2015 Unsung Heroine Award Winner

Dr. Suzanne Shanahan, Associate Professor of Sociology, Associate Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and Advisor to SuWA

SuWA, which means togetherness in Iraqi, is also an acronym for Supporting Women’s Action.  It is a student-organized community effort working to empower women refugees in Durham.  Begun in 2013, SuWA offers English classes, community building, and opportunities for small business development.

Nominator Leena El-Sadek wrote, “As the group’s advisor, [Professor Shanahan] has helped us create the most comfortable space for these women to gather and thrive.  She oversees our weekly lessons, discussion groups, logistical plans, and any activity that involves the well-being of the women or the students. But Professor Shanahan is more than just an advisor.  She has become a dependable friend to so many of us.

"Our voices matter, she tells us, and she makes sure that all of our voices are heard. As students, we feel inspired to stand behind our ideas, and this makes us more empowered to put our ideas into action.

"After participating in Duke Immerse my sophomore year, Professor Shanahan asked us to define the most pressing issues for refugees in Durham. We had engaged with the community for a semester and had a keen sense of the relevant issues. A few of us approached Professor Shanahan and told her that we thought refugee women are the most vulnerable. Because of the welfare system and cultural norms, women are more likely to stay at home, while their husbands are afforded the opportunity to find employment and carve out a new life in the community. As a result, we noticed that women are more susceptible to language barriers, chronic diseases, and depression. We wanted to create a program that mobilized women to create their own dreams and goals. More importantly, we wanted them to act on them. Professor Shanahan helped us create SuWA.  Now, every week, we have over 15 refugee women from Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan meeting at Duke.

"It is a space where the women can come together to give voice to the concerns they’re facing. After the Chapel Hill shootings, Professor Shanahan helped us create cookie bags for all 30 women so that we could make individual house visits to see how the women were coping. The following week, Professor Shanahan oversaw the vigil and focus group we held with the women.  Collectively, we cried, hugged, and prayed. We had each other, and this is the community Professor Shanahan has helped us create.”

Another SuWA participant wrote, “She supported us when we came back, heart and mind heavy with the daunting issues we discovered thriving in the community.”

A third contributed, “She legitimately changed my life.”

The Unsung Heroine Award committee wanted to recognize Dr. Shanahan for her exceptional care for undergraduate Duke students and refugee women.  They recognized the time and “heart” invested in this initiative.  One committee member, in making her case for Dr. Shanahan, declared that she should be held up as an exemplar for all Duke faculty.