“Dino” Dannawi was only 4 or 5 years old when his father took him to the theater to see Tarzan.
“My father loved movies. I was just excited to be along for the ride,” he said.
But that experience changed Dannawi.
“Every time I think about it, I get emotional,” said Dannawi. “It wasn’t the movie, as much as it was the experience, and the realization that they could influence a person in such a huge way. Movies not only connected me to my father, but to the rest of the world as well.”
But when Dannawi headed to California, it wasn’t a life in front of the camera he was craving, but a life behind it. He attended California State University, Long Beach, with one goal: To turn his hobby into a career.
“After attending California State University for four years, I graduated with a degree in film production and theory,” said Dannawi. “I then began work as an editor for a small production company. The work was good, but very challenging because it wasn’t stable. I knew I needed to seek out other opportunities as well.”
Dannawi began to think he might parlay his skills in Arabic into a job as a translator. After all, he spoke eight dialects and was familiar with the culture.
While doing some research, he came upon an Air Force website for the Military Assets Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program. MAVNI is a program the Air Force uses to recruit people based on their cultural expertise and language skills.
“It was a long process,” said Dannawi. “You have to apply to it and prepare a package to send to Air Force headquarters. Then you have to interview. It is a very selective process. Out of hundreds, they only select about six each year. Lt. Col. Kelli Moon interviewed me and thought I was right for the job. Now it’s my responsibility to live up to the expectations she set for me and the values she instilled in me. I can’t thank her enough for this incredible opportunity.”
As a language and culture specialist with the Air Force, Dannawi travels the world supporting units as needed. In May, he was in Jordan as part of the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron supporting their efforts during Eager Lion 2017.
Exercise Eager Lion, hosted by the Jordanian armed forces, is the largest annual exercise in he Middle East in which the United States participates.
Although one of the youngest members of the team, in both age and service experience, Dannawi serves in a respected and important capacity.
“I understand interpreting and translating can be a difficult task,” said Dannawi. “It requires lots of trust and confidence on both ends. But to be honest, I’m not finding it hard at all. It is really fun. I’m really fortunate to be with this unit. They do lots of cool stuff, so I never take this opportunity for granted. The key is to be comfortable with who you’re with, both in regard to the American teams and the teams in whatever country you are visiting. In this case, it is the Jordanians. Both of these teams have made me very comfortable, and I have been able to translate with ease.”
It doesn’t hurt that Dannawi is a people person.
“He’s super friendly and all smiles,” said Air Force Capt. Cory Henderson, a physician assistant with the 23rd Special Tactics Squardron, 24th Special Operations Wing. “He seems to get along with everybody. I see him chatting with people all the time.”
Dannawi feels his outgoing personality helps him as an interpreter.
“I think my personality definitely helps me with the job,” agreed Dannawi. “Lots of people, when they first meet me, tell me that it feels like they’ve known me forever. This job also requires you to have good public speaking and communication skills. You can’t be afraid to talk to a large crowd.”
And talking to large crowds is exactly what Dannawi spent a large part of his time in Jordan doing. Whether he was interpreting medical training, translating an important brief, or making sure a Jordanian unit understood the safety procedures for a fast-roping exercise, he had to be clear, concise and accurate, without hesitation.
“You’ll be sitting at the table between leaders,” said Dannawi. “You’ll be doing briefings in front of big crowds. You cannot get nervous in that situation. You have to be confident. The team is putting their trust in you.”
Having an interpreter helped the team break barriers during the exercise.
“Whether it’s navigating around the town, or if there is problems with the camp, he is able to speak to people directly,” Henderson said. “He definitely helps with the speed of operations, with the interpretation of complicated movements and even just haggling at the market … it is definitely a benefit to have him here.”
One event in particular that stands out for Dannawi is a trip into town to get some food.
“We were standing there and my friend was ordering, but when the cashier gave him change, it wasn’t correct,” said Dannawi. “I noticed right away and said in Arabic that he owed my friend another 10 Dinar. The cashier looked embarrassed and quickly handed over the money. Little things like that made me even more valuable to the team.”
Dannawi is not sure what the future holds. The MAVNI program is only a four-year enlistment, with no opportunities to extend. So he is just taking it one day at a time and relishing every opportunity.
“I really don’t know exactly what I’m going to do,” he said. “Maybe go back to California and enjoy the city. Spend time with my family. I owe so much to them for supporting me. I still have lots of fuel in me, so we will see what life holds.”