Today, Nada Kiblawi is a successful entrepreneur and businesswoman living in northern Virginia, alongside her husband and three adult children. The now retired founder and co-owner of NHK Consulting, Nada provided engineering services to some of the world’s largest and most reputable companies.
However, her story and rise to professional and personal success begins with strikingly modest roots — Nada was born a Palestine refugee, a product of the Nakba (meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic), and one of thousands of Palestinians striving for a better future with modest resources.
While she has come a remarkably long way from her humble beginnings, she has not forgotten the struggles and opportunities that allowed her to get to where she is today and how being born a Palestine refugee shaped her life, identity, and her desire to uplift those around her.
Nada’s family is originally from Lubia (close to Tiberias, Sea of Galilee), one of the many villages completely destroyed and depopulated during the Nakba in 1948. Forced to flee, her family became refugees and fled to Lebanon. There, they lived in Wavel refugee camp in Baalbek, where UNRWA continues to provide services today.
Born and raised in this camp and in poverty, Nada sadly recalls that she was deprived of a normal, happy childhood. “I’m at a loss of words when I think back upon my childhood years,” she says. “All children born refugees are deprived a childhood. My land, home, and youth, were stolen from me and those of the fourth generation of refugees born into and raised in camps. Though I struggled along the way, I worked hard so my children do not have to suffer in the same way I did.” For Nada, the aspect of her life that offered a sliver of hope was school: “The only way out of our situation was to excel in school and show my value. I needed to shine against the darkness, and when I realized education was the key, that’s what I did. I excelled.”
She, along with all of her siblings, went to free UNRWA primary and secondary schools. She says, “without UNRWA, I would have been illiterate. My family simply didn’t have the money to pay for all of my siblings’ education. UNRWA made up my formative years. It was my education, and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Reflecting back, one of the most striking memories from her childhood was that of her UNRWA teachers.
Nada recalls them providing the support, along with her family, that paved her way to success. One example was her third grade math teacher. Doubling as the physical education teacher, he was muscular, stocky, and serious, and intimidating in the eyes of a petite 7-year-old girl. She recalls hiding in the bathroom during his classes, but because her siblings also attended UNRWA schools, she was quickly found out. Nada’s teacher asked her brother why she was absent from class and in hearing the explanation, the teacher promptly brought her back into class and encouraged her by calling on her and pushing her to succeed. It was then Nada realized she loved and excelled at math. It quickly became her favorite subject and propelled her to study engineering.
This anecdote marks a pattern in Nada’s life — when faced with a daunting challenge, despite the temptation to shy away, she seizes it as an opportunity to overcome and thrive.
Although her family encouraged her to study medicine and her classmates said women couldn’t study engineering, Nada made up her mind to prove them wrong. Given her family’s economic situation, she was eager to finish her studies early and help support her family. Determined, she excelled to the top of her class, especially in math and science. Nada studied hard, often by candlelight due to the absence of electricity in the camps, and ultimately received a full UNRWA scholarship to attend the American University of Beirut (AUB) to study engineering.
Breaking barriers, Nada was one of nine women accepted to AUB’s engineering program, and by the end of her first year, she was the only one to pass all her classes. She described the courses as brutal and cutthroat, but with the support of her family and the refugee community, she graduated as the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from AUB!
Despite graduating at the top of her class, as a Palestine refugee, she was only allowed to work within specific professions in Lebanon. After marrying her husband Nazih, a fellow classmate, and witnessing the lack of professional opportunities and fear and uncertainty during the Lebanese Civil War, Nada sought security and stability for her and her family. She and Nazih pursued the American dream and moved to America where Nada created her consulting business. She and Nazih are both UNRWA alumni, and she says the first thing they did upon becoming successful was fund other Palestine refugees’ education to help their fellow refugees achieve similar success.
Nada’s story is a testament of the potential of every human being and the importance of investing in all people, regardless of their refugee status or place of birth. Nada is not ashamed of her past, rather, she draws strength and resilience from it.
She acknowledges the crucial role UNRWA played in her success and remains a proud and contributing alumna as chair of the UNRWA USA Alumni Association (USA) steering committee: “One way to pay back the Agency is to showcase that UNRWA produces success. We are here because of UNRWA. I would not be an engineer without it. My colleagues wouldn’t be doctors. UNRWA has made successful people around the globe, and this is how we show our gratitude.”
In describing the UNRWA Alumni Association (USA), she says she sees it as a “collection of professionals who share a common childhood and who can now share resources, become mentors, network, and give back to their society — not just their current society, but the society that created them — their community of Palestine refugees.”