Kenda Dawwami, co-founder and co-president of Constructinople, takes pride in herself and her life’s work.
By Cy White, Photos by Joi Conti. Styling by Asma Parvez, with assistance from Maya Kanawati and Teresa Test. Makeup by Farah Silat. Shot on location at W Austin
War is hell.
The people of Syria live this truth every day. The conflict in Syria had been brewing for the better part of 40 years. The unrest came to a head in March 2011, sparking the current conflict that is ongoing more than a decade later.
For Kenda Dawwami, co-founder and co-president of construction and development company Constructinople, this reality has lingered in her mind since she made her escape from the ravages of the conflict in her home country more than 10 years ago. However, sitting in Rumaan Mediterranean Cuisine, one can’t help but feel entranced with her poise, with the elegance in how she carries herself.
Now in an era of global unrest, Dawwami’s mission of ensuring those who need it most have a place to call home is more pertinent than ever.
“I was born and raised in Kuwait, and then I moved to Syria, so I’m originally from Syria,” she explains. “Growing up between Kuwait and Syria had a profound impact on shaping me, shaping my personal and professional journey. Being exposed to two distinct cultures and environments has given me a deep appreciation of the diversity and the ability and the power of intercultural understanding. Living in Kuwait has exposed me to vibrant and cosmopolitan society; living in Syria instilled in me a strong sense of resilience and the importance of rebuilding in the face of challenges. This is a big journey between Kuwait and Syria, and this is what shaped who I am now. I’m celebrating [turning]36 this month.”
This resilience has been a hallmark of Dawwami’s life. No matter the challenges, no matter the barriers, she steps wholeheartedly into her purpose and clings to her “why.” Prior to 2012, when she made the U.S. her new home, she was on track to get her degree in civil engineering from the Al Ba’ath University in Homs, Syria. The war put her plans on hold, but her dreams were never deterred. Instead, with her new perspective, her dreams took an alternative shape. She applied herself with great enthusiasm and vigor, enrolling in English classes to gain greater control of a language she’d begun learning at university. With her background in civil engineering, she embarked on a new journey: real estate. She again applied herself, proactively enrolling in classes to obtain her Texas real estate license. In December 2016, she had her license in hand, and in January 2017, she closed her first sale.
“Studying civil engineering back home, and in that time witnessing the destruction caused by the conflict, has always inspired me to do something in construction,” Dawwami reveals. “Building houses for people, it’s always been my dream. I felt a strong desire to contribute to the building and rebuilding process. Construction and development offer the opportunity to rebuild not only physical structures, but also communities and hope. You don’t have these desires right away because you are [living in]this conflict with all this chaos. But when I got to the U.S., this was the number one thought. Thinking about real estate and construction, with building houses [I’m] trying to help other people to have a home, to find community.
“This is what makes you feel safe, to have a house with four walls,” she emphasizes. “This is our struggle. [For instance], the earthquake in Turkey. People lost their houses; they built tents, in that weather. It was cold, snowing. We tried to help them just find houses. Even here, in the U.S., they need this, they need affordable homes. This is why we have to build affordable houses for people. This is why we specialize in affordable housing.”
Dawwami’s tireless drive to ensure everyone gets the housing they deserve reached its zenith when visiting a friend who had also been displaced by conflict. Her friend and her four children were relocated to the U.S. under horrible living conditions. Dawwami put her life’s purpose and calling to work, jumpstarting a campaign to collect gently used appliances and furniture to donate to more refugees displaced and relocated to the States.
A sign of higher powers at work, it turns out that Austin would become the perfect place for Dawwami to exercise both her immense intellect and even greater capacity for compassion. Despite having voluntarily pulled out of the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program in 2016, the following year, Austin welcomed 315 displaced peoples from various countries, the majority of whom came from Syria. With the help of Refugee Services of Texas and CARITAS of Austin, and with assistance from nonprofits such as Syrian American Refugee Aid, Austin came to epitomize the booming words of Emma Lazarus’ eponymous New Colossus:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
With this same Brobdingnagian spirit, Dawwami yearned to do more than take donations. With her real estate license, years of engineering experience and a deep knowledge of affordable housing, she co-founded Constructinople. Affectionately called “Nople,” the company is so much more than a construction and development firm. Dawwami is rigorously intentional about helping families, particularly immigrant families, not only find houses to live in. She is on a mission to make sure that everybody has a home.
“Because we are specialized in affordable housing, we sell houses for people, not for investors.” Her voice is strong and deliberate, an aspect of her personality that unfolds the more she talks about her unwavering passion for providing homes for underrepresented communities. “The most fulfilling aspect is witnessing the impact of my work on others, the lives of people and communities, seeing people settle in houses they can call home. Yes, it’s truly gratifying for me.
“We have one affordable project called A at Lamppost. We built 17 units of affordable housing there, and I visited every family. When I saw them furnish their houses, they were so happy, and I felt happy with them. Because I know every family, and I know they fought to have this house.”
Fabiana Meléndez Ruiz, director of marketing and communications at HEXAH, a collective of industry leaders and partners creating connected and complete communities, understands all too well the complicated and oftentimes convoluted nature of affordable housing. “What makes affordable housing ‘affordable’ isn’t just the funding, but the city codes,” she explains. “The city codes basically impact construction, right? So if city code is written a certain way, the minute you build something that’s too high, then it can no longer qualify. There are limits on every little thing. So Kenda’s talking about A at Lamppost, which is something they built. They’re beautiful homes. There were 17 of them for ownership, not even for renting.”
Olivia Hughes, one of the residents of A at Lamppost, has firsthand experience with Dawwami’s unerring desire to ensure that all families have a safe place to call home, and further, that they know and believe they deserve a home to call their own.
“We are a young couple looking to raise a family, but buying a home, for two people with fairly nascent careers, is extremely difficult in Austin,” she says. “Kenda made us realize how important it is to own a home and how affordable it was with the city program. She guided us through every little detail, and honestly, without her, we would have never been able to close on our dream house.”
The strict codes are meant to keep affordable housing just that, but it does make for some significant challenges for Dawwami and Constructinople when it comes to finding the necessary funding to ensure their builds meet all the standards. It’s something Dawwami also makes a priority so that no family has to worry about aspects of the home-buying process they might not understand.
“The biggest challenges for the company were the financing, how to keep a good base client and how to earn [that client’s]trust,” Dawwami reveals. “To have good management, especially in the beginning, the cost estimate, how you have your financials, all of these things, it was a big challenge.”
Unsurprisingly, Dawwami was also confronted with the heavily male presence in the construction world.
“It’s a male-dominant field, so when I entered this field, I did encounter some challenges,” she recalls. However, her tone lacks any of the (justified) vitriol that often accompanies recollections of any form of discrimination or undeserved bias. In fact, Dawwami speaks of her challenges with an almost wise fondness. “I firmly believe that every obstacle presents an opportunity for growth,” she says. “I embrace those challenges as motivation to prove that gender doesn’t limit one’s capability. By demonstrating my expertise, my dedication, my determination, I was able to earn the respect and recognition from my peers in the industry. In the beginning, you have to fight to present yourself to be on point, to have your skills ready. This was challenging for me, but then when you have all the respect from your peers, you become confident.”
Indeed, Dawwami is that “mighty woman with a torch.” Even when the waves crash at her feet, she stands tall, chin up and voice strong. As with most women who find themselves grappling with complications and barriers, she wraps her experience and poise around her because there are people who depend on her to be a guide, a beacon in heavy fog. She fashioned Nople in her image—a pillar of information, aid and hope. To call Constructinople a “construction” company does it a great disservice.
“The problem with financing houses isn’t just that it’s expensive and that people don’t understand the requirements,” Meléndez Ruiz insists. “You have someone who’s low income and has been low income their whole life, and maybe their parents didn’t own, so they don’t have someone to tell them, ‘You need a letter, you need all of these financial documents.’ Kenda has sat down with families and written the letters, the documents, and they walked them through it. I don’t know any other contractor or firm that would do that.”
“We spent nights,” Dawwami adds. “Not our working hours, we spent nights working with the bank, with the city to just get the approval for the families because we want these families to have hope. We tell them, ‘Okay, you’re gonna get this program from the city, and the city can give you 15% down payment for your house. Just get this program, we’re going to help you.’ This way makes it less of a burden.”
Just as she has given families a greater sense of hope for their futures, Dawwami also has some very ambitious goals for Constructinople, where she can take it and how it can have even deeper impact in the future. “When it comes to Nople, my biggest dream is to establish 100 multi-units and take on large-scale projects to keep the firm one known for innovation, sustainability and social impact. This is important for me, the social impact, because like you said, we are not just a company. We want to sell houses, we want to build houses. I’m a realtor, and I work on both sides. I want my clients to be happy, and at the same time, I give advice to all people who want my advice, not just clients. I can deal with both customers and clients. So yes, this is my dream.
“I want [Nople] to be the voice of the younger generation, to inspire and empower women all around the world. This is my future goal, my future plan. I want to present women as [they]should be [represented]. You can be an elegant, smart, intelligent and at the same time hard-working person. You can sit with any man and prove that we are equal. We both have the same skills; we’re just different genders.”
Yes, war is a destructive force, with the power to destroy everything that we as humans hold dear: shelter, food, family, hope. However, people like Kenda Dawwami have shown through action and intentional advocacy that we are capable of truly magnificent things when we put our hearts to it. Dawwami wears both her passion and her dignity openly, and is as comfortable advocating for underrepresented communities in Austin as she is posing for a photoshoot, in front of a cozy fireplace at W Austin, in the elegant robes of her culture. Her conviction about her life’s mission is as strong as her proclamation of self.
“My name is Kenda Dawwami. I’m a mom of two little girls, Lobana and Talia. I am a civil engineer who is trying to navigate through diverse cultures and challenging circumstances. This is who I am.”