Interviewed by Citrine Ghraowi, Photographed by Joana Meurkens
Dania Darwish is a 28 year old Arab American currently residing in Brooklyn, New York.
I’ve known Dania Darwish for a little over two years now. We have a lot in common, we both worked together at a non-profit centered around helping immigrants and refugees acclimate to this country, we have an unhindered love for New York City, and we’ve bonded over our mutual appreciation of the poet Nizar Qabbani. Aside from all of this, our biggest similarity, I believe, is our identity, and how it has shaped us. I was born and raised in Texas and although I’ve spent the majority of my life there, some of my earliest memories are traveling back to Syria with my family and spending the summers in the city of Damascus, a place my father once called home. I knew Syria was a country far from where I lived, and subconsciously I think I could feel another part of myself coming alive in those short months every year. It was almost as if I had an “on/off” button as I was growing up. I was the Americanized version of myself here in Texas, and I was bint Ayman (daughter of Ayman, in Arabic) back in Syria.
Like myself, Dania Darwish is an Arab-American of Syrian descent. Born in Syria, she grew up and has spent the majority of her life in what is known as the concrete jungle of NYC. On a recent call with her, she told me about her parents journey to the U.S. “My parents came here because they wanted better opportunities for me and my siblings. My father told me stories about his studies in Syria, and how hard it was to get into the career he wanted.”
Within the education system in Syria, your career is essentially decided by one test after your studies. If you miss the mark, even by a few points, you are unable to work in your desired field. “My dad was such a hard worker and longed to be an engineer. After failing the test he felt defeated by the system and knew it was something he never wanted his children to go through, so he came to America and built a life for us,” Dania went on to tell me.
“It wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I visited Syria for the first time,” Dania mentioned to me as we reminisced. “My siblings and I were in complete disbelief. This was an entirely different world that was somehow connected to mine. We went back every summer after that until the war.”
The Syrian refugee crisis is the largest refugee and displacement crisis of the 20th century. After witnessing the atrocities in the country and hearing stories of friends and cousins who fled the country across the Mediterranean into Greece, Dania knew there was something she had to do to help.
The war in Syria began to take root in March of 2011, leaving the world and its citizens unaware of when and how the violence would end. Little did we know it would come to this, an ongoing crisis that we’ve slowly become numb to. After the passing of time, we’ve dehumanized this war along with many others. Dania and I, amongst others living in the diaspora, were born privileged enough to not have experienced the destruction of the war first hand, but it has still shaped and scarred us in ways hard to describe. Survivor’s guilt is the easiest way for me to define a very complex feeling. It’s defined as a sense of guilt that occurs after surviving a life-threatening, traumatic event when others did not. As much as I’d like to think I would have worked in immigration and refugee resettlement despite my connections to the MENA ( Middle East/ North African) region, I am certain that deep down there is a duty I felt the need to fulfill because of the privilege I was born into. “Why me?” I’ve continuously thought to myself. “Why was my father able to leave when he did? How different would my life look had he stayed?”
Dania and I bonded over this mutual feeling, discussing ways we’ve tried to help throughout the war. “We all have a role to play when devastating situations like this occur, and that’s what inspired me to start working at an organization that aided in humanitarian relief across Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, providing services to over 10,000 refugees.” Today, more than 12 million Syrians have fled from their homes, with over 1 million children having been born into exile. After her work within the camps, Dania knew she wanted to do something more impactful within her own community here in New York, and in 2018 she founded the Asiyah women’s shelter. “Our community is constantly facing one threat after another. In this U.S. it’s Islamophobia and racism, and in our homeland it’s our own government that sees us as the enemy. We’re always viewed as the “other”, no matter where we are or what we do.”
Previously working as a Public Health Advisor at an NGO, she came into contact with numerous clients who were refugees or immigrants experiencing domestic violence. “One woman came in with nothing but ten dollars to her name, covered in black and blue bruises.” Dania told me, “She asked me, “where do I go from here?” I have nothing. No one. City shelters don’t speak my language and can’t understand what I need.” Hearing of her experience, Dania realized how many other women had come into her local mosque, asking for places to stay for the night because of how unsafe they felt in their own home.
On average, more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the U.S will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “If you look at other city shelters, they’re not culturally competent enough to handle immigrant or refugee cases. They won’t have a place for prayer or Arabic, Urdu and Hindi resources for women who don’t speak English and are struggling to understand the culture. It takes a lot to feel comfortable enough to take the journey of being independent and leaving a toxic abuser, and at times that’s why so many return. They may have been brave enough to leave, but soon enough they find there’s no space for what they need to recover. Here at Asiyah, we give them that. This is a space that keeps all those needs in mind.”
As our conversation came to a close, I asked Dania if there was anything else she wanted to let our readers know. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned from doing all this work is that if you build it, whatever it may be, they will come. A lot of us are just waiting for resources to come to life, but you can just build it yourself, and people will want to build alongside you. If someone told me five years ago that I was going to build a women’s shelter, I would’ve said you’re crazy. We tell ourselves this dream of ours is too big or someone else can do it better. This is part of the Imposter Syndrome, where you think you’re not qualified enough or intelligent enough, but I’ve learned over the years to put all of those insecurities to rest.”