Since Syria’s war began in 2011, more than 300 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Northern California, many of them around Sacramento but some in other cities, including Oakland and Turlock. While the newest Syrian immigrants have wrenching backstories, they can already cite progress that is tangible and inspiring — even after being in the United States for such a short time.
Laurel Hilbert, a 22-year-old Syrian native who lives in San Francisco and is founder and CEO of a nonprofit, arrived on a student visa in 2013. Like the family of Hassan Abdullah and Hasnaa Shobak, he knew no one and spoke no English. Even more challenging: Hilbert is blind. And unlike Hassan Abdullah and Hasnaa Shobak, Hilbert didn’t have the help of an organization like the International Rescue Committee. He’d borrowed money to pay for his flight from Saudi Arabia (where his family had moved from Syria) to Los Angeles. With little money and no outside support, he became homeless, living on L.A.’s streets for weeks before befriending an Arabic-speaking couple who helped him obtain housing, schooling, and the legal assistance that led to official asylum status.
Hilbert’s nonprofit, A Dignified Home — whose board of directors includes former San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty — recruits, trains, and certifies people who want to become foster parents, and it provides housing for people ages 12 to 24 who are homeless. The nonprofit also works with government leaders to challenge legislation that contributes to homelessness.
“We want to fight homelessness on the county level, the state level, and the national level until we make homelessness a national priority,” says Hilbert, who was also briefly homeless in New York before coming to San Francisco in 2017. “We believe everyone deserves a dignified home.”
Hilbert and his seeing-eye dog Aero have become fixtures around San Francisco, including at the Embarcadero Center, where his nonprofit is based in a shared workspace, and in the Outer Mission District where he lives. Before A Dignified Home had a high-rise office where he can host donors and hold fundraising events, Hilbert would spend hours every day at a Philz Coffee shop on Ocean Avenue, close to City College, where he got to know founder Phil Jaber, who was born in Palestine.
“That was very much my office, and I know the store manager — and when A Dignified Home had our very first event, I invited all the employees because I know them personally, and the manager made it work, and Philz’s corporate office sponsored part of the event,” says Hilbert, referencing the gift cards and gift boxes that Philz Coffee donated. “A month later, I was sitting at Philz doing my work, and the manager came and said, ‘Oh, I have someone who wants to meet you.’ And I said, ‘Cool.’ And the person came over and said, ‘I’m Phil.’ And I said, ‘Oh, so you’re an actual person.’ We chatted for an hour. He told me how he started. He asked me where I was from, and I said, ‘Syria’ — and he started talking in Arabic. He gave me his personal phone number. And we met for dinner once after that. He’s a remarkable person.”
The “remarkable” label has also been applied to Hilbert. In an effort to raise money for his nonprofit, Hilbert ran the recent San Francisco Marathon, partnering with a sighted runner and friend. As Hilbert ran the course, people cheered him on from the sidewalks. Some of the cheerleaders knew his name, recognizing Hilbert from two KTVU-TV reports about his life and marathon participation. Others saw Aero and Hilbert’s running vest that said “Blind” and wanted to give Hilbert extra encouragement. Hilbert is already self-motivated: He’d never run a marathon before deciding he would participate in the July event, and then trained every day (either running or using cardio machines) for several months.
“A lot of people recognized me,” says Hilbert, who pushed through a slight right-knee issue at mile 21 of the marathon. “One woman said to her running partner, ‘That’s him! That’s him!’ Another person said, ‘Thank you for all you’re doing. You’re not only doing great things for San Francisco but the entire world.’ When I was tired and hitting the wall when I was running, those acts of kindness really went a long way.”
Besides A Dignified Home, Hilbert has started a small car-rental business, and he plans to start a business called Accessibility Hero, which he hopes will be “the largest firm that provides accessibility and compliance to companies, and the largest employer who employs people across disabilities. So the service it will provide is to make websites of companies across industries compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act — to make websites, apps, facilities, and company infrastructure accessible, training companies on how to implement accessibility and make it part of their culture.”
Hilbert, who changed his given name (Ahmad Agha) after arriving in L.A., honed his speaking ability by joining Toastmasters, and greets new friends with inspiring philosophical ideas that he’s put into practice as a new American. “Arthur Ashe once said that ‘True heroism is remarkably sober, and very undramatic,’ ” Hilbert says. “It’s not the urge to surpass all at whatever cost. It’s the urge to serve all at whatever cost. I believe accessibility is a human right.”
Hilbert spent the first six years of his childhood in Syria, and he identifies with his upbringing, including his religion. “Growing up, I was practicing Islam,” Hilbert says. “I still am, but not as much as I used to.”
As a Syrian in Saudi Arabia — particularly as a blind Syrian — Hilbert had challenges that sighted people didn’t have there.
“Because I’m a Syrian citizen, individuals who are non-citizens in Saudi Arabia get … limited services for the blind and visually impaired,” he says. “Syria is a country that also cares less about people with diverse abilities or minorities. One reason we relocated from Syria is that my father had his business in Saudi Arabia. But in the same year I moved to the United States, my dad lost his business, and he had to return my family back to Syria.”
Back in Syria, Hilbert says Syrian authorities arrested his oldest brother, Amier Agha, who is also visually impaired, “because they thought he was lying — that he wasn’t blind, that he was play-acting.” (The New York Times profiled Amier last year.)
“They claimed he would have been in the military by now,” Hilbert adds. “My dad had to pay a lot of money to have him released, and once that happened, they moved to Turkey.”
When people meet Hilbert for the first time, his Syrian identity and his family’s history in Syria — they eventually got asylum to the United States — submerge behind his many other interests and achievements, from his nonprofit work to his zeal to do as much good as possible in the United States.
“The topic of Syria comes further into the relationship,” Hilbert says, sitting in a café near Civic Center on a recent afternoon. “What connects me with people when encountering them the first time is that I respond to their questions, and I ask questions. I present an interest in who they are, and learning more about them. That’s what really gives me and them a human connection that both of us long for.”
Unlike Syria or Saudi Arabia, the United States is “where I can be in charge of my destiny, and fulfill my dreams, and contribute my talents,” Hilbert says. “Here, I can challenge myself, and achieve beyond what I thought I could. It was my choice to move entirely on my own to a new culture, let alone not speaking a word of the language and not knowing a single person. But I didn’t want to stay where I was in life.”
Jonathan Curiel has covered art and culture for SF Weekly since 2010.
See more from SF Weekly‘s cover story on Syrian refugees:
How One Central Valley City Became a Haven for Syrian Refugees
In spite of the Trump administration’s restrictions on migrants, the Bay Area Turlock are now home to thriving communities of new Americans from Syria.