Student, Fashion Design, Dreamer, Beirut, Lebanon

Diana Azzam is a student at the Creative Space Beirut, the first free fashion school that remodeled Beirut’s educational design scene, started by Sarah Hermez. Through this pioneering proposal, Ms. Hermez addressed traditional charges of elitism in fashion and re-designed and thereby challenged a usual approach to creative industries. Ms. Azzam is a direct benefactor of such model of teaching. She was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in Lebanon in a Palestinian refugee household, with few limited opportunities to seek a well-paid career or educational opportunities, never-mind freedom to pursue something she is passionate about. She researched Creative Space Beirut, was interviewed and selected for possessing talent, but also for her lack of financial backing to enter a similar (and typically private) educational institution.

When I met Ms. Azzam she was preparing for the year-end fashion show where each student proudly shows off fruits of his or her labour. The photos reveal a determined, shy student whose talents are being rightfully nurtured and spotlighted. Diana’s tuition is paid for as well as her transportation to and from school. Commuting from another city to Beirut every day, Diana wants to be at this school. In her (very much unedited) answers, as if inadvertently, Diana paints a startling picture of the political and cultural divide in Lebanon, and specific gender disenfranchised situation in the region and her community. She does not complain, but merely questions her sanity at times trying to be a strong female, torn between cultural expectations and ambition. Her revelations are incredibly intense and difficult to read at times because they come across as brutally honest, while sounding “assumed” or even nonchalant.

You can feel the truth, when it‘s hard to digest in your gut, when it comes at you completely unembellished. Yet it is Ms Azzam’s reality. Through it all, she remains unbelievably sanguine and thoughtful about the future. She says “I would like to migrate to another country, start over again, find a great job, make a beautiful family and continue my studies, while living hopefully in my own home. I would like to end up in a place that accepts and respects us (Palestinians).”

Feeling secure, safe, respected and having a sense of agency - should be basic human norms, right?*

The following answers are written by Ms. Azzam (with a few spelling/grammar tweaks from me). Please keep in mind that English is a second (or third/fourth..) language and is not 100% perfect . Perfect is boring anyway!

1. Name.

Diana Fadi Azzam.

2. Where is your hometown?

I'm from Palestine precisely from Hittin but because of the bad political situation there we had to move to Lebanon so now I live in Sayda, South of Lebanon.

3. What is your profession / career / title / self-label / designation?

I am a first year fashion design student at Creative Space Beirut. I finished the first year successfully, going into second.

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career wise) What are some accomplishments you're most proud of? What was the turning point to set you on a current path in life?

The journey was long and tiring with lots of pressure; yet fun and entertaining. With hard work and the help of the amazing team I made it to where I am.

Through the year I discovered that I'm actually good at sewing, which helped me a lot while making my final look of the year: a black winter coat with pockets, zippers, hoodie with a cord... Which I'm very proud of.

Joining the Creative Space and going to Beirut everyday also affected my character a lot. It changed me from a very timid girl into a confident one. I feel more responsible and organized because of my new lifestyle (waking up and sleeping at a specific time, going and coming alone from where I live in the south to Beirut, meeting new people with different background and merging into a more open-minded society).

Due to the economical and social conditions I'm passing through, this experience showed me that it’s possible to have the desire to have a better life, to make a change, help my family and the needed ones.

 5. What did you study in school?

At school I studied Arabic and English language, social studies, Lebanese and Arab world history, geography, philosophy, math, physics, chemistry, and biology. My favorite subjects were the scientific ones. This interest resulted in me choosing life science section in my last scholastic year. When I finished school I started my collage at NPA Norwegian People Aid (Norwegian People’s Aid Lebanon is a non-profit, rights-based civil society organization dedicated to strengthening and promoting the democratic and civil rights of the Palestinian refugees and marginalized Lebanese groups). It is a college founded only for the Palestinians refugees in Lebanon that can't afford the tuition fees for attending universities or other colleges. It teaches only business administration courses and consists of only one intensive year equivalent to two years at any other university. The subjects studied there are the introduction to business, business management, office management, marketing, economy, business research, computer courses, Arabic and English typing, Microsoft Office programs, public speaking in English and working on various projects.

I ended the year successfully with a degree. And then when I finished, I went to a tailoring factory for four months where I learned how to sew and use the sewing machine. There I had a general idea about working with garments and how clothes are made at factories. This step made me fall in love more and more with studying fashion design and having it as a life career.

6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?

Actually I could never have imagined myself to be where I have been at age 20 or now at age 23. I imagined myself as any other girl I know, either at the university or at home helping my mom with the home chores or having a job.

7. Was there a time when life knocked you down or out and how did you get back up on your feet?

There are many ups and downs in everyone's life and to me all problems came at once. First when I finished my education I couldn't find a job and at that time I needed to help my family pay bills (since unfortunately I’m living in a country that has racist political rule towards Palestinians). Throughout that whole time I was depressed. I also faced so many family problems since I’m a girl raised in a very conservative society whose minds are still blocked with the old customs and traditions (for example refusing my having friends or dealing with people other than relatives). These limitations, I think, are not a healthy thing. It will cause me to have weak personality! Going out with my friends and spending the day together, having fun and living like a normal teenager are considered a crime! I’m only allowed to go out to my college and get straight back home. These problems made me undergo physiological stresses every day. In addition, I faced sexual harassment for several years and that made me weak. I was always scared, hated my life and hated myself as well. I also hated being a girl living in this society.

All these stresses affected negatively my education, made me a broken girl with less confidence and made me feel scared about everything. The hardest part to me was that there wasn't anyone on my side, not even close friends. I was blamed, and it felt that everyone was against me. Thank God I’m still a virgin, but sometimes I start thinking ‘what if something bad happens to me, would I be killed for a thing I’m not responsible for?!!’ During days like those I thought of committing suicide and yes I tried, but my attempt failed. I know it sounds bad and weak and I hate these feelings. I like being a strong, positive and passionate, but sometimes things come, and your life breaks you down into pieces! But come on, what should I do but hope that everything just stops and ends!

I cried days and days and the only thing in my mind was wondering when this nightmare was going to end. Some friends ended up being two faced and made my trust issues even worse. I managed to finish my school, then my college and I then started attending tailoring classes, doing the thing that I loved and had curiosity about. I started to put my problems aside and accepted my destiny, while beginning to think in a positive way about things. I started setting out goals and dreams for myself. I began to feel hopeful and the biggest turning point to me was finding Creative Space Beirut school and being accepted in it!! That made me feel nothing is impossible, that things may change and work out and dreams may be fulfilled.

Actually, I felt as if I was drowning and someone saved me!

8. Advice for other women?

Just never lose hope, never give up on things, you sometimes fall down once, twice, a million times… but at the end you are going to stand up. Don’t worry, that's what life is all about; you learn from failure. Nothing is impossible and things may change and work out sooner or later. One day dreams are going to be fulfilled; you have to be patient.

9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it, for "feminist values"?

Political climate differs from one place to another. I mean, for example if you are talking about westerns or eastern countries, it differs a lot! OK, its improving as we see in Saudi Arabia, where women are starting to drive and having driver’s licenses. They are also starting to host musical concerts, which was forbidden before. But unfortunately it’s too slow. We are in 2019 and still the idea of a woman living alone or having her own independent life, going out and traveling is still a taboo to many families and societies. What is worse, knowing that slavery phenomenon still exists! Women are still deprived of their rights, still subjected to verbal, physical and moral abuse as well as sexual harassment, forced marriage of minors and forced pregnancies at a young age.

If you want me to dig deeper into politics, I’m just going to talk about me as a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon. Look, I love Lebanon; it has magnificent nature and amazing people but what is ruining it, is the politics and religions. Since Lebanon is known as the country of all religions, this leads to many conflicts and people killing each other because a person belonging to a particular party refuses to accept others for their affiliations, and this is too bad. Due to bad politics and bad politicians, people are led into poverty. Poverty and no jobs encourage youth to seek work in other countries, mostly Europe.

A month ago a guy here in Lebanon died as he burned his body in front of his daughter at school. He was not able to pay tuition fee for her education!! How bad is this news?!! It made me afraid for my future when I get married and have kids. I start thinking, what if I couldn't educate my children or feed them well and meet their needs!? To me it is a scary future as long as I’m living in a country that doesn’t accept me. As a Palestinian refugee I’m not allowed to have a good job, not allowed to own a house. I can't enroll into public schools or university easily nor get the Lebanese nationality. This is also true even if I was born in Lebanon to a family of refugees. Furthermore, if Lebanese woman marries a Palestinian guy rules ban her from giving the Lebanese nationality to her kids because they conclude that Palestinian nationality, goes after the father. Imagine, we cannot travel easily.

I wish and pray every single day to become accomplished.

I wish I could travel to a country that accepts and respects me as a refugee. I wish to have a job, continue my career and lead normal existence (like any other family), start a new life with the guy I love and want to marry and have kids. That's a dream; I wish and pray every single day to become accomplished. I just need a miracle to make it happen.

10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?

I’ll be happy and thankful if I accomplish my dreams. Okay, I wish to be a fashion designer and have a brand, but when I think of it deeply, I know it is hard. It is a field that needs a capital I’m not capable of and I can't afford. This field is so competitive, especially here in Lebanon, and there are so many hopefuls out there. Additionally, as I said before, it is hard for me as a Palestinian refugee to step up and shine. But sometimes I say ‘why not, who knows what will happen? Give it a shot!’ But so far,

I only wish to continue my education, have a good job concerning my area of strength, that’s for sure, and hope to have the opportunity to migrate to another country with better conditions. That would be the best thing ever.

Where I can start all over again and have a great career, make a beautiful family and continue my studies in fashion design, have own home and live in a place that accepts and respects us…I want to be in a peaceful, safe and protected place with rules. A place where I know I’m going to give my kids good education, where school will meet their needs. I wish to raise them in a best ideal way. That is going to make me the happiest woman ever, as if I've never been sad or been through any sorrow before!

11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

I love coloring, drawing, listening to music, watching movies, and play sports. I feel as if I’m disconnected from the world and escaping into my own. My hobbies help me escape stress and forget about my problems.

12. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?

I wish to continue my studies in fashion design and be a great fashion designer and make a wonderful family.

13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?

I wish I could get rid of my shyness and gain more confidence; to have a strong personality and have the ability to speak my opinion freely about anything I want to say or do. And the most important thing is to live in a better country. 

14. Anything you'd do differently, if you had another go at life?

Actually no. This all has been my destiny and I’m okay with it. I couldn’t think I would have a better way other than that I feel like everything was planed and interconnected. Specially the coincidence of finding Creative Space Beirut, being accepted to study. As you know Creative Space Beirut is a free fashion school and I always wished to study fashion design. Since this field of study has a high tuition fee here in Lebanon it’s a domain for the rich people. So thank God I found Creative Space. It’s free, yet with very high standards which is perfect, since I couldn’t afford to study what I love anywhere else. 

15. What inspires you?

What inspires me, concerning life and continuing having hope, are all the achievers in life who started from zero in very tough situations and made a change to this world or even to their lives. In my field of study, design, I get inspired the most from nature.

16. What are you hopeful about?

Accomplishing my dreams and having a better life.

17. What are some ingredients to a good life?

Wellness and accepting that things happen throughout life, good and bad. Also it’s important to be willing to change, adapt and never lose hope because the mistakes will “fall away” anyway.

18. What is a quality you most love about yourself and why?

I am patient, and willing to wait. Nothing lasts forever.

19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)

Actually there is nothing special I’m reading at the moment. I mostly read about motivational successful stories, also about celebrities to keep motivated and of course I read everything concerning fashion design news, blogs, etc.

20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three (or more) women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description? What would you tell them, if you had an opportunity, why you admire them?

You are a WOW woman Olga. You are really amazing; you travel the world and search for stories and meet so many women out there. That requires a lot of work and effort but you seem to be in love with your job and are very passionate. You are really amazing and inspiring; you are an idol!

The other WOW woman is Sarah Hermez, an amazing and passionate mentor with a wonderful personality. She is beautiful inside and out. How amazing is she??!! Sarah has been working hard through all these years and doing her best to afford us the free education. She fights to continue making Creative Space Beirut a better place for us; we all feel like a family here. She initiated Creative Space from nothing and thank God look where she is today! I’m really proud to have her as my mentor! She is really an amazing and inspiring idol.

21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?

IG: DianaAzzam96 ; FBDiana Azzam & Email: Dianaazz@outlook.com

*Update: Soon after this interview was posted Ms. Azzam informed me that she had to postpone her second year at the Creative Space Beirut school and seek full time work at a local shoe retailer in order to alleviate her family’s financial struggles.