that if God is looking after me and God is looking after us, and I continue to be positive, continue to be a person who strives to make a difference in the world; this would end up having a positive outcome for me, too.
Now, I am cancer free for 15 years, and I am so grateful for MD Anderson. They were there for me. While I cherish my heritage and my original culture, I am grateful for the opportunities I was offered in the United States which allowed me to grow and develop into the person I am today. The United States has become home for my family and me.
Nahla was finally able to complete her Master’s Degree in Education in 2005, and she is the principal of both the lower and middle school at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School Houston. She is also an instructor at the Houston Montessori Center.
Nahla and Mustapha have three children: Ady who is a manager in the Landry’s chain of restaurants; Hala who obtained her Master’s Degree from the University of Texas and is now a special education teacher and BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) in Austin; and Ali who also attended law school at the University of Texas and works in the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
I have known Ms. Nahla Nasser since 2013, and I have admired her the entire time. Now I think I may know some of the reasons why she has one indomitable spirit.