By Elise Schmelzer
Even after hustling out of Syria in the middle of the night under the threat of death, Alia Ibrahim continues to report from flashpoints in the Middle East and Europe. She can’t imagine doing anything else.
Ibrahim, who reports for Al Aribiya News in Lebanon, traveled to Syria in 2012 to see the intensifying revolution first hand.
Reporting from territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army, she interviewed members of rebel group and talked to civilians about how the revolution has impacted their lives. She reported live — often with scarce access to Internet and electricity — and compiled footage for a longer project even as bombs exploded nearby.
She supported those fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but she asked the rebels hard questions.
Less than a week later, some rebels deemed her stories too critical and issued a fatwa calling for her death. Ibrahim had to quickly sneak out of the country.
“I reported what I saw,” she said. “Part of what I saw I didn’t like.”
The experience opened her eyes to the daily reality of the revolution in the neighboring country and its effects on the general population.
“I really thought I knew Syria really well — it’s completely different when you go,” she said. “It’s a human story when you go. It’s a real story about real people when you go.”
Since completing her Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellowship at the Washington Post in 2002, Ibrahim has witnessed many of the changes and crises that have rocked the Middle East. Her reporting has brought her to the protests and the revolutions of the Arab Spring in countries like Yemen, Tunisia and Libya. She has also reported extensively on women’s rights in the region, including young Syrian women who decide to defy tradition and not marry. In August she followed refugees from Syria to Britain and Germany.
Her greatest accomplishment? Giving voice to people at the margins of conflict who wouldn’t otherwise be heard.
“I’m not a war journalist; it just happened that there are conflicts in the region where I work,” she said. “You don’t just resign because there’s conflict.”
Ibrahim worked at The Daily Star in Beirut before and after she came to the United States for the Alfred Friendly fellowship, and she eventually became the managing editor of the English-language newspaper.
For Ibrahim, the fellowship changed her reporting “in every way.”
“As I see it, my career is divided into before the fellowship and after,” she said. “The journalist who went to the fellowship was much less confident than the one who came back.”
One of her first assignments at the Washington Post was to work with a colleague to cover the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Ibrahim found it hard to talk with people about their still-raw psychological wounds, especially as an Arab. She often found herself explaining the complexities of Islam to people who knew little about the religion and defending viewpoints from the Middle East she didn’t believe herself. The stress and the complications made her cry in the newsroom bathrooms multiple times.
Despite the difficulty, the story is one of her favorites. The experience proved to her that she could take on a controversial topic, investigate deeply and report it fairly, Ibrahim said.
Working closely with the team and editors at one of the world’s greatest newspapers also gave her a confidence she didn’t have before.
“People at the newsroom, people much more senior than me, took the time to sit with me and listen to what I had to say and assign me good stories,” Ibrahim said. “I thought that if these guys think that I can work on these stories then I must be good.”
After returning to Lebanon and getting promoted to managing editor of her daily newspaper, Ibrahim switched to broadcast television and now works as a senior correspondent for Al Arabiya, where she focuses on longform investigative stories in English and Arabic.
Between reporting assignments and raising two kids, Ibrahim has been working on a book and a documentary about her experiences covering the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
Although she can’t travel to Syria for now, Ibrahim helped train young Syrian journalists in Turkey two years ago. Ibrahim taught them the basics of journalistic ethics and strategies for getting their stories published.
“Working with the young journalists at a very difficult time gives me hope,” she said. “It feels like I’m pushing something forward and that I’m sharing a little bit of the training I received with others.”
Although the languages and mediums of her stories have changed over time, Ibrahim said they all have the same purpose: to give voice to those without one and hold the powerful accountable.
“I’m going a reporter for a very, very long time,” she said.