Hanan Yahya: Defying All Preconceived Cultural Barriers

 Hanan Yahya, a senior at the University of Michigan­Ann Arbor studying Social Theory and Practice with a concentration in Urban Studies; and minors in Entrepreneurship and Community Action and Social Change. You can follower her on Instagram  @#theeBlaze

Born in Yemen, I moved to the United States at 3 years old along with my 8 siblings and two parents. Raised in Southwest Detroit, I spent 13 years of school at a local charter school, Universal Academy. With a total of 600 students, it was made up of a majority Yemeni and Arab American student and faculty population. Growing up in that environment made me feel like I never left the homeland to begin with.

The Yemeni culture is one of the oldest and most traditional cultures in the Middle­-East, a beautiful attribute I’m proud of; however, the ancient traditions come with a conservative nature and concrete boundaries. This was exceptionally true when it comes to women. I knew this for a fact early on in my studies, because nearly every member of my family and community fell victim to this. My mother is my best friend and biggest advocate. She is illiterate (in both English and Arabic), raised in the village and married at the age of 14. She was given no choice in her future and spent her life as a dedicated wife and mother. She put her all into raising us and ensuring that every opportunity she missed out on, we were given.

My eldest sister also sacrificed for the sake of the family, getting married at the age of 16 when we immigrated to the U.S. and spent the next 9 years of her life confined to her home­making role. As the second to youngest child, I had the privilege of carrying the wisdom of my elders along with me on my journey. Because of them, I felt like I had lived 9 different lifetimes, fueling my passions to break boundaries.

In order to escape the shackles of this community, I knew I needed to prove myself to my family, school, and community. I needed to build my character to build trust with every individual I ever crossed paths with. The pressure was on and yet I was confident. I was a revolutionary.I made sure I was on top of my studies and growing as an individual by the year. With faith and perseverance, I was able to achieve everything my heart desired. High school was the turning point of my journey. I began driving and earning my own allowance through part­-time and summer jobs: money that I saved up to buy my first car. I was an insurgent.
I graduated at the top of my class, with over 2,300 community service hours, vast professional and leadership qualities,acceptance to the University of Michigan­ Ann Arbor, and over $90,000 worth of national, state, and local scholarships. It was my faith in God, my mother, mentors, and of course, my personal ambitious and fighting nature that drove me through. At that point, I proved myself. I was strong and brilliant woman representative of my Yemeni, Arab, and Muslim communities, as well as my American and Detroit identities. I created a new culture based on a new fusion of identities, proactive in dismantling harmful frameworks and developing empowering ones.

Getting accepted and being allowed to live on campus was another one of my fights. My mother was the first to object the notion and then the first to support me. It was only after blood, sweat, and tears were shed for years leading to my senior year that I was “allowed” to go. I paid my enrollment deposit without my family’s knowledge and declared to them that I was going and that they had no option but to support me. I needed to proactively and patiently open them up to new ideas and activities I pursued. My spiritual character I built grounded me during times of unconfidence and weakness.

I spent my undergraduate career tightly knit to my communities, always infusing every course lesson or program opportunity into my work. In total, my work and volunteer experiences lie in the fields of education, community organizing, policy, and social innovation. I grew to be an activist in many forms as well as an aspiring educator and social entrepreneur. In the winter semester of my freshman year, I participated in the Semester in Detroit program where I returned to my city to live, learn, work, and engage in the city’s revitalization. I earned a spring and summer advocacy job at my internship where I created a professional resource guide, built a new block club framework, established an online presence, and also re­created the youth committee to train the next generation of young leaders of our community.

My sophomore year was filled with promoting higher education work in the Yemeni­-American communities in Southwest Detroit, Hamtramck, Dearborn, Melvindale, and Coldwater. I served as the President of the American Association of Yemeni Students and Professionals­ Michigan Chapter. I also worked as an instructor for two years of the Digital Connectors program through ACCESS(Arab Community Center of Economic and Social Services) where I empowered over 50 students from at­ risk communities to be the next first generation digital leaders and social change agents of our community.

In the spring of 2014, I interned as the Executive Assistant to the Attorney Fatina Abdrabboh at the ADC (Arab American Anti­Discrimination) where I was exposed to be a new field of law and policy work. I broke a new barrier later that summer (of 2014) when I returned alone to my homeland, Yemen, and studied advanced Arabic at the YCMES (Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies) and also conducted research on the state of the education system in the capital city of Sana’a. In every opportunity, I challenged myself in a new arena and in a new capacity: to better myself in leadership and activism. My junior year of college was filled with a more self­ discovery oriented journey where I pursued law school as my graduate goal and began to learn more about my community work, locally and globally now, through a more policy ­oriented lens. At that point, I had already hopped through 3 majors and careers.

In the winter of 2015, my revolutionary journey went global. This new opportunity also required me to prove myself to my family and community to allow me to go somewhere that was completely unfamiliar and strange to me. Living and learning in Scotland and traveling during breaks was the most remarkable journey of my life so far. I was challenged spiritually and academically causing for me to drop my law school and international studies plans. I realized what I loved to do most and where, so after recovering after returning to the U.S., I picked up the Social Theory and Practice major concentrating on urban studies and also the entrepreneurship minor, because of my growing love for social innovation and entrepreneurship. Throughout my travels in the UK and across Europe such as Spain, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and more: I manifested a relentless drive for ambitious local and global dreams, beyond what I had ever envisioned for myself before.

That is where I am now. I’m continuously growing and learning more about my passions as time goes on. I plan to apply to the Ross School of Business and School of Urban Planning as my graduate school plans unfold. I also plan to return to my hometown of Detroit to work alongside activists to empower the city back to health. I wish to partake in movements, defy the odds, pursue my dreams and ultimately, change the world. I am a revolutionary. I am a force to be reckoned with and I perpetually inspire those around me, to be the best version of themselves. I am a strong woman who does not back down from her beliefs and from representing and protecting my community. Even when I am the only one, I stand tall and speak loudly, unafraid to stand for what I believe in.

I am someone who wants to see my own community succeed and truly measure success by the number of those who also feel empowered to do whatever they wish to do. Yet, I have also made my own success, speaking out in movements and initiating my own projects in Ann Arbor and Detroit, to mentor and empower youth. I am an individual who knows how to guide those around me through inspiration and by showing them the beauty in everyday scenarios. I find strength in being a first-­generation college student and never fail to remember those who allowed me to lead and were your first followers: your parents. I make it a priority to lead through passion and love.

My devotion to empowering Yemeni and Muslim youth, as well as paving the path for other first-­generation college students, has made me proud to be an integral part of the Michigan community. As a student, I’ve worked hard to ensure that my presence among my peer­­s a leader and a team member ­­has made our campus a better place. I tried to exceed expectations in representing my community and beliefs, even in classrooms where I am the only one speaking up. I have stood up against professors and students who were ignorant to your identities and stood strong despite it all. I am loyal to myself and to those around me, especially my community.

I see many parallels with my story and that of Malala Yousafzai’s, who equally in her realm has been a trailblazer in initiating change within her community. Like her, I hope to empower others and lead by example. Her story is one that resonates with many women and girls in my community. Our generation is one of change. I hope that I can garner others to follow a new path of progress, equality, opportunities, and resources. I dedicate a large majority of my time at home, or away from campus, working on empowering the next generation. Rather than forget where I came from, I remember it each and every day, and always ask myself what else I can do to make my community stronger. I have made it my goal to serve my community and the University endlessly, never asking for credit, but only wanting to see those around me succeed.

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