PETALING JAYA: It has been a long journey for Penang-born Damina Khaira (pic), who obtained her PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard University as a heart patient.

Born with a congenital heart defect, Damina, who is from a Iban-Bidayuh-Punjabi background, will be receiving her scroll from the prestigious university in Massachusetts, the United States today, dressed in traditional Bidayuh attire.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is slated to speak at the ceremony which starts at 9.45pm tonight (Malaysian time), while the scrolls will be awarded at midnight.

Damina has gone through four open-heart surgeries, with the fourth carried out during her doctorate.

And nine months ago, she lost her father.

“I went through my fourth open-heart surgery, the passing of my adviser, not being able to return to the United States due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and losing my father.

“The love and faith of my loved ones in these last crucial months, especially that of my mother, my youngest sister, my partner, teachers, mentors and friends kept me going.

“Our house overflowed with all kinds of books as our father encouraged us to read anything and everything, while mum always inspired us to pursue knowledge and our dreams,” she said in an interview.

Damina, who is in her 30s, said her doctoral thesis touched on storytelling practices among an Iban longhouse community in Banting, Sarawak.

The daughter of a Dayak Bidayuh and Iban mother, and a Punjabi Sikh father, she said she rarely came across stories which represented her community in academic textbooks.

“I was particularly curious about my Iban heritage and it is interesting that although they are the most researched community in Sarawak, Ibans have been represented in typified ways – whether it’s about headhunting or forest degradation.

“I want to find ways to represent and convey stories that are often marginalised,” the Fulbright scholar said.

Titled “Randau Ruai: Retelling Stories of an Iban Longhouse Community”, her research was conducted over a period of 18 months in Banting in the state.

It also explored methods of creative ethnographic writing, which intersects creative writing and ethnographic research.

Damina said maintaining mental and physical health was crucial in her search for knowledge.

“It’s important to be kind to yourself, and to look after your mental and physical health, whether that might be through the guidance of a counsellor, bibliotherapy (book reading therapy) or the support of friends and loved ones.

“It makes a difference even when you have one person who believes in the purpose of your work.

“I did this in part for my grandmothers and parents, for my elders in Banting who have taught me so much with their stories, and for young brown girls, mixed girls, Dayak girls, and Orang Asal girls who deserve to be heard, seen and do all that they desire.

“With love, courage and community, so much is possible,” Damina said.