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30-year-old Zaina Erhaim risks her life daily to report and to train journalists -- many of them women -- on the frontline of Syria's bloody civil war


Journalist tells of her “race against death” inside war-torn Syria

October 22, 2015

At 30 years old, Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim has survived barrel bombs and sniper fire, documented stories of state torture and terrorism, and organized against the ruthless Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the notorious Islamic State. Yet, despite this harrowing career, Erhaim says she never imagined she’d become a war reporter.

“I wouldn’t have reported on war if this war were not engulfing my home,” she explained by email from the Syrian-Turkish border where she lives, regularly reporting from the front line of opposition-held areas in Syria’s North. “I came back to Syria because I felt responsible, obliged to help. I believe in the peaceful demonstrations and lost friends who were tortured or killed for demanding freedom and democracy. I wanted to help by using what I’m good at, which is my field of study and work: journalism.”

Erhaim left her small town in the northern Syrian province of Idlib to study journalism in Syria’s capitol city of Damascus. Her career choice defied the expectations for women within her conservative community — it required that she travel away from her family and interact frequently with men, she said. Yet, as she began to report on issues from her hometown for the local and then international press, community members began contacting her with news tips and ideas for stories. “That’s when the relationship started to change from rejection to respect,” Erhaim reflected.

Erhaim was finishing a degree in international journalism in London when the Syrian uprising began in 2011. She was reporting for the BBC, but soon joined The Institute for War & Peace Reporting as their Syria coordinator — returning to her homeland of Syria even as waves of refugees fled.

As the situation in Syria continued to deteriorate, the need for her journalistic skills only heightened. Before long, Erhaim was training both men and women from her community on everything from video production to feature writing. “Many of the male trainees were already citizen journalists, but they wanted to get professional skills,” Erhaim explained. “But most of the women were housewives, some didn’t even finish high school, so oftentimes, we started from zero.


Zaina Erhaim in Saraqib in 2013. (Courtesy Zaina Erhaim/Facebook)
Zaina Erhaim in Saraqib in 2013. (Courtesy Zaina Erhaim/Facebook)

“But these women want to learn,” she continued. “Now they’ve ended up writing amazing features. I’m most proud of a few women who didn’t know how to write a diary, but now they’re publishing not only on our website Damascus Bureau but also in other publications.”

Since she returned in early 2013, Erhaim has trained more than thirty Syrian women journalists. She said her greatest source of energy was supplied by three of her trainees who asked for her presentation and supporting materials, to replicate the training for fifteen other Syrian journalists. Erhaim said that she and these women are documenting Syria’s history through the eyes of women, particularly through their new women’s blog.

“Nothing is more joyful than reading their beautifully written stories!” Erhaim added.

Yet the tragedy and trauma of the Syrian war has certainly taken its toll on Erhaim and her colleagues. By October 2015, four-and-a-half years since the Syrian revolution-turned-civil war transformed the lives of the country’s 20 million citizens, upwards of 200,000 Syrians have been killed and more than half of the country displaced. Since the uprising began, more than 80 journalists and media workers have been killed while covering the war, and last year, Syria was declared the deadliest country on earth for journalists.

Zaina Erhaim on stage at the Women in the World London Summit in October.
Zaina Erhaim on stage at the Women in the World London Summit in October. (Women in the World/YouTube)

Over the years, Erhaim’s home of Idlib province has frequently been transformed into Ground Zero of the war. Opposition groups have battled both ISIS and Assad in Idlib, notably repelling both forces at different points. Yet, just last week, Erhaim’s hometown came under fire from Russian air strikes despite no ISIS presence in the province.

Russia announced its military escalation earlier this month, claiming it will take leadership in the war against ISIS. But in the past week alone, ISIS has in fact made significant gains on Aleppo, Syria’s second-city, while US-backed rebel positions — and the communities in which Erhaim and her colleagues work — have absorbed the majority of Russian air strikes despite no ISIS presence.

“I’m not optimistic. It’s not hope that is still driving me and all of us who are working in Syria,” Erhaim said of the situation and her work. “We’ve lost friends, loved ones, our homes. It’s a responsibility now, even a burden, but they died because they wanted a better country, and we are still trying to keep that going.”

Yet it’s the moments of life — the moments that defy the death that surrounds them — that motivate Erhaim and her colleagues to continue what Erhaim called “their race against death” in their reporting. She said that sharing human moments, examples of how Syrians are fighting to hang on to normal routines of school or work, convey the resilience of her people as well as the urgency of the situation on the ground.

“One example is I had my first surprise birthday party hiding in a basement with about fifteen friends this year. They bought decorations as if it were a fancy restaurant,” she smiled. “Once we had a friend’s wedding in my house. We were dancing when the mortars started falling … so we turned up the music to forget about it.”

Through her reporting and that of her colleagues, Erhaim said, she will continue to resist the war that is swallowing her home by documenting the stories of her people.

“We’re losing,” she reflected candidly. “But when you are so close to death, you learn to enjoy life to its maximum. I have lived great, warm minutes in the last year that I didn’t feel in my entire life.”

Zaina Erhaim will be honored with the prestigious Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism at the National Press Club on Thursday, October 22. You can follow her work on the ground via Twitter, Instagram, her personal blog, or the Women’s Blog.


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