Resilience through unspeakable pain and strife

Duke alumnus illuminates the refugee experience through personal stories

Duke alumnus Andrew Leon Hanna's new book explores the lives of refugees.
Duke alumnus Andrew Leon Hanna's new book explores the lives of refugees.

The Za’atari refugee camp, which sits in Jordan near the Syrian border, is the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, home to almost 80,000 people.

Duke alumnus Andrew Leon Hanna follows the stories of three Syrian woman entrepreneurs living and working within the camp in his forthcoming book, 25 Million Sparks, which also zooms out to explore refugee entrepreneurship in more than twenty camps and cities across the globe.

“What I wanted to do was tell a story that told a picture of the true dignity, the power, the beauty, the creativity in the lives of refugees that that I've seen and that I was able to talk to through this book,” Hanna told Giovanni Zanalda, director of the Duke Center for International and Global Studies during a recent discussion of his work. Watch the event here.

The book features Yasmina, a wedding shop and salon owner creating moments of celebration; Malak, a young artist infusing color and beauty throughout the camp; and Asma, a social entrepreneur leading a storytelling initiative to enrich children’s lives.

A first-generation Egyptian-American, Hanna was inspired to tell refugee stories by his parents, who emigrated from Egypt before he was born and built successful lives and careers in the United States. 

Hanna said he wants to change media narratives that often depict refugees as victims or villains, without their full humanity. He said he was inspired by his subjects’ “ability to be resilient through the most unspeakable pain and strife and to create a community and an economy.”

Zanalda, who taught Hanna at Duke, said “the description of the daily life of the camp, the accounts of the positive impact of refugees in various communities in the US, Europe, and Australia contribute to familiarize readers with how refugees succeed in creating a ‘normal life’ under extremely difficult circumstances whether in camps or communities where they have been relocated.”

The book’s personal stories ought to be understood within the broader context of the global refugee crisis, Hanna said.

“There are a lot of refugee resettlement centers like the YMCA, where they're trying to help folks get off the ground in terms of housing, in terms of jobs, in terms of language services and tech training. I think that's one way to get involved is get plugged into those or if you're inclined financially to give to those,” he said. “But I think even on a deeper level, actually getting to know people ... I think that's a beautiful way to do it.”

Hanna was senior class president, a Robertson Scholar, and the winner of the Terry Sanford Leadership Award while at Duke.

“I think what Duke helped me do was dream a little bit bigger,” Hanna said. “It helped me to think about what makes me come alive and just pursue that.”

Since graduating from Duke, Hanna has become the co-founder and CEO of DreamxAmerica, a Knight-Hennessy Scholar, and Siebel Scholar at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He has been named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and graduated with honors from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review.

25 Million Sparks will be published in May 2022 by Cambridge University Press and is available for pre-order. In its proposal form, 25 Million Sparks won the 2018 Financial Times and McKinsey Bracken Bower Prize.

The event was organized by the Duke Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS) and co-sponsored by the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy and Cambridge University Press.