Dr. Sa’ed Atshan Interviews Deya’ Leonard Dresner
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Deya’. I’m deeply interested to learn more about your personal background and life trajectory.
– Dr. Atshan
Could you tell us a little about where you were born and the circumstances of your birth?
My father is from East Tennessee, and my mother came from a family in Nazareth, Palestine, but lived in Haifa till 1948. Due to the Nakba my mother’s family lost everything and moved to Lebanon where three of her older siblings were living with friends after boarding school there and a brother was at the American University of Beirut (AUB) at the time. When my parents married they moved to the States first living in Syracuse to complete my father’s Masters in Literacy Journalism, then moving to Cambridge, MA as my baba was working on his PhD at Harvard, this is where I was born.
How did your parents meet? Did their marriage endure?
My baba had recently ended his service as a conscientious objector during which he was pastor of the Ramallah Friends Meeting and went on to AUB to teach a summer course for Teacher Trainers, all were Palestinian teacher supervisors. He was invited to go to the Sporting Club beach by his friend Usama Miqdadi and his sisters Laila and Rufeida, who were meeting up with friends. My mother’s family owned the Sporting so she went there daily as she had just graduated from the Beirut College for Women. Usama’s friend introduced Graham to Lily and they were married six weeks later! Their marriage ended after seven years and two daughters, my baba took Mona and me to live in the UK.
It sounds like your family experience at the age of six was very difficult. How did you process that trauma and how has it impacted your worldview?
I had a very nurturing father, perhaps I missed the influence of having a female role model growing up, but our lives were filled with many family friends spread all over the world, so I felt like I belonged to a big tribe. These families are still a big part of my life and I am thankful for this. Yes of course there has been residual trauma impacting my life and path, yet perhaps it helped me develop a strong sense of empathy. My baba raised me and my sister Mona in the Palestinian traditions, and this is why my heartfelt connection to Palestine is still strong. I joke that I am spiritually Palestinian, morally British and professionally American and an outsider everywhere I live. I feel privileged however to be a citizen of the world.
What is your educational background?
I started my schooling in Lebanon, speaking only Arabic and French, and only learned the English language when we moved to the UK when I was six. First I attended a Montessori school, then from the age of 10-15 I attended an all-girls Quaker boarding school, moving to an alternative school during my High School years in southwestern, UK, this suited me well as I was a terrible student, and I was allowed to pursue non-academic interests. By some miracle I was accepted to college in the US at the age of 17, this was to be the first time in my life that I lived there. I may not have been a good candidate for conventional schooling but I always had a passion for learning, reading and research, as my father showed us the world during school vacations and instilled in us a can-do mindset, which has served me well. From my British education I learned self-discipline and team work ethics, from my US college experience I learned little, but that was due to my shortcomings.
How did you get into modeling? What did you learn from that world?
While at college a photographer saw me crossing the road one day and gave me his business card. I did a photoshoot with him in Boston, I laugh now that I think back, as I had no idea how to wear makeup, I remember I wore my pink aviator jumpsuit and no shoes. Without my knowledge he sent my photos to Wilhelmina Modeling agency, one of the top agencies in New York City, at the time. Within a short period they called and requested to meet me, long story short I turned down the contract offer as I had no interest in living in NY and wasn’t driven by any need to be in that industry. A year later I was married to my late husband Alan and living in Washington, DC. Again I was approached to model, so I engaged, this period in fashion was focused on blondes and redheads and I got photoshoots when they needed the “Other” category. My career as a runway model however took off quickly due to my extensive dance background, even though I was on the short spectrum for the runway.
During these 30 years I learned to organize my thoughts, write proposals, produce shows, charity galas and Ad campaigns, working for some of fashion’s biggest names and traveling the world for work. I learned skills that now serve me well at LE.O, as a model I experienced many rejections and disappointments, making me a thick skinned fundraiser. As a producer I became detail oriented and able to manage pressure and logistical nightmares, needed when working to guide our LE.O students through border crossings and first time travel, and more recently getting a student from Gaza left stranded by his year abroad program in Africa, back into Gaza during the Covid lockdown. I learned that I was only as strong as my team and support system. I am humbled by the guidance from our board members, our partners, my family friends and donors who are by my side throughout.
How did you catalyze LE.O initially and how has the community grown over the years?
Getting started was not an easy task, I was sure that funding would follow after the students approached me and asked me to establish a program they could be a part of building and running. However it seemed that we needed to prove ourselves first before donors and foundations would engage on even the smallest level. My family and old friends stepped up to help with the initial costs, many people volunteered their services as the students quickly set about establishing our standard operating procedures and philosophy. It didn’t take me long to find board members who understood our mission and wanted to be a part of the program, many of whom I had family ties to as our families had worked together on education for Palestinians, in the past. We have grown to the extent we can with the funding gifted to us. We are still all volunteers, we now have students studying in ten countries, students working alongside me to run the day to day work, mentoring, opening doors for new cohorts, resolving challenges, supporting each other and the few alumni now help to support us financially. More details are available in our Newsletters on our site. The sense of pride and mission is strong amongst our community which also includes our boards, Host Families and Donors. Our successes speak for themselves, this is what brings more scholarships offered by the schools, and people wanting to be part of our progress. After all, what better way to empower and uplift the youth from Palestine’s forgotten families (a term I feel represents so many of our community) than to open doors for the younger generation to attain a better future through the gift of an education.
What have you learned from working in the NGO world
Wow, enough to fill a book, so I will write one, if I ever retire!
What are some of your main values?
Integrity, empathy, loyalty, courage, adventure, and fun.
What role has the Quaker faith and religion played in your life?
This is an interesting question for me, as it is complicated. I was baptized in the Melkite Catholic Cathedral in Baalbek, Lebanon, raised as a Quaker, my late husband was a non-practicing Jew, my current husband is Serb Orthodox, I have family who have married those who follow the Islamic Faith and the majority of students in our LE.O Community happen to be Muslim.
The purist teachings of all religions are the same in my opinion, and as a Quaker I was offered the freedom to meditate with my own thoughts. I like to think that I follow all the teachings, and try to live by them in service to others, I feel it as my duty and privilege. I am fascinated by Buddhism.
Could you tell us about your family in the present?
I was widowed fourteen years ago and lost my husband of 26 years to cancer. Four years later I married a Serbian doctor, a recent immigrant to the US. I have a son and he has two daughters. In the short eleven years we have been married we witnessed the marriage of all our children, and by early October we will have become grandparents to seven children. Both our mother’s passed recently after suffering from Alzheimer’s and my 95 year old baba lives with us. And now I am learning a new language and thoroughly enjoying exploring my husband’s home land.
From where do you derive inspiration?
For sure from our students, I am in awe of their brilliance, dedication, perseverance and sacrifices. I cannot explain to myself how these young treasures have achieved so much from such a disadvantaged start in life, I think of how many more young Palestinian youth with potential are falling through the cracks. I am interested in learning the path their families have taken since the Nakba, how their command of another language is so good, and what drives them. I have the best job I could have ever imagined for myself.
What does Palestine mean to you?
Palestine is a place I could have grown up surrounded by my family, the root of love. For now it is still home held in my heart.
How do you maintain your spirit and hope?
Well Hope is ingrained in me as a Palestinian, no? I am one of those people who wakes up happy to greet the new day. I believe anything is possible and that action can produce the desired results. Maintaining my spirit is the hardest however, I see now how privileged I was to grow up in a bubble, now my eyes are wide open as I learn the details of our student families profound struggles. I hope I set a good example as a positive thinker to the students, and their responses and achievements reaffirm this to me.
Any final words?
Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. —Malcolm X
Dr. Sa’ed Atshan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, grew up in Palestine, and has been a valued and long standing supporter of the LE.O. Community.