Zaina Erhaim, 30, currently lives and works in Aleppo, Syria.
Over the last two years inside Syria, she has trained about 100 citizen reporters, approximately a third of them women, in print and TV journalism, and has helped establish many of the new emerging independent newspapers and magazines in the war torn country.
“I am trying to help in writing the untold stories for our future,” she told Reporters without Borders in an interview on March 8, 2015, United Nations Women Day.
International news organizations have left the country and freelance reporters, intimidated by several spectacular beheadings, no longer travel there. Only ordinary Syrians are left to account for events on the ground and offer an alternative to the propaganda promulgated by President Bashir Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic or terrorist groups.
Erhaim is the Syria project coordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), an international organization that supports journalists in countries undergoing conflict, crisis, or transition. She teaches men and women the fundamentals of journalism, including how to tell a news story, how to check sources, and how to stay safe while reporting. Some of her trainees, from all walks of life, have been published in major international news outlets. Others blog or use Twitter. Sadly, some have had to flee the country, have been kidnapped, or killed. But she continues to promote honest journalism and the search for facts in a country torn apart by a bloody civil war among religious, ethnic and tribal groups, nearly all supported by various outside actors from the region and beyond.
“Zaina Erhaim is not only on the frontlines of war, but also on the frontlines of how journalism is changing. Using the power of new technology that makes it far easier to collect and disseminate news, she is training people to produce content themselves,” said Marcus Brauchli, a member of the PMA advisory board.
She works both in Arabic and in English to teach and contribute her own reporting to Arab and Western media, including the British magazine The Economist as well as the Guardian daily paper. She always makes herself available to speak to colleagues from many other outlets, such as NPR and others. “I feel obliged to give my eyes to the world,” she told RSF.
Upon learning of the award, she said: “After living with the horror of war for all these years, sometimes we feel abandoned and forget that there are people listening and reading our stories and that they actually care. The Peter Mackler Award tells my Syrian colleagues and me that we do matter, and that our hard work is appreciated. It gives us strength in our daily battle to survive.”
Born in Idlib, northwestern Syria, Erhaim was already braving cultural taboos when she left her hometown and graduated with a degree in journalism from Damascus University in 2007.
With the help of a scholarship, she was completing graduate work in London when the war erupted in 2011. She worked for the BBC in Arabic, traveling back to Syria to report on the conflict until 2013 when she decided she couldn’t stay away anymore. “I felt I must help, so I started helping in the field I know the most about, journalism,” Erhaim told RSF.
In peacetime, being an Arab woman in a position of training men and reporting the news is challenging. In war time, “surviving is the main challenge I face as all the civilians still there, overcoming the daily fear of bombing, losing yet another friend, getting killed or kidnapped,” she said.
She travels and works with a “male guardian” to interview men who would not otherwise speak with a female reporter. Yet she is still sometimes defied. She is frequently taunted “How could a women know better than a man?”
Over the last four years, she has been running an IWPR blog written by women who document Syria’s recent history from their point of view. In March, the Mazaya center in Kafranbel, where Erhaim was teaching, was stormed by masked men and set on fire on the fifth and last day of training. Yet women went back to work and continue writing and publishing to this day about daily life in Syria.
“I love what I do, and I am proud to be a woman and can still do what I am doing in this conservative masculine society. I am grateful to have access to this part of the society,” Erhaim has said.
Although moving around the country is much harder today than it was just two years ago, Erhaim feels “responsible to keep going, and tell the untold stories of those who can’t tell it”.
“Many times when I have been hiding in my corridor during one of the regime’s many campaigns, I have gotten messages from international journalists asking for quotes or information about the story. They usually forget to ask how am I doing. To me, this award is that missing warm question of concern, like a tender hand reaching out,” she told the PMA upon learning of the award.