When Bobby Morrow, a case worker at Prior Crossing, called 22 year-old Meriem saying that they had a home for her, she hung up the phone. “Bobby called me and he was like, ‘Are you Meriem? We have a spot for you.’ I hanged up on him, I didn’t believe him! I thought it was another scam call,” she said.
Morrow called back to assure her this wasn’t a scam, that there was a studio apartment with her name on it. “There are no words to describe the feelings that I had,” she said.
The journey to that phone call was long and difficult. Meriem fled the shadow of religious fundamentalism to claim her right as a woman to learn and choose her own path. Leaving her community and much of her family behind was difficult, but she stepped out anyway to seek a better life.
Meriem grew up in Tunisia, where her life changed dramatically following the “Arab Spring” of 2011. Meriem, who is of Berber and French heritage, lived in the southern part of Tunisia near the Libyan border. Meriem’s culture – and her father – frowned on her pursuit of education, expecting her to be like other women around her who married young. But for Meriem, this was not the life she wanted. “I told myself that if that’s the life I’m going to have, then I would rather die,” she exclaimed..
After graduating high school in 2013, she escaped and made her way to Tunis, the Tunisian capital. While there, she came in contact with the Sisters of St. Joseph who gave her a full ride to attend St. Catherine’s University, a Catholic school in St. Paul. “They changed my life forever,” Meriem says of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
She came the United States in August of 2016. A few months later, she learned the funding for the program that brought her here was cut. She would have to go back to Tunisia.
But Meriem didn’t want to go back.
“I want to stay here and I want to graduate and I want to tell my story and I want to tell the world the things I’ve seen in my life and I want to reform a lot about culture and religion,” she said with a sense of determination in her voice. “There are so many things I want to do.”
Meriem needed to apply for asylum, which was not an easy choice. “When you apply for asylum, you are literally giving up your legal status, which is being a student,” Meriem said. But that wasn’t all she gave up. It also meant she could no longer be a student at St. Catherine’s. “I was left to the streets,” she said describing how she lost her stipend, she lost her health insurance and her debit card and most of all, she lost her housing. “I was literally with a suitcase,” she said. “I still remember that day, I had a suitcase and I was sitting at the edge of a street thinking, what did I do wrong for this to happen?”
The Sisters of St. Joseph were able to connect her to Sarah’s an Oasis for Women, a home for women which gave her a place to stay, at least for a year. She was able to enroll at Minneapolis Community and Technical College where she made the dean’s list in quick fashion.
As the year at Sarah’s drew to a close Meriem knew she would have to find housing again. Having to figure out where she could call home was something that took a toll on her. “Homelessness is like a cancer,” Meriem asserted, explaining how it kept coming back in her life. “You have to do something that will kill it once and for all.”
When Meriem got the phone call from Bobby Morrow, she asked a lot of questions, just to make sure this was real. “I kept asking him again and again, are you going to give me a studio apartment?” He said yes. “But I don’t have money,” she said. No problem. “I don’t have a green card. ”It still was not a problem. “That really got to me. That’s when I knew I really wanted to stay in this country and in this state specifically and give back,” she reflected.
Her life has changed for the better since she found Prior Crossing. She will attend Augsburg University with a free ride. Her anxiety is under control; fewer panic attacks and less crying. “The last six months have been the best months of my life, literally the best. I’ve never had a place for myself” she explained with a sense of relief. Meriem hopes the desire to build affordable housing never cools down. “I wish for people to keep building buildings like this,” she says of her new home. “Keep investing in those who feel abandoned because you never know. You could be helping another Malala, you never know,” she said referring to the young Pakistani activist.
Would Meriem ever consider going back to Tunisia? “If I go back, I might really be harmed,” she said. “This (the US) is my home.” She has “five American Moms” who have raised money to help pay for her expenses. “I want to stay here forever because I’m happy here and I’m safe and I’m free.”
The asylum process is a long one and there is no guarantee that her request for asylum will be granted. But Meriem has faith things will work out. “I have strong faith in my case,” she said with hope in her voice.
Oh, and she’s gotten a cat. Her faith that things will work out inspired her to name this new addition in her life: Hope.
It’s what keeps her going when the unexpected calls.