Some people are just born spirited, with a fun-loving personality and a gift for being outspoken. That describes Danya. Growing up, she was a smart child who loved her mother and loved life. Mother and daughter lived happily in the Middle East until Danya was 10 years old. Her mother thought she would have better opportunities growing up in the U.S. with her father, but reality was different than the dream.
“The physical abuse started within two weeks,” said Danya. “I really didn’t know my father. He left the country when I was a baby and settled in the Kansas City area. My mom was just trying to do the right thing for me. When he didn’t like what I said, my father punched me in my mouth out of nowhere. I got a fat lip from it.” Anytime she did something wrong, her father beat her – no questions asked.
Things at school weren’t any easier for Danya. “I got picked on for being Middle Eastern. So it became this vicious cycle of getting picked on at school, fighting back and getting in trouble, and then coming home to get beat again for getting in trouble at school. This went on for years and, as a child, I felt helpless. There was no way out.”
There was one way out. Some of her elementary school classmates noticed a bruise. They told a teacher who reported it. Workers from the state child welfare agency started visiting her house, but her father didn’t cooperate. He insisted that Danya needed to behave and that he could discipline his child however he wanted.
One day, Danya’s involvement in a fight got her suspended from school. Her father saw her at home and said, “I don’t have time to deal with this now, but I’m going to take care of you tonight.” Terrified of what her father might do to her, Danya decided to swallow a handful of pills. It was a decision she immediately regretted. “I thought – maybe I don’t want to die, but I just know I don’t want to live.” She called a suicide hotline that she’d heard about at school. “The ambulance came and the paramedics gave me stuff to throw up the medicine.” Though doctors asked, she felt unable to tell them why she did it. The truth was that her life had become unbearable, a monotony of abuse, fear, pain and feeling alone.
Months later, Danya and her father had an argument which resulted in him abandoning her at a facility where she waited alone for hours. The state made the decision to remove her from her home and Danya entered foster care at just 13 years old. She was kept safe from any further abuse from her father, but she moved around to several foster homes and unfortunately didn’t experience the full degree of caring and support that she needed. Eventually she moved to a group home and then aged out of foster care with no permanent family or home.
Danya was hurt and eager to cut all ties with the foster care system. She moved into her own apartment, worked a job, and paid all her own bills. She attended Johnson County Community College and later the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) but had no help with college. She felt very lonely with no support system, turning to drinking as one way to cope with the pain.
At age 22, Danya received an email she wasn’t expecting. A relative on her mother’s side of the family had found her. “That was my turning point. I realized there were people who cared about me.” She went to live with her aunt and uncle in Italy for a couple of years and even reunited with her mother. The experience gave her joy, connection and a sense of closure, but she felt she needed to go back to the Kansas City area and move forward with her life.
In the years since, Danya became a mother to a now 6-year-old boy who has his mother’s outgoing personality and zest for life. And this spring, she is wrapping up her MBA degree. She wants to continue growing her career in marketing, and part of that involves marketing a concept which is near and dear to her.
“I have been able to accomplish a lot on my own, but not nearly as much as if I had just one person when I was younger come alongside me and give me ideas, support and confidence,” she says.
“I’m working on launching an organization that would provide monthly college and career prep workshops for youth who are close to aging out of foster care without a family or home.” Youth would learn what options are out there, how to discover what they’re good at, and how to speak and interview confidently. Most importantly, they would hear these tips from someone who has been in their situation.
The statistics about youth who age out of foster care without a permanent family or home are very dim. Less than 2 percent graduate college. Many end up homeless, incarcerated or unexpectedly pregnant. Danya says these numbers motivated her to create a different ending. “I didn’t want to be a statistic. I wanted to defy the odds.”
As a single mom with a steady career, an MBA almost completed, and a passion to help other teens who were in the same situation she was, Danya has more than defied the odds; she’s on the path to help hundreds of youth create a future as bright as hers.
Editor’s Note: Since 1996 when Danya was in foster care, many positive changes have happened in the Kansas foster care system and there are more supports available. Youth emerging from foster care can now receive tuition assistance, extended medical coverage and limited additional financial assistance. However there can never be enough support for youth so the KVC team is excited for Danya’s vision to come to life. Learn about her Emerging Leaders Fellowship at https://leadersfellowship.org.
Even though Danya endured a traumatic childhood, her resilience is what has led to her to find success as an adult. The latest neuroscience shows that our brains develop long into adulthood and have the ability to grow stronger, learn how to solve complex problems and develop resiliency to bounce back after difficult situations. It is important that children have safe, nurturing relationships with adults and that those positive interactions and experiences contribute to healthy brain development.