NuDay Syria founder and activist Nadia Alawa delivered the keynote speech for ’DEIS Impact, discussing her own humanitarian action and how she came to found a non-profit to help mothers and children in need. Alawa’s speech, titled “One Person at a Time, One Humanity Closer: Tackling the Syrian Crisis From New Hampshire,” was introduced by Student Union President Jacob Edelman ’18 and Yiyi Wu ’19, ’DEIS Impact Chair.
While Alawa was living in the United States with her Syrian husband and eight children, she watched the Syrian revolution begin to unfold over Facebook. The images of the revolution playing out on the streets of downtown Homs haunted her as she saw Syrians “out on the streets, assembled against oppression and hatred, advocating for their right to freedom, liberty and dignity,” she said.
Alawa recalled attending a rally in support of Syrian independence in downtown Boston, only the second demonstration she had ever been to. As they demonstrated their support for a free and democratic Syria, Alawa realized she had not been exercising her own democratic rights. “It was weird, hypocritical almost, to be rallying for the freedom and democracy of Syrians without ever having acted on those rights myself,” Alawa said.
“All though I am part Syrian, part Dane, my journey is not that of a Syrian-Dane finding her roots,” Alawa explained. Instead, she said, her story in one of “a woman with a diverse and advantageous background who wants to make a difference and who is constantly evolving.”
As she became more involved in the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria, Alawa realized her efforts might have been more self-serving. Alawa drew a distinction between “activism for the self and activism for humanity,” but explained the two are not mutually exclusive. She decided to focus on where she could make the biggest difference, even if that meant looking beyond established NGOs.
Alawa began on a small scale and eventually established NuDay as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based out of New Hampshire. NuDay’s mission, Alawa said, is the “empowerment and dignity of the Syrian people,” with a specific focus on mothers and children in need. As a mother herself, she felt the bond of motherhood extend from her home in the United States to Syria.
Alawa’s view of feminism and motherhood connects to her activism. She grew up during the 1970’s wave of feminism, saying, “back then, feminism meant there was one way of being an ‘empowered woman’” and being a mother did not fit the mold. Intersectional feminism, she argued, “understands women as independent actors from all spaces and backgrounds…allied together for positive change.”
Alawa wanted to bring her understanding of motherhood, feminism and individual empowerment to NuDay Syria. The organization looks at each person it reaches as someone with strength and dignity, people whose circumstances are far from the norm in the United States but are not different in their humanity, said Alawa.
“It took years for me to become the humanitarian activist I am today,” Alawa told the audience. She “considers dignity before pride and consciously makes the assumption that others are capable and powerful human beings despite their current humanitarian disaster, family loss, or personal despair.”
To combat the crises mothers and children face in Syria, NuDay delivers crates of supplies to camps in Syria or Turkey. Where exactly these crates go and what supplies they contain is largely up to their Syrian partners to decide. “I felt a calling to be part of the story as it was unfolding,” Alawa said, “but I also knew that I was an outsider and as such had to take their collective lead on where my role would best be.” Alawa described NuDay’s success as the product of the combined effort of Syrians and Americans.
NuDay vets its contacts in Syria multiple times and takes claims of sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind very seriously. It keeps lines of communication open between Syrian partners and American volunteers.
During the fall semester, Brandeis students traveled to New Hampshire to volunteer with NuDay Syria as part of the Waltham Group’s Mini Day of Service, helping to pack crates to send off. When the crates arrive, volunteers take pictures to post on Facebook, ensuring donations are reaching those in need.
After her speech, event organizers opened the floor to questions. One attendee asked Alawa how to become involved in activism or volunteer work when it seems humanitarian crises are too overwhelming to be helped by just one person’s actions. It is the small things, Alawa argued, that make a difference in the world.
“Do what you can, not what you can’t,” Alawa said.