Odysseys: Pittsburgh suits Tunisian woman swimmingly

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Salma Beji might never have come to the United States from Tunisia if she hadn’t been such an incredible swimmer, winning three national titles in the backstroke that still stand in the North African country’s record books.

The Tunis native certainly wouldn’t have put down roots in Pittsburgh had she not fallen for a handsome Palestinian whose job with U.S. Steel landed him at its corporate headquarters on Grant Street a little more than a year ago.

That’s the cool thing about love and marriage. Just like a handful of gold medals, it can completely change one’s direction in life.

After swimming her way to the 2002 FINA World Championships at age 18 as a member of the Tunisia National Team, Ms. Beji was recruited by the University of Alabama. There was never a question she wouldn’t go; as an athlete, she says, it’s always better to compete in Europe or America.

Better still was the opportunity to pursue a degree in finance – the key to a secure future when she eventually returned to Tunis, where her mother, Rafika, a judge, and father, Nejib, an executive, still live with her younger sister, Azza.

“With an American education back home, you can get a good job,” she says.

It would prove quite the transition when she arrived on campus in 2003.

While she’d grown up on a diet of American movies and studied English in high school, Ms. Beji quickly discovered the Deep South isn’t Hollywood. Not even close.

“It was culture shock,” she says of her new home in Tuscaloosa. “I remember looking at my mom and saying, ‘I’m so dead.’”

With no public transportation, one of the biggest adjustments to living in Alabama was learning to rely on her American roommates to get around. Locals also were wary of her imperfect English and exotic accent, a melodious blend of Arabic and French, and more than once told her friends who wore face veils to “go back to your country.”

“People weren’t so open-minded,” she says. “They always were asking, ‘Why are you here?’”

That’s what she loves about Pittsburgh – no one asks, or cares, where she’s from. “Everyone here is from somewhere else.”

Another positive about America was that things actually get done.

“Coming from a Third World country where’s there’s a lot of corruption, it’s nice to walk into an office and get a document or whatever you’re looking for,” she says.

A shoulder injury would eventually bring Ms. Beji’s swimming career to an end, but by then her life was about so much more than being the fastest girl on the inside lane. After graduating from UA, she took a finance job in Birmingham and started working on her MBA.

She met the man who would become her husband, Malek Aburas, a Palestinian from Jordan. Two years ago, their son, Sammy, was born. And Tunisia, which after years of political unrest experienced a revolution in 2011 and is still going through a period of political transition, became her past instead of her future.

“Especially now, everyone is trying to move somewhere,” she says.

All Ms. Beji knew about Pittsburgh when they relocated here in April 2013 was (1) it was an old city with a lot of history, (2) it was full of immigrants from Italy and Poland, (3) it had a pretty good football team and (4) Tom Cruise had made a really cool movie here in 2012.

Oh, and that it would be cold, she says, recalling a snowy house-hunting trip in March during which she was without a winter coat.

Because they both work Downtown – she’s a corporate action specialist with BNY Mellon and he’s a reliability maintenance specialist at U.S. Steel -- they initially lived in the city, in an apartment at Heinz Lofts. A few months ago, they moved to Mt. Lebanon.

And about those immigrants who feel they’re fish out of water in Pittsburgh? Ms. Beji thinks it’s almost always in their heads.

“You have to first accept the fact that you’re living in the U.S.,” she says. “It’s a balance between knowing this is where you work and live, but you came from somewhere else,”

She loves the fact that buses and trains are so accessible here, and that the city is diverse and alive. Take the Strip District. “One road and you can get food from all over the world,” she marvels.

She’s also amazed by the number of mosques, a rarity in the South.

Most of all, she says, she likes the fact she doesn’t feel like a foreigner in Pittsburgh, where unfamiliar accents don’t stress people out and ethnic and cultural traditions tend to be celebrated instead of feared.

Here, she says, her son “won’t grow up feeling like his parents are the only ones from somewhere else.”

Ms. Beji misses being five minutes from the sunny Mediterranean coast, of course, along with the food she grew up with (which her mother cooks and stocks in her freezer when she visits). But it seems a fair exchange for all the opportunities her adopted country affords.

“This is not just a step in my life,” she says. “I like working here. It’s more productive. You can really become whatever you want to be.”

This article is part of the Odysseys project through which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is trying to track immigrants from 193 countries in the United Nations, folks who made Pittsburgh their home. Read about countries we have found, and help us with those we are yet to make a connection at post-gazette.com/odysseys.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.

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