Working with students who had immigrated from the Middle East inspired Heny Ford College alumna Salwa Mawari to become a teacher and also write her first book.
“Before becoming a teacher, I was a paraprofessional in the Dearborn Public Schools,” said Mawari. “As a paraprofessional, I had the opportunity to work with many students and many great teachers who were also great mentors. Some students were newcomers who were learning English. Some were also refugees. Working with these students and helping them develop their skills was very rewarding. That experience motivated me to pursue a degree in education.”
Mawari also published her first children’s book, Under the Sana’a Skyline, illustrated by Mary Charara. The book centers around a young girl named Belquis and takes place in Yemen.
“As an educator who taught new immigrants, I knew I had to tap into their culture to help in their learning process. It was difficult, and most of the time impossible, to find literature that represented my students accurately,” she explained. “I feel that this book is one small step in providing students from a very underrepresented community books that truly mirror them.”
Empowered by HFC
Born in Detroit, Mawari is the eldest of six children. She lives in Dearborn with her husband and three sons. An alumna of Dearborn High School, she continued her education at HFC (then Henry Ford Community College). In fact, four of her siblings also attended HFC.
“I decided to attend HFC because it had a good reputation, it was convenient for me locally, and it was very accommodating to me as a full-time working mom who was going to school part-time. I started by taking two classes per semester,” recalled Mawari.
Being at HFC has been a highlight in her educational journey.
“My time at HFC was very special because I got to meet some of the best teachers – such as Dr. Mike Daher – and many more dedicated faculty members who made my experience at HFC so beneficial and memorable. I also met some of my best friends during my years at the College,” she said.
At HFC, Mawari earned more than 60 credits in the pre-education program. She transferred to the University of Michigan-Dearborn. There, she earned her bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in social studies and minoring in English as a second language (ESL). She is certified to teach K-8.
“I ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in education, and I have been working in the education field since I graduated,” said Mawari. “HFC contributed to so much of my success as a student. The fact that they meet students at their level and develop their skills to prepare them for college-level classes is the most important service a school can provide students. At HFC, I was able to refine and develop my skills so I can successfully complete college-level classes. Academically, HFC empowered me to pursue my degree.”
War in Yemen inspired her to write her book
Mawari has been a teacher for 14 years – all in Dearborn. Currently, she is a Title 1 Resource Teacher at Woodworth Middle School, a position she held for eight years.
She spoke about what inspired her to write Under the Sana’a Skyline. The main reason was the war in Yemen and its lack of media coverage regarding the humanitarian aspect of the war.
“The media have not portrayed how the war is impacting regular people on the ground, despite the fact that people’s lives changed drastically,” Mawari explained. “The only time I saw this was when I called my mother, who for the first five years of the war, lived in Sana’a, Yemen. In our phone conversations, she would tell me many stories of different people living through the hardships of war. She told stories of people losing loved ones, businesses, homes, and of people living through deep poverty and famine.”
She continued: “And although these stories were sad and some did not end happily, each story left me with a feeling of hope and respect for the people of Yemen. All the stories had common themes of kindness, compassion, generosity, and resilience. What made me feel hopeful was how the people of Yemen – who were all struggling and most of the population had very few resources – treated each other in their time of need and despair. I felt that these were uplifting and beautiful humane stories that deserved to be told to the world.”
In Under the Sana’a Skyline, Belquis lives in Old Sana’a, an ancient city in Yemen. An exciting writing competition is announced for her class but there’s just one problem: The story must inspire the world. Belquis is surrounded by the hardships of war and struggle. What has she seen that is inspirational?
“Sana’a is a beautiful ancient city in Yemen that is more than 2,500 years old,” said Mawari. “It is one of a handful of ancient cities in the world that is still inhabited by people. This walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many scholars have called it an open air museum. Unfortunately, we are losing this city due to war, floods, and neglect. To lose a world heritage site that told a story of humanity is very disappointing to me. So, to pay tribute to this beautiful city and help bring more attention to it, I decided that it would be the setting of my story.”
Portraying an underrepresented community positively and accurately
Mawari explained why she chose the name for her book’s protagonist.
“Belquis is the main character in the story. Since there are not too many books about Yemen, I wanted even the names of the characters to be metaphorical. Belquis is one of a line of revered queens who ruled Yemen,” said Mawari. “She was known for her wisdom and intelligence. Yemeni tradition states that she is the Queen of Sheba. She is mentioned in the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah. So, I thought it would be very empowering for young girls to name the main character Belquis.”
Her Woodworth colleague Raja Beydoun introduced Mawari to illustrator Mary Charara. The two worked well together.
“I had the best time working with Mary,” said Mawari. “She believed in the story, the vision, and the message. She took ownership and made the story her own. She took care to respect the people, the culture, and the setting in her work. She was also very flexible and a joy to work with. I am so grateful to have met her.”
It took Mawari two years to complete this book – her passion project. She published it through Book Power Publishing, founded by Detroit-based anthropologist Zarinah El-Amin, whom Mawari called a great mentor and coach.
“She believes in the power of stories and telling our own narrative,” said Mawari. “I wanted the story to reach as many people as possible because it is an inspirational story that restores people’s faith in humanity. I love seeing the reaction from kids and the glimmer in their eyes when they see themselves accurately and positively represented in literature. To me, that is the most rewarding.”