Laurel Allen Hilbert is the Founder and CEO of A Dignified Home Children and Youth Services. A native of Syria, he came to this country in 2013, where he experienced firsthand the challenges and difficulties of being homeless. Prior to founding A Dignified Home, his professional background included experience as an international outreach and admissions assistant with Rennert International in New York City. Prior to that he also held a position with Vision Services for the Blind as a service representative in New York. Laurel is very proud of valuable experience he gained serving as vice president of membership for Toastmasters International, and of his volunteer work with the Brooklyn Community Pride Center. His story was also covered by TIME Magazine. Laurel is also a recipient of MALA’s Scholarship Program for 2018.
Born and raised in Syria, my family and I immigrated to Saudi Arabia to escape the chaotic civil war that has been the cause of America’s growing immigration concerns. As a person who has been blind from birth and an active member of the LGBTQ community, however, I knew that my journey would not end in Saudi Arabia as I was hoping to find peace and understanding for my personhood. This was made even more relevant as, living in Syria and Saudi Arabia, there were many times where I struggled with my sexual orientation and how it was deemed sinful by the traditional Muslim communities in those countries. Today I have found peace and understanding of my identity as an LGBTQ person which drives me to pursue a college degree so that I may contribute my experience and talents to the social welfare field.
With that, in 2013, I moved entirely on my own to Los Angeles, California in an effort to follow my passions and make a difference in the world even though I was unaware of the language, the local people, and my new surroundings. Knowing that I have always wanted to create greater opportunities for those marked by the stigmas of being different due to sexual orientation and/or disabilities, I began seeking out services in Los Angeles. Eventually I decided to move again to New York City knowing that a wealth of social services, cultural competency, and a sense of understanding would greet me there.
Upon moving to New York City, I found myself to be homeless and hungry, sleeping in uninhabitable areas like park benches and sidewalks before being accepted at the Ali Forney Center for shelter and additional services. I used all available connecting resources to find stable housing, enroll in school, find employment, and become a peer mentor for others like me. At the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, for example, I have worked extensively to bring resources to those in need of assistance within the LGBTQ Community. On a more global scale, I should also mention that my visual impairment has not affected my vision for a better world and I served as an International Outreach Assistant at Rennert International, working as a translator and enabling the voices of those around the world to be heard despite their immediate circumstances.
This volunteer work has enabled me to work with other LGBTQ youth within the community, establishing acceptance and encouraging growth both personally and as a whole. Working as a mentor, there are also events that I have been involved in that encourage those who may feel lost or alone to become a part of something larger. Connecting clients to resources such as social services, legal assistance, and medical and therapeutic support were also parts of my work.
Today, I hope to continue working in the social welfare field, both throughout my college career and into my professional life. The work is rewarding to me personally and I feel as if it is especially important for me to encourage those who may be in situations similar to mine. Knowing that I would have been lost without my own mentors, it is only right to serve as a source of support to those still in need. Now, as I am approaching the onset of my college career, it goes without saying that this scholarship will not only help me to pursue my own educational endeavors, but also to help the LGBTQ community that I am so deeply invested in. As a homeless youth, it will also enable me to receive an education that I have only dreamt about in the past, making my dreams come true and turning my hopes for the future into a reality.