*This post is an article I wrote on one of my dear friends, Dana, for my advanced news writing class. She was kind enough to open up her home and her life to my inspection, and I’m so lucky to count her amongst my friends!*
Few people ever imagine their families in extreme danger. When seeing conflicts overseas on the news, many simply pity the poor souls trapped in which ever city the focus is on that day. But for Dana Whitfield, that danger became very real when her mother and two young siblings were trapped in the Gaza strip for two months in the midst of the attacks that plagued Palestine this summer.
With a football game blasting from what her husband called the “man cave” upstairs, Whitfield, 23, a fresh faced newlywed, sat down at her kitchen table, took off her Hijab, a traditional headdress for Muslim women, and regaled her tales of growing up in a country where prejudice against those of her religion runs rampant.
Born in Fort Worth, Whitfield, née Sebita, lived first in Jordan, and then Gaza following her parent’s divorce. Growing up in Gaza, she spoke only Arabic and remembers celebrating Islamic holidays with family, specifically Eid al-Fitr, a day of feasting that marks the conclusion to the month-long fast of Ramadan.
“I remember Eid in Gaza, because my mom always took it way too seriously. All the other kids wouldn’t really do anything, and my mom would just go all out with things in our house,” Whitfield said. “She would always curl my hair in aluminum foil overnight and wake me up in the middle of the night, and I’m like, so tired and pissed off, and she would do that every single Eid.”
She, her brother and mother moved back to the US when her mother re-married, and Whitfield struggled to learn English throughout elementary school. When she did, however, much of her well-known Arabic fell to the wayside, so much so that it later became a major motivation for being sent back to Jordan by her parents for middle school.
“They really wanted me to learn Arabic again. They were going to send me to a private school here, but I didn’t want to go without my brother. And they were really scared of me going to middle school here and getting super Americanized and dating guys and, like, having sex and getting pregnant,” Whitfield said.
While her brother stayed in the US and lived with her father, Whitfield was excited to go back to a place that held happy memories and family ties. School in Jordan was not as easy as she expected, however, and soon Whitfield became distressed over not being unable to understand much of the work.
“All of our tests were in Arabic, of course,” Whitfield said. “We had one English class, and everything else was in Arabic, like history and math. I would always turn in my tests crying, and they would be completely blank. I wouldn’t know the answer to anything but they would still give me half the grade, so I would be making 50s in all of my classes even though I never answered anything.”
Despite her struggles, when Whitfield returned to the US for her sophomore year at Venus High School, she was already a year ahead of her classmates and graduated early – the same year as her brother, much to his chagrin.
“My brother was really popular because of my dad. My dad owned a lot of the stores in Venus, and so everybody knew him. People never picked on me, like I was in, but I was still so awkward,” Whitfield said.
While in high school, she faced the isolation of being the new girl in school, mixed with the feelings of being an outcast, as one of the only two middle eastern students in the entire school. But she did manage to date a boy, an American one at that, her senior year. This, as Whitfield expected, was not approved of by her father, and it caused a rift that lasted for nearly a year between the two.
At 19, while at Tarrant County College, that Whitfield made a life-changing decision. As a devout Muslim, Whitfield consistently prayed and maintained a vow of abstinence, dressed conservatively and observed the dietary restrictions outlined in the Quran, the Islamic holy book. But she felt there was one thing missing: her Hijab, which consists of a scarf that covers the head and chest.
While her parents were also religious, they never pushed her to wear the scarf. When she decided to purchase her first scarves on a trip back to Jordan, she came home and surprised her father by wearing one. It was, she said, the first time she’d ever seen him cry.
“It was bugging me because I was so religious. I just kept feeling guilty, but I was just feeling like this thing was missing from my life,” Whitfield said.
While completing a degree in accounting at the University of Texas at Arlington, a new challenge came into play: Michael Whitfield, a relentlessly stubborn recent graduate of the same school who courted Whitfield, despite her vehement protesting that it would play out the same way her previous relationship had.
The two met while in class, and when Whitfield gave him the wrong number by one digit on accident, he stayed up all night texting all variations of the one she’d given him until he found the right one. His efforts paid off, and the two married in May of 2013, days after Whitfield’s graduation from UTA.
“I think if we hadn’t gotten married it would just be a creepy story that I’d tell my friends, but now that we’re married it’s just cute,” Whitfield said.
Shortly before graduation, Whitfield realized that accounting, while practical, was not the field she wanted to go into. She’d fallen in love with planning events while coordinating her own wedding and those of her friends, and soon gained a wedding planning certificate which she used to gain a job at David’s Bridal.
The summer of 2014 held promise for Whitfield. After nearly a year at David’s Bridal, she was making a career change to be an event coordinator at the Grand Hall at the NRH Centre. She and her husband of one year had just closed on a house, and were planning to move in at the end of June. Her mother, Sahim, and two young siblings, Farris, 11, and Nadine, 9, were in Gaza on a long awaited trip to spend time with family.
“When I first found out, I found out on Facebook. It was like day and night, everything was fine and then one morning everyone was sending out prayers,” Whitfield said.
The Israeli-lead attack on the then Hamas-ruled Gaza strip left thousands dead and tens-of-thousands injured. Sahim, Farris and Nadine managed to escape injury and fatality for nearly two months, with limited electricity, supplies contact with the outside world.
Whitfield used Viber, an international calling app, to contact her mother before the attacks, and continued to call during the few minutes each day when the Gaza strip regained electricity. She, her step-father and their family spent hours in conjunction with her mother calling the US Embassy in Palestine, attempting to organize a rescue not just for them but for other US citizens trapped by the conflict.
“Every time she would call the US embassy they would tell her it’s not safe enough to come in,” Whitfield said. “The worst part was it got to a point where they told her ‘Stop calling us, we’ll call you.’”
Just one week before their scheduled flight back to Corpus Christi in August, Whitfield’s family escaped. Life has settled down for the Whitfields and their family since the immediate conflict ended, and the two are focusing on home renovations and settling down to start a family of their own.
But the media coverage and online discussion of the attacks brought out the worst in those surrounding Whitfield and her husband, who converted to Islam before the two were married.
“It’s your mom, and your brother and your sister, and they’re stuck somewhere, and people are saying that they deserve to be there, deserve to die there. It’s not even a stranger that’s saying it, it’s someone you know, saying ‘Well, they should be dead because they’re a part of it,’” Whitfield said.