Two Muslim sisters contribute to BYU Office of Belonging

Sama Salah (left) and Noureen Salah (right) are sisters who attend BYU. The Salah sisters are Muslim students and work at the BYU Office of Belonging. (Photo courtesy of Noureen Salah)

At the heart of BYU, where most students subscribe to the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, two voices seek to foster belonging among students of all faiths.

With beginnings rooted in serving abroad and the Islamic faith, sisters Sama and Noureen Salah are Muslim students who bring their life mission of service, diverse experience, Islamic values and faith to BYU and the Office of Belonging.

While serving Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a girl whom Sama describes as her “little friend” beamed, knowing her family would receive food and aid.

Both Sama and Noureen spent hours teaching, serving and delivering food to refugees in the camps. Limited supplies and what the sisters describe as “subhuman conditions” leave refugees with only the clothes on their backs and little food. Yet, the people in the refugee camps invited the Salah family into their temporary homes and offered them tea, oranges and their company.

Sama, a junior studying experience design, and Noureen, a sophomore studying neuroscience, have been serving in refugee camps with their family through Hope Humanitarian since they were young teenagers.

Sama Salah (far right) with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Sama Salah and Noureen Salah have volunteered with Hope Humanitarian for over six years. (Photo courtesy of Noureen Salah)

This life of dedicated service was fostered in the Salah household as the family served with Hope Humanitarian for six years.

Even though Sama and Noureen were raised in Utah, they said they feel a deep connection to the people they have served and their Middle Eastern roots.

“Helping these people feels like a calling since we are both Arab and share the same identity,” Noureen said.

Sama believes there is no amount of trouble or hardship that service cannot fix, and said service is at the heart of her family’s familial bond.

“Serving as a family helps us to be grateful for each other,” Sama said. 

Although members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up more than 66% of the population in Utah, the Salah sisters’ Muslim faith has stayed strong. Sama said her religion and Utah’s predominant faith have similarities that help her see both religions as one.

Touched by their years of service, Sama and Noureen decided BYU was a good fit for their educational path. Their parent’s involvement with BYU and the university’s unofficial motto of “Enter to learn, go forth to serve,” inspired the girls’ desire to attend.

According to Noureen, the Salah parents met and married in Cairo, Egypt before coming to Utah and pursuing their higher education at BYU.

“We are raised predominantly surrounded by an LDS community, and BYU was not a huge change to us,” Noureen said.

Noureen described herself and Sama as “BYU babies.” Their first home was their parent’s apartment at Wyview Apartments and their father, Ahmad M. Salah, said he and his wife “bleed blue.”

When Sama decided on BYU, she said she had to choose between many university acceptances.  

“I prayed about my decision to come to BYU,” Sama said. “I had a dream I visited my friend at Heritage Halls, and knew I needed to attend.”

During the summer of 2022, a Muslim prayer circle was held in honor of a BYU student from Egypt who passed away in a car accident. Students and faculty of varying faiths gathered together in prayer. It was there that the two sisters met Fui Vakapuna, former BYU and NFL football player and current athletic counselor at BYU. Vakapuna had recently been tasked with developing the new Office of Belonging.

Vakapuna was given office space to develop a “safe space for all individuals,” earlier that year, he said. The space would be specifically geared toward students of other faiths and socioeconomic backgrounds to receive mentorship with their transition to BYU student life.

Noureen was hired as a student manager and Sama was hired as a research assistant for the new office. Sama said she and Noureen worked closely with Vakapuna and other staff to “formulate ideas that support the initiative of having a stronger sense of belonging on campus.”

Noureen and Sama brought the values they gained from serving overseas with their family to their work with the Office of Belonging. In a video posted by the office on Sept. 28, 2023, Noureen and Sama explained their goal for the BYU Office of Belonging.

“We don’t understand everyone’s story, all we know is that we have to work our best to make them feel like there is a place for them in this world,” Sama said in the video

BYU Vice President Carl Hernandez, Sama Salah, Noureen Salah and BYU President C. Shane Reese at the BYU Office of Belonging refugee service project. Sama and Noureen Salah are two Muslim students who work at the BYU Office of Belonging (Photo courtesy of Noureen Salah).

Outside of their work with the Office of Belonging, the Salah sisters are sure to make time to honor and remember their faith.

The two attend Jumu’ah services every Friday, the Islamic faith’s holy day of the week. The girls and other Muslim students gather in a service led by the girls’ father where they pray and are taught the values of belonging and other core Islamic teachings.

At the Friday prayer service in October, Ahmad Salah sat with his daughters, other Muslim students and guests from BYU. He urged students to educate themselves about global conflicts, especially those in the Middle East.

“When we see others struggling, we need to ask ourselves how we would feel … we’re human, and we are all brothers and sisters,” Ahmad Salah said.

Working with Noureen and Sama has been inspiring, Vakapuna said.

“They understand their environment … and they lead with power and influence,” Vakapuna said.

Vakapuna said he admires Sama and Noureen’s faithfulness to their religion and their kindness and patience to those around them.

Sama encouraged BYU students to learn to love each other “not despite our differences but because of our differences.”

In a world full of picking sides, Vakapuna said it is important everyone comes to learn and have empathy before passing judgment on others.

“These girls provide that experience for a lot of people,” Vakapuna said.

The BYU Office of Belonging is located in room 2400 of the BYU Wilkinson Center. Students can seek out the Office for information on topics such as belonging, reconciliation and events.

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