Pencil and Paper helped Alyaa Dawood ’20 Survive an Unimaginable Childhood Journey

April 2, 2020
By: Worcester State University News

For Alyaa Dawood ’20, a visual and performing arts senior working to complete her student thesis drawings, pencil and paper symbolize even more than the tools necessary to create her artwork. They were also what she calls her “best friends” during a childhood watching refugees trying to survive in the most desperate conditions, as her own family sought safety for years across several countries.

To see Dawood’s artwork today is to understand the powerful journey of the quiet and resilient artist.

Dawood was born in Baghdad, Iraq, where she spent the first nine years of her life. She says her family’s religion of Mandaean carried consequences in her community.

“When I was a kid, I never went to school because of my religion,” Dawood says.

At 9, Dawood and her five older siblings moved with her family from country to country in search of a safe place to call home. During her travels across Egypt, Jordan, and Libya, she saw faces of many poor, starving, and dying refugees at camps, she says.

“It sticks in my mind,” says Dawood. “They were without homes and dying on the street and at the camp. They were from Africa, Sudan, other countries, everywhere.”

For the next eight years of her childhood, Dawood’s family settled in Yemen as refugees, waiting and hoping for help from the United Nations. Dawood says her two brothers joined their father each day in farm work that required them to leave their home early in the morning and return at midnight. Dawood stayed with her two sisters and mother, who together faced a different obstacle.

“In that country, women—females—never go out from home,” Dawood says. “So I had nothing to do, really. As a child and as a teenager, I was just staying home. My father gave me some paper and pencils and so they were my best friends. So I started drawing.”

In those eight years at her family’s home in Yemen, Dawood says she created 17 cartoon children’s stories with pictures and captions. Finally, when Dawood was 17, the United Nations was able to help her family. Although she was not able to bring those early drawings with her, she thinks of that art as the bright spot in those unimaginable years.

All seven members of Dawood’s family moved from Yemen to Worcester, where Dawood finally enjoyed the freedom to attend school. She attended New Citizen Center School, a Worcester school designed to support students who have immigrated from other countries, before attending and graduating from Burncoat High School in Worcester. To this day, all of her siblings live nearby, she says.

At 29, Dawood is an inspiration as she stands poised to graduate at the end of this semester. Not surprisingly, Dawood turned to charcoal pencils and paper to complete her student thesis, which is being created with help from pictures of refugees that she found online. While she doesn’t know the people in her drawings, she is familiar with that look of starvation and desperation.

Dawood has her sights set on earning a master’s degree and becoming an art teacher, a writer of children’s books, or both. While her professors have no doubts in her ability to achieve her goals, Dawood has a message to them in return.

“At Worcester State, all of the art teachers, from Professors Catherine (Wilcox) to Michael Hachey to Amaryllis (Siniossoglou), they were so amazing for me,” she says. “They gave me a lot of opportunities and helped me. I really want to thank them a lot and I learned so much from them. I’m really lucky to have them.”

Dawood’s work will be presented digitally alongside art by seven other talented visual and performing arts seniors on April 23. Visit to view her work, and that of seniors Madeline Bastug, Sara E. DiBello, Hannah Muggeo, Meaghan L. Riedle, Judy Roy, Katelyn Seguin, and Danielle Williams, please contact the Visual and Performing Arts Department at or Worcester State’s Mary Cosgrove Dolphin Gallery at

Written by Andrea Binnick

One Comment

  1. Helen Zenon says:

    Congrats on your success. I knew from the first day I met you at NCC, that you were extremely talented.
    I’m very proud of you, working so diligently, producing realistically stunning works of art. You capture the heart and soul of your subjects.
    As you know, keep going forwards.
    Love you.
    Former teacher and always friend,
    Helen Zenon

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