The Santa Clara Weekly – November 03, 2010
By Carolyn Schuk
Outreach Director for the Santa Clara-based Muslim Community Association (MCA), Dian Alyan lost family and friends in the devastating December 2004 Asian tsunami. She responded to the tragedy by creating the GiveLight Foundation to care for children orphaned by wars and natural disasters.
Recently GiveLight celebrated its 5th birthday with a fundraiser at the Santa Clara Marriott that drew nearly 1,000 people and raised more than $250,000 to support the non-profit’s operations in six countries. In addition to support from community groups and local businesses, the event also brought the Indonesian and Sri Lankan Ambassadors to the U.S., Dino Patti Djalal and Jaliya Wickramasuriya.
Turning Personal Loss Into Public Good
Alyan personifies St. Paul’s admonition, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21). Or as she puts it, “I want to portray the true light of Islam, not only through my words but through my actions.”
Born in Aceh, Indonesia, Alyan was educated in Jakarta as an engineer. After college, she joined the personal care products giant Proctor & Gamble. “I always wanted to see the world,” she says, “and this [P&G] is a multinational company. I thought, If I do well I will have my ticket to go see the world.”
With characteristic energy, Alyan quickly advanced as a P&G brand manager; launching Pantene – now the world’s most popular shampoo – in Asia and soon got the opportunity to work in the U.S. After meeting her husband in Cincinnati, a two-year assignment turned into permanent residence and U.S. citizenship. She had what seemed to some a perfect life, but for Alyan something important was missing.
“My life was about my next salary increase and my next promotion,” she reflects. ” I reached a point where my definition of success is [was] driven by others. And I was traveling a lot. My life was between one airport and another – I couldn’t even remember what city I was in.
“I achieved what I wanted to achieve,” she continues, getting to the heart of what troubled her in those years. “But two fundamental things were missing. One was a child. The second was a sense of purpose. I needed to be by myself and find what [was] next for me.”
The soul-searching led to Alyan’s resignation from P&G. In 1999 she spent the summer in Paris studying art and fashion design, which she thought would be her next enterprise. “That was the best summer in my life,” she recalls. “[I was] living without any burden or any responsibility, free to explore.”
The turning point came when the life-long Muslim made the pilgrimage to Mecca – the Hajj, a central practice of Islam. The experience changed the way she saw herself and her place in the world.
Imagine, she says, going from a situation “where your identity is always tied to what you do” to joining “three million people who look just like you – we’re all wearing white. You can’t tell who’s smart, who’s poor. I started asking, what would be my personal imprint in this world? What is the purpose of the creation, why am I here?”
That was when Alyan began wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf (hijab). Flying from Jedda to New York, a blond-haired, blue-eyed American Muslim offered her the traditional Muslim greeting, “peace be with you (a salaam aleykum). “That was an affirmation – the first time I wore the hijab in America and people were nice to me.”
Today for Alyan, the hijab is one part of countering anti-Muslim prejudice. “If I do good things for my neighbors and my community, people will associate that with my religion.”
Moving to the Bay Area in 2001 – “My husband had a job and we wanted to live in a warm climate after seven winters [in Cincinnati] – Alyan began working as the MCA’s outreach director. A few months later she was expecting her first child.
“That was a sign I was in the right place, I was doing the right thing,” she says. “I didn’t have a lot of stress. At the same time, I felt that I was using my talent and skills to educate people about my religion.” Seven months after her son was born, the Alyans had a second surprise: Dian was pregnant again. “It was hard to believe after 10 years,” she laughs. “I felt like my life was complete.”
Then the December 2004 tsunami struck. “I lost 40 people from my family. My hometown was shattered. My whole existence was shaken. How do I react to this? My youngest was only six months. I was nursing. [I asked myself], Do I go on with my life or do something?
After spending two sleepless weeks “thinking about those children drowning in the ocean – I could have been one of them” – Alyan decided her mission was helping orphans. “Charity is central to Islam. In the Qur’an God says, ‘Help the needy, especially the orphans.’ Orphans have a special place in [Muslims’] hearts because our prophet was an orphan.”
GiveLight was born in January 2005, opening its doors five months later on land donated by Alyan’s uncle. “We started with 50 children and [now] are sponsoring 350 orphans around the world.” For her work Alyan received the international Procter & Gamble Alumni Network’s 2009 Humanitarian Award.
Alyan admits that the world’s needs can seem overwhelming. But, “as long as you’re willing to exercise your mind and your influence positively, there are many people with good hearts,” she says. “You will find the world will come together to help you.”
For information about GiveLight, visit www.givelight.org or call (408) 702-7545. To find out more about the Muslim Community Association, visit www.mcabayarea.org or call (408) 727-7277. This month the MCA began its Discover Islam series. Email DiscoverIslam@mcabayarea.org or call (408) 727-7277 x-402.