JAKARTA – Zakat, or giving to the poor and needy, is a tradition for Muslims, especially as they celebrate the end of Ramadan, the holy fasting month. Indonesian-American Dian Alyan, who grew up in a family of Muslim scholars before becoming an advertising executive and Silicon Valley mom, tries to embody the spirit of Zakat all year.
Born on the northernmost tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Dian has fond memories of her childhood.
On the weekends she would spend time with her grandfather, a successful merchant and Islamic scholar who ran an orphanage in the village.
Dian moved to the capital, Jakarta as an adult and then later to the U.S. where she found work as an advertising executive for Proctor and Gamble.
But after all the ‘glitter and glamour of managing global brands and working with the best minds in advertising,’ Dian says something was very much amiss.
“I felt like my whole life was about promotion, my next salary increase, it was very focused on material things and I had all of that, but it didn’t fulfill me and it took me about a year for me to finally decide that it was no longer something that I wanted deeply inside, so I just quit,” she explained.
Reassessing her life after a trip to Mecca, Dian returned home to Silicon Valley and began work with an Islamic society.
It was after the birth of her second son that her life took another unexpected turn.
“And when my son was six months old, my parents were visiting us in America and then that was when the tsunami hit - and that was the most devastating moment in my life because I lost a lot of people," she recalled. "I don’t know where you were at the time, but even if you are not related, or not personally connected to that part of the world, you still feel the suffering of human beings. Perhaps it was a combination of being a new mother and seeing my own children and thinking I could have been one of those people drowning in the ocean because that’s my hometown right.”
Caused by one the biggest earthquakes in history the December 2004 tsunami killed more than 160,000 people in Aceh alone.
Haunted by the tsunami devastation, Dian said she knew she had to do something more than offer a one-time donation to charity.
Inspired by her grandfather she quickly founded GiveLight
, a non-profit humanitarian organization that builds orphanages in response to natural disasters and extreme conditions such as poverty and war.
During a recent trip to an orphanage in Aceh, home to 44 children, Dian observed the children in a Koranic recital competition..
Dian says she motivates the kids with prizes to encourage a healthy form of competition and academic excellence.
This latest trip she was bursting with pride when one 13-year-old got up and delivered her whole speech in fluent English, while another student won a scholarship at a prestigious university in Java.
While her focus has been on building orphanages abroad, Dian’s outreach also extends to her fellow Americans, who may not have had exposure to Islam or practicing Muslims.
“My strategy is to bring them into my mosque and let them meet Muslims, let them ask questions and let them see how we worship and let them see how we serve food because hospitality is one of the landmarks of Muslim right," she said. "So once they come into the mosque and once they hear the pillars of Islam, the beliefs of Islam, they will find that there is so much that we have in common.”
Today, GiveLight also runs orphanages and charities in Haiti, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan and plans to open two more facilities in Bangladesh and Africa in the coming year.