When Nour Bagdadi landed in the Cody, Wyo., airport she was certain something was wrong. There were no other airplanes at the airport. Nour is a native of Libya and was born in Tripoli, a city of more than 1 million people. She had never seen such a small, quiet place.
As she stepped off the plane, a life-changing journey began.
Nour was registered at Northwest Wyoming College in Powell – an even smaller town than Cody, The quiet streets and slow pace of Powell, were shocking. Nour was used to the din of constant traffic and 24-hour street life.
“It was too quiet, and there was nothing to do,” Nour remembers. “I suffered in the beginning.”
In Libya, Nour learned to speak English by watching American movies and TV. One of her favorite shows was “Friends” and she figured everyone lived in apartments in big cities like New York and hung out in coffee shops all day. Of course, she leapt at the chance to apply to attend college in America through a program offered by the U.S. embassy.
Nour was orphaned at the age of 10, and had been living with relatives. They were surprised when she announced her decision to study abroad, but like Nour, they had little understanding of what she was getting herself into.
“Everyone was against it,” Nour remembers. “They said women shouldn’t travel alone, and that I should stay there and be with family. They were scared to lose me, maybe.”
As Nour studied, made friends and settled into the pace of Wyoming life, civil war broke out in Libya. With regular phone calls home, she followed the conflict, and after two semesters abroad – less than one year – travel was so dangerous in Tripoli that Nour was forced to stay in the U.S. Several generous community members in Powell paid her tuition and board so she could continue to study at Northwest College.
After her third semester, Nour had to return to Libya, but by then, Libya had completely changed. It was no longer safe for her to leave her home whenever she wanted, and chaos was everywhere. Sexual harassment was unbearable, and it was as if sadness had taken over the entire country.
“You could tell that people had been through trauma – including the kids,” Nour said.
Nour found a job and began saving money. All she wanted was to return to Northwest College and the friends she’d made while she was there. She couldn’t afford tuition, but a sponsor in Billings offered to pay for her education if she could make it back.
“Nobody at home was willing to support me,” Nour said.
She hatched a risky plan. Nour needed to cross into Jordan, where she could plead her case at the U.S. Embassy, and if she was lucky, she would be granted protection and a visa to return to Powell.
“I didn’t know if it would work out, but I had to do it,” Nour said.
She left without saying goodbye, made her way to Jordan, and, to her relief, was granted a visa to return to the U.S. Two days later, the airport in Tripoli was leveled in a massive bomb strike.
“At the beginning everyone was shocked, but now, they’re supportive,” Nour said. “I love my family, and I’d really like to go back to see them, but there’s nothing for me there.”
Nour talks with her sister almost every day, and despite the distance and her decision to leave, Nour is still close to her family. She was embraced by a couple in Powell, who she now calls her, “American parents.” When they moved to Spokane she followed, and with their support, she is one semester away from earning a degree in psychology from Witworth University.
She’s putting her education and life experience to work as an intern at MasterLube, helping with the company’s mentoring program. She enjoys watching employees develop and learn to believe in themselves as they strive to meet their goals.
“In my life, it’s been hard, but I’m making it, and if I can do it, anyone can,” she said.