“A Life of Unlimited Potential” : Lulu’s Story

Lulu at her office

I remember so clearly my first day in the United States.

I woke up in Detroit, a strange city where I knew no one. I had just left my family and new husband — a man I barely knew and had not chosen to marry — in Saudi Arabia. Everything I owned now was in a carry-on suitcase.

My very first thought was this: I want a cup of coffee.

It was such a simple thing to be able to walk out of my hotel on my own and find a coffee shop. I wouldn’t have had the freedom to do this in Saudi Arabia, a country where every action and decision had to be approved by my male guardian: my father.

Growing up in a country that doesn’t treat women as equals meant that all my life I had to prove that I was as human as any man around me.

As a child, my escape was reading books and imagining different worlds. Through books, I was first introduced to the notion that women are just as intelligent and capable as men — an idea that I would strive to make my reality.

I worked hard to get through school — I graduated 4th in the Kingdom with a degree in Computer Information Systems — and later break through professional barriers as I built a career in an industry — and country — controlled by men. I was hired by a global telecommunications company and became one of the first female engineers in my department, but I was told: “you can’t be a project manager, because clients don’t want to work with a woman.”

And then I was offered a great opportunity to take a job outside the country, but my father wouldn’t allow me to go. He said: “get married, and you can go with your husband.” This was the moment when I knew if I wanted to achieve anything in my life, with all my ambitions, I had to find my way out.

My father locked me in my room for a year. His line was: “you have two options: you’re either going from this room to your grave, or getting married.”

The man they wanted me to marry lived in the United States, and I knew this was my best opportunity. Suddenly, my life started to resemble the plot of one of the books I loved to read!

We got married in Saudi Arabia and I was set to fly to the United States together, to our new home in Washington, D.C. When we arrived, I fled. I had secretly purchased a ticket to Detroit. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, changed my clothes in a stall, and ran through the terminal. I hid in a corner until my next flight. My heart was racing the entire time. When they called my flight, that was the first time I could actually breathe.

That next morning, when I was walking down the street with my cup of coffee, it hit me: ‘I don’t need permission to go where I want to go or do what I want to do. I’m here, I’m free, I have a life of unlimited potential in front of me.’

I was so excited to get started — but starting from scratch is also really hard. I learned this when I came to Chicago and tried to relaunch my engineering career. The employers I contacted were reluctant to hire someone who had never worked in the U.S. before. Some didn’t understand what my asylum status meant — they didn’t realize that I was actually fully authorized to work in the U.S. Most often, I just never heard anything back at all.

But beyond my status as a newcomer, there was another source of frustration: Just as I thought I’d left gender-based discrimination and bias behind me in Saudi Arabia, I hit the glass ceiling again in the United States. There are barriers to women working in engineering and other STEM fields here as well. Women hold less than a quarter of the STEM jobs in the U.S — and as was my experience in Saudi Arabia, most female engineers in the U.S. report feeling like they have to repeatedly prove themselves to get respect and recognition from their male colleagues. I was applying to more than 10 jobs a day, and getting nowhere.

I struggled for a year, taking jobs working in restaurants and bartending to support myself. And then a friend told me about Upwardly Global. Seeing other alumni of UpGlo’s job coaching program, particularly women, who had come here as refugees and asylees and were now using their education and skills, gave me so much hope.

Through UpGlo events I met with HR managers who recognized that my international skills and experience could be an asset to their companies. I connected and networked with other female engineers who had broken through barriers to find success. Upwardly Global created a lens through which employers could see me clearly, and could understand what I had to offer.

I am currently working as a management consultant with a wonderful IT consulting company. I tackle my clients’ tech challenges every day and continue to push boundaries. Restarting my professional career feels like the second chapter in my life — I feel so grateful and energized to continue building my future in the U.S.

The most important lesson I have learned so far in my life is that if you have power, and the freedom to make your own choices, you have a responsibility to do something good with it. My hope is for women everywhere to get the freedom and equality they deserve, and the opportunity to fight for the good things.

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Upwardly Global is a national nonprofit organization that works to eliminate employment barriers for skilled immigrants and refugees.