by BRAD TAGGART
- Listen to an interview with Issa Moursal.
Issa Moursal was riding in a truck with his cousin when he felt a burning sensation on the back of his neck. As he reached back to feel what had burned him he noticed blood running down his neck and soaking his shirt.
“I looked at my cousin and the same bullet that grazed the back of my neck had hit my cousin and killed him,” Moursal said. He sat and reflected for a second remembering the terrifying moments.
Moursal, now 38, grew up in Chad, Africa, in a French colony. Moursal had aspirations of becoming a lawyer. He studied hard and for long hours with that goal in mind. He would walk to school with no shoes, and sit under a tree for class, which was typical in Chad where the economy struggled.
In school, Moursal learned to speak two languages. French was his primary language and Arabic was his second language.
He attended high school in Niger and would visit home during his summer vacations. One particular summer Moursal returned to his village for vacation. As Moursal and his sister went to get firewood some government officers from Chad approached them. The officials asked Moursal to tell them where his father was. Moursal’s father was an officer in a rebellious tribe that was trying to overthrow the government. Moursal refused to tell them.
“I knew if I told them [where my dad was] that they would not only kill him, but kill me also,” Moursal said. “So I refused to tell them and they started beating me.”
Moursal’s sister pleaded with him to tell them but Moursal knew the consequences and kept his fathers whereabouts secret. The officers arrested Moursal and took him to a city about 20 miles from his village where he would spend the next week in jail.
While in prison Moursal came in contact with a Catholic priest who knew Moursal from his congregation and had sent Moursal to school in the first place. The priest asked city officials to release him and they did.
After being let out of prison Moursal left for Sudan where he would begin fighting for his tribe and against the government.
“The government is corrupt in Chad,” Moursal said. “They can arrest you for not even doing anything and can kill you if they want with no reason.” Moursal’s tribe joined forces with another and together, they were able to overthrow the government in December 1990.
Afterward Moursal was assigned to be part of the security team that would protect the new vice president. Things remained calm for a period of time until the tribe that had helped to overthrow the original government decided to try to take over the new government.
Moursal and his cousins were in a truck protecting the vice president when they were shot at. Moursal recalls the situation being frantic and chaotic. “That is when I felt the burning on my neck,” Moursal said. “I looked and my cousin was dead.”
The fateful event led Moursal to decide to flee Sudan and seek protection. “I had to go into hiding for just a couple of hours,” Moursal said. “Then I traversed across a river and then was smuggled across the border to Nigeria and then to Niger.”
By the time he arrived in Niger, his neck was badly infected. “I went to the University hospital and met a nurse from my tribe to help with my infection,” Moursal said.
Even though Moursal had escaped the war he still had the desire to fight for his people and go back. “The nurse convinced me to stay,” Issa said. “She told me go to talk to the United Nations and they would help me.”
An official from the United Nations listened to Moursal’s plea and decided to protect him with the stipulation that Moursal study and then work for the United Nations. He agreed.
For the next two years Moursal began to realize his dream yet again. He had two years of law school under his belt when he was awarded a scholarship.
After getting the good news of the scholarship, Moursal encountered yet another obstacle in his path. The United Nations had enough lawyers and needed to pull Moursal out of law school and place him in a technical school. He agreed to continue and finished his degree in library science in spite of not being able to become a lawyer.
After a seven-year stay with the United Nations Moursal was offered the chance to come to the United States as a refugee. “They came and interviewed us to see if we could make it in the States,” Moursal said. “I was not convinced that I would be going but knew I had as good as chance as any.”
Moursal was one of 3,000 possible candidates to come to the U.S. Only 27 were selected; he was among the 27.
When granted asylum by the U.S. Moursal needed to find an organization that would accept him and help him with the transition. He came in contact with the International Rescue Committee, which helped Moursal with the final details of his arrival.
On June 4, 1997, one year after Moursal was asked if he wanted to come to the U.S. he arrived in Utah. He was a little different than most of the refugees, though. Usually a refugee needs help getting started.
“Finding a job, paying bills, and other tedious tasks can be a big problem for newcomers,” said Michelle Amussen, a student in the Occupational Therapy program at the University of Utah, who helps the new refugees get settled.
“Most of the time they don’t speak any English at all and this seems to be their biggest downfall,” Amussen said. “If you can speak English it is much easier to find a job, understand mail and paperwork, and navigate through the system.”
Two weeks after his arrival Moursal’s resilience began to shine. He found his first job without the help of the IRC at a Marriott, booking rooms in French.
“I don’t want to be a parasite for society,” Moursal said. “I want to be able to do it on my own and be successful.” He is currently working at Franklin Covey as the International Operation Coordinator and is studying business at the University of Utah working toward his MBA.
“Life is good here,” Moursal said. “I have a successful job and a nice house a beautiful and wonderful wife and two kids.”
“We [the Moursal family] are raising money so they can build wells for the village.” Moursal said. “This is what drives me to get my Ph.D. and get more money so I can help more people. What keeps me here is that everyone in the village has this hope for me to succeed. You have all these people looking up to you and you don’t want to let them down,” Moursal said.
“Success is easier to come by here in the states,” Moursal said. “There are many opportunities to get a good job and support your family.”
Moursal has had a big advantage coming to the U.S. with an education and a background learning languages. “English is the key to success here in the States,” Moursal said. “If you do not speak English you will be stuck with a low-paying job and not be able to move up.”
Moursal has lived in Salt Lake City for 11 years. His continued success is warranted by his determination not to fail. “I still have the scare that reminds me of where I have been and what I have survived,” Moursal said. “I know I can fight through almost anything.”