Naelah Alshorbaji Opens up About the Revolving Doors of Fate and the Commonalities of Her Syrian and Filipino Roots


Watching Naelah Alshorbaji effortlessly charm the camera with her graceful presence and natural movements, one would believe everything is fine and dandy in her life at that moment. Unbeknownst to the team working on her cover shoot, the 2021 Miss Earth Philippines was carrying an immense weight in her heart.

Naelah, whose name means "one who succeeds" in Arabic proverbs and which most Filipinos find difficult to pronounce, goes by the nickname Nana. “Nana makes my job easier”, marvels photographer Lei Magluyan who never fails to express her delight by often exhibiting animated enthusiasm as she clicks the shutter. 

Despite being only on the second day of a supposed to be three-day shoot at the 5-star resort of Bluewater in the picturesque and secluded island of Sumilon in Cebu, Nana and Lei look to have already achieved the spread for this issue's cover of the AsianTraveler.

This is in spite of getting to a late start brought about by gloomy weather on the day the team arrived. Seemingly as though the heavens were aware of the burden Nana was carrying, the second day revealed a stunning sky. By late afternoon, Nana's professionalism remained in full display. However, during one of the last breaks of the shoot, she finally allowed her emotions to surface and tears streamed down her face.

"My mom is in severe state in the ICU right now", she tells the rest of us.

An Ordinary Life Interrupted

Nana was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabi to a Syrian father and a Filipina mother as the youngest girl among four brothers. When she turned one year old, their family moved to Syria.

Just like in the Philippines, a strong sense of community and family values that fostered tight-knit communities characterizes Syrian society. "We were close to several relatives and shared a building with my grandma," she says. "Traditional rituals and hospitality are strongly embedded in Syrian society."

“Both Filipino and Syrian cultures have a reputation for their warmth and friendliness toward visitors,” she adds.

Damascus, the Syrian capital city where her family resides, has a colorful culture  just as vibrant and inspired by old civilizations as the rest of the country's inhabitants and history.

Nana's childhood was filled with cherished memories that revolved around her family. Fridays were frequently spent on a farmhouse in Syria's outskirts or at her grandmother's house. Despite this, Nana and her brothers continue to maintain ties to their Filipino roots. "Summers were always spent in the Philippines in between vacations to nearby Middle Eastern countries," Nana shares.

That happy and ordinary life in Syria would continue throughout the end of the 21st century’s first decade. Winter evoked cherished memories of vacationing in Bloudan, a picturesque hilltop village situated 51 kilometers northwest of Damascus. Numerous "snow battles" were fought here among Nana and her siblings. During other holidays, Nana would frequently explore the outdoors with her cousins, engaging in a variety of activities like swimming, playing sports, and interacting with animals, such as herding sheep. Nana recalls, "During that time, I also learned how to harvest fruit and milk a cow."

The political climate in Syria took a turn for the worse by 2011. Nana's ordinary and happy family life, as she knows it, would soon be interrupted as the social unrest snowballed as part of the Arab Spring protests that swept the region.

Although Nana was young and unaware of the situation, she vividly remembers instances when the ground would tremble and the sounding of gunfire. Whenever she asked about the situation, her mother would protect her innocence by reassuring her that everything was fine.

Adjusting to Life in the Philippines

Everything as it turns out isn’t fine as the civil war rages throughout Syria. That year, Nana’s annual family summer vacation to the Philippines became a permanent move.

Despite being located on opposite sides of Asia, the Philippines and Syria exhibit several similarities as well as notable distinctions. She quickly discovered the striking cultural differences, including variations in lifestyle. Even minor things, like choosing what clothes to wear to school, required a significant adjustment.

She explains: "I wasn't really used to wearing a skirt with white ankle socks and leather shoes when I first started coming to the school here because I always wore slacks and sneakers at my former school.”

The future beauty queen and fashion model easily adjusted to life in the Philippines, thanks to her upbringing in a Syrian household that embraced her mother's Filipino ancestry.

Brimming with nostalgia, she proudly bares that her family has always taken great pride in their Filipino heritage.  As she recalls the extensive list of Filipino dishes commonly prepared in their kitchen, her eyes widen with the vivid imagery of it all. "Pancit, menudo, laing, adobo chicken, and so much more," she exclaims. "My mother was a fantastic cook." One of Nana's favorite errands was going to a Filipino store in Damascus to stock up on classic Pinoy snacks such as Nagaraya, Ding Dong, and Clover Chips.

Over the years, she gradually embraced the other half of her heritage by becoming fluent in speaking Tagalog, immersing herself in Filipino culture, and exploring everything in between. Nana quickly adapted to living in the Philippines. She admits, " I feel at home here and now when I visit Syria, it's the opposite."

Entering the Door to Pageantry and Advocacy

Unfazed by the gloomy skies that threatened rain at any moment on the first day of the shoot, Nana enthusiastically began working alongside photographer Lei, as well as hair and makeup artists King and Hope. With her classy charisma radiating in front of the camera, it's easy to assume that she has been a part of the fashion and modeling industry for many years. 

That couldn’t be farther from the truth. At age 25, Nana got her start with a modelling career after only when she turned 18. In fact, her childhood ambition was to become a United Nations delegate.

Her stately demeanor and diplomatic way of speaking with others could be attributed to that. Attentive and respectful, like any individual aspiring to become an envoy. Although her dream may have been put on hold for now, it ultimately became one of her greatest strengths as she stumbled upon her path to pageantry in a serendipitous manner. 

“I never considered working in the beauty industry”, she narrates. “However, my friend's debut took an unexpected turn. The makeup artist who did my makeup for the event saw my potential for the world of pageantry.”

The once simply and happy life that was interrupted by the Syrian civil war, is now beginning to take on a new form in Nana's second homeland. What better way to live a fulfilling life and pursue a successful career than by representing the nation as both a flag bearer and a beauty queen.

The door to pageantry has been opened. “I was led through my first pageant in 2017—Miss Manila—by Raul and Seph Madrid.  It was a vital point in my life even though I didn't understand the intricacies of the business at the time. It helped me realize that pageants include more than just beauty—they also are humanitarians.”

Nana's fourth runner-up finish opened up new opportunities for her. Soon after, modelling agencies started approaching her, and she began working on fashion editorials, commercials for magazines, and digital and print ads. In her subsequent participation in a beauty pageant competition, she emerged victorious and was crowned Miss Parañaque in 2019.

"Due to the pandemic, I ended up reigning as Miss Parañaque  for three years. In 2021, I joined Miss Philippines Earth,” she says.

Miss Earth with a Cause

Nana's childhood dream of working in the United Nations has greatly influenced her perspectives on global issues, particularly the urgent matter of climate change that permeates every conversation about planet Earth.

Perhaps it was her childhood dreams of working with the UN that motivated her to participate in the Miss Earth Philippines competition. In a previous interview, she mentioned that joining the pageant, which is highly popular in the Philippines, would provide her with a significant platform to advocate for the positive changes she wishes to see in the world.

At the age of 23, she emerged victorious among 65 other beautiful and intelligent candidates. With this newfound platform, she wasted no time in employing it to promote her advocacies. One of which is plastic recycling.

In one of the virtual interviews leading up to the coronation night, she shared more about her planet Earth first activism. “I believe that plastic is a serious issue that needs to be tackled with a better solution. We may need to stop single use plastic, but we also need to figure out how to deal with the current plastic waste overload.”

On her Instagram account, she shares her passion for discovering innovative solutions that reduce waste. For instance, she showcased a small machine capable of transforming plastic into durable materials.

Winning didn't come easy, as the pandemic imposed restrictions that made her Miss Earth experience unlike any other pageants. The event, like many others affected by the pandemic, was held virtually. This situation posed a greater challenge for Nana, her team, and the other contestants. "The organizers came up with a pageant that could continue to run despite the pandemic, and I admire how adaptable they are," she remarks.

Partaking in a virtual beauty pageant means doing your own shoots as well. One memorable moment occurred when the future Miss Earth Philippines and her team filmed her long gown entry in a basketball court in Parañaque. They creatively arranged posts and other decorations alongside a pile of sacks of rice and boxes of groceries intended to provide pandemic aid the residents.

Other than her environment causes, Nana is also a is also a proponent of mental health awareness, through her YouTube channel entitled "Master Peace with Naelah". She is also a firm believer in the power of social media when used correctly.

Naelah Alshorbaji bookended her Miss Earth Philippines reign by finishing in the top 8 of the Miss Earth Finals that was also held virtually. "Regardless of if I win or lose, I will consider myself a winner because I learned and became a better person coming out of the situation," she wrote on her Instagram caption following the competition.

Must Love Cats, Travels, Meditation, Jiu-Jitsu…

Nana, an animal lover, grew up surrounded by dogs and other animals. Now, she shares her home with two cats. When not shopping for cat essentials at the pet section of Ace Hardware — where she first bumped into her boyfriend, she engages in a variety of physically demanding yet soul-fulfilling activities, such as kiteboarding and playing golf. In addition, she explores various dance styles and also dedicates herself to learning mixed martial arts disciplines such as muay Thai and ju-jitsu.

"I enjoy writing poetry, my interest is often sparked by various subjects that capture my curiosity," she explains. “Recently, I finished tufting my first rug and it got me thinking about my future rug projects. I find great joy in the abundance of fascinating and unconventional experiences that the world has to offer. Stay inquisitive!"

Having a career as one of the highly sought-after models has also allowed her to travel and explore more of the Philippines. Among her favorite places, she listed Caliraya Lake in Laguna, particularly because she is a member of a Kiteboarding Club there. Ilocos is one of the top destinations on her list for adventure activities. “If we're talking about landscape, Coron has to be on the list. I adore going  beach hopping and marveling at the rock formations and the quietness and beauty of water."

A meditation practitioner, she also writes down her thoughts on a journal every morning before working out and preparing for school. Despite being a beauty queen, model, host, and juggling multiple roles, Nana has not neglected her education as she now pursues a B.S. in Psychology.

It's truly remarkable how she manages to balance her work and studying responsibilities with her hobbies and passions throughout the day. Despite her busy schedule, she even finds time to play League of Legends before going to bed. What's even more impressive is that she still prioritizes spending time with her family, especially her mom, who she considers to be her biggest supporter.

A Revolving Door of Stories

“When we arrived at the resort, my eldest brother Danny messaged me on the family chat to say that he had taken my mother to the hospital because she was having trouble breathing. She has diabetes and had previously visited the ER for it, so we assumed it could have been something along those lines”, she recalls.

Despite having barely gotten an hour of sleep, Naelah effortlessly excelled throughout the entire day's photo shoot. Days later, while selecting the photographs, Lei Magluyan told this writer, "You would have never known that she was going through something at that moment."

A day later, Nana got a series of worsening updates from her family. Meanwhile, as Nana and Lei wrapped up the final part of the shoot, Arnel Barreta, the resort manager of Bluewater Sumilon, began making arrangements for transportation. He arranged for a boat and a van to transport her from the resort to Cebu mainland, and then to the airport at Mactan.

Finishing the shoot, she hurriedly left Sumilon Island before dusk for a five-hour journey back to Cebu International Airport in Mactan Island. It was during this time that according to her, "I lost my mother".

Days later, during the eulogy she delivered for her mother, Nana eloquently expressed her gratitude for the multitude of stories shared by various individuals, describing them as a "revolving door of stories."

In addition to the qualities she has always recognized in her mother - being the greatest mom to her and her brothers, an amazing cook, someone who gave back to her community, a loyal friend, and a doting grandmother - Nana was thrilled to hear more incredible stories about her mother from others who knew her.

“There is nothing in this world like a mother's love. Anxiously waiting on the couch or leaning on the gate. That's how she was and that how I know she still is. My guardian angel, protecter, I know even gone you're still the Same way. Now it's you anxiously waiting on heaven’s door and anxiously leaning on heaven’s gate, waiting for your kids to come home because you know in between your arms is the safest place”,  Nana says towards the end of her eulogy.

This article first appeared as the cover story of asianTraveler's 2nd quarter issue of 2023.