Dena Mekawi: Navigating Identity with Style and Resilience

Dena is a first generation Egyptian-American who works as a representative to two organizations at the U.N., and also manages Style and Resilience, a creative media platform that spotlights self-expression and global resilience. She reflects on her own personal struggle to find identity, and how her work seeks to help new generations find theirs. Dena believes that self-love and acceptance are a prerequisite for success in all areas of life; her message is one of optimism, adaptability, and, most of all, resilience. This story was recorded in NYC in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps.
“Growing up was sort of interesting because I’m a first generation American. My parents are both immigrants from Egypt; they came here on their honeymoon. So there was always that barrier of trying to preserve my Egyptian culture and kind of… not conforming to the American norm, but kind of allowing myself to be, you know, “the American.” So it was kind of a struggle between what my family says is right and the values we try to maintain versus the American lifestyle and how it is to live out here. A lot of times I found myself feeling like an outsider, mainly in junior high school and also before that, and into high school. I kind of felt like I was an outsider because it was a struggle understanding my identity, and who I really was.

It also stemmed from being shy about telling people I was Egyptian–especially after 9-11. I would always tell them that I’m half Italian, and I wasn’t. It was something that I really struggled with because primarily, in Staten Island, where I live in New York, there weren’t really many Arabs in high school at the time. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and people knew that we were Arab and, you know, it was a lot of bullying with me and my brother, and we had family who wore headscarves, and a lot of the time I was just finding my identity.

I love my culture. Today I’m extremely proud to be Egyptian. My childhood was amazing; we used to go to Egypt every few years to visit family. That’s something I believe in: Always hold your culture and be proud of it. I’m a youth representative for two organizations at the United Nations; one of them is the Women’s National Book Association, and the other is Pathways to Peace. I was given that opportunity while I was getting my masters at Pace University, and prior to that, I was Miss Arab U.S.A.. I did the pageant and I came back and I was like, well I didn’t win, but it was a cool experience, and everybody was like wow, you still went and you had a great time and you met amazing people.

Then I came out here and I continued my purpose in inspiring girls and those who kind of feel like they have an identity crisis. I just kept writing articles and blogs on different platforms that are geared towards that topic. Then I was given an opportunity: when I was working on my masters at Pace University, I saw the United Nations and I was like, Oh there’s no way, but let me just give it a try. So I applied and [the interviewer] had seen my videos from previous pageants, and my articles, so she was like, Okay, we want you to be the representative, and then she turned me into the main representative. What that means is, it’s like a title, it’s like being Miss Arab; you are basically the representative for that organization and it’s up to you to navigate within the U.N. So with WNBA, it’s focused on women and youth; it’s my job to sort of disseminate whatever conferences or meetings that happen within that given time period.

I found interest in it, and it kind of gave me an entrepreneurial mindset–that wasn’t even the job role! The lead chapter, she was like, you’ve done more than you were asked, because I just see so much opportunity, and I started to see people trusting in me, and myself as my brand, sort of detaching me being a representative.

People started trusting in me and reaching out to me, so I was like, you know what? I want to launch Style and Resilience, because it kind of resonated with everything that I was becoming–it just made sense. When I thought about Style and Resilience–you think fashion, right? You think about style and fashion, but then you think of resilience, the ability to come back stronger after facing adversity, but style is also the way in which you overcome that obstacle, in which you overcome adversity. Style is also the way you hurt, the way you speak, the way you dress, so a lot of Style and Resilience comes from my role and my purpose in serving this generation and women, and empowering this generation of youth, and how I found myself through creativity, through fashion, through style. So Style and Resilience sort of stems from certain experiences that inspired me to launch Style and Resilience, so that’s how style and resilience came to play.

You need to work on yourself first, and know who you are. Everybody has a different journey obviously, but if you don’t know who you are, and your journey, and your purpose, and love yourself before you love someone else, you’re honestly setting yourself up for failure. I think you need self-love in every aspect–self-love with relationships, self-love with your body, and accepting every aspect of your life for how it is. Never repeat the words “Why me,” because everybody has their own journey that God has set up for them, so I just think: Accept every situation, have resilience.”

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