Living in Homs, Syria with her husband and young son, Dayana Halawo loved her life. She belonged to a neighborhood cooking group, shopped at the market with her mother and was preparing for the birth of a second child.
A civil war in her country was furthest from her mind, but as the fighting came closer, Halawo and her family experienced what is now a common casualty in Syria: their house was bombed and destroyed. Fortunately, they were out that day, but the traumatic event forced them to flee with just a few of their belongings. They left behind their family-owned cosmetics store and friends, and literally ran from a series of unexpected wars and violence for the next five years.
Just prior to crossing the Syrian border to emigrate, corrupt authorities detained them and threatened to behead her husband, Mohammed, until the family could prove they were innocent people and trying to find safety. Under tremendous stress, Halawo gave birth to a daughter.
The family fled to Lebanon and then to Jordan, where refugees are not allowed work and their children are not allowed to attend public school. Halawo’s husband worked odd jobs in secret, running from the police in Amman during routine inspections for illegal workers. Halawo sold her jewelry to send her son to private school.
News of better jobs in Cairo took the family to Egypt, a country where they felt safe until the Arab Spring brought about another round of violence. Fleeing another war, the family returned to Jordan and waited in precarious conditions for a county to welcome them as refugees.
After landing on U.S. soil in late 2016, Halawo, who is now 29 years old, sobbed uncontrollably from both sadness and relief. She left her parents behind in war-ravaged Homs, but her children were now safe.
When IM’s Refugee Services drove them to their apartment in southwest Houston, Halawo stood in the doorway in disbelief. “There were couches and beds in the apartment!” she cried. “We spent years in Jordan sleeping on the floor.”
It didn’t take long for Halawo, who was fortunate to learn English in Syria, to fully understand what life was like in America. “I can work if I want to work, and my children can go to school. We can go where we like,” she said. “We are truly free.”
After she and her family got settled, Halawo wanted to give back to the Houston community. When Hurricane Harvey decimated the city in August 2017, Halawo saw an opportunity. “Everything was destroyed, but it was by water, not war,” she said. “I knew I could safely help people.”
Halawo volunteered to pick up food from a local Middle Eastern restaurant and distribute it to families in shelters. At a particularly overcrowded shelter, displaced Houstonians asked her if she knew of other places to go. “Come to my apartment,” she offered. For weeks, Halawo’s family welcomed two families into their home where they lived in cramped conditions until FEMA could provide suitable housing for their guests.
“I didn’t know them,” Halawo said. “But I had to help them. So many people have helped me.”
Today, Halawo tutors Arabic-speaking adults and children and dreams of becoming a case manager or interpreter for a refugee resettlement agency so she can continue to pay the blessings she has received forward.
To help refugees like Dayana Halawo during the giving season of Ramadan, please visit www.imgh.org/eid.