As Maha Assabalani sat amid the sounds of clinking plates and the aroma of cigarette smoke outside of a café in the heart of Paris, her thoughts drifted to memories of the vibrant people and culture of Damascus, Syria.
A smile crept over her face as she remembered the music, the food and “the sharing people,” even as the country became defined in the media as a place of oppression and conflict. After living in both Yemen and Syria, Assabalani says she still feels a deep connection to the Middle East.
“There’s lots of beauty there,” Assabalani said in an interview with MediaFile. “In everything, truly in everything. And I belong to that place. I belong to Yemen and I belong to Syria.”
— AUP (@AUParis) January 22, 2013
However, for Assabalani these memories are now clouded with pain.
One day in February 2012 Assabalani, who was working at the time at the Syrian Center for Media Freedom and Expression, watched as 15 of her colleagues were detained by Syrian security forces. A Yemeni citizen and the daughter of a diplomat, Assabalani was the only one in the office spared.
Afterward, Assabalani’s father learned of her work defending the rights of journalists in the face of government suppression. Fearing the danger Assabalani and her family would face he gave her a choice: continue her work or continue her relationship with her family.
“It was really hard to ask me to give up something while my colleagues got arrested,” Assabalani said. “I felt like it was my duty to continue.”
With five euros in her pocket and an unknown future, Assabalani travelled to Paris. Despite the initial challenges she faced navigating a new city on her own she remained committed to her work.
“It wasn’t easy to feel all of the sudden that you are a little girl in a big city, in a big world, and you don’t know what to do or how to continue,” Assabalani said. “But now, I am really thankful that happened. That built me. That built the woman inside me. It created the journalist inside me.”
Eager to pursue a career in journalism reporting on the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, Assabalani eventually earned her master’s degree in Global Communication from the American University of Paris and a Fulbright Fellowship at the College of William and Mary.
Bomb that killed 40 children in Yemen was supplied by US https://t.co/rzElWTHIUU
— Maha Assabalani (@massabalani) August 19, 2018
The 33-year-old now works as a freelance journalist, a communications officer for the Arab Reform Initiative and the Coordinator for Yemen Programme for the Danish nonprofit International Media Support. She continues to promote the rights of journalists and advocates for the adoption of democratically free societies in the Middle East and around the world.
Assabalani said that her past continues to motivate her as she reports on ongoing issues in Yemen, Syria and the larger Middle East. She explained that despite her experiences in the region, it is only through sharing and working with other journalists that she can try to get as close to the truth as possible of any story.
“I don’t tell facts, I tell my findings,” Assabalani said. “You cannot tell people ‘I have the absolute truth.’ I know only my experience. I know only what I have been trying my best to understand. So, if someone has something else to say, I’m ready to share, I’m ready to listen and to discuss and to build up something better.”
Despite heavy mainstream media coverage of Syria, which began when civil war broke out in 2015, Assabalani says one thing that she believes is missing in recent reporting is a deep understanding of the complexity of the conflict and the region’s history.
One specific case where Assabalani says the media has failed to deliver adequate coverage is in reporting on the ongoing civil war in Yemen, which has led to a widespread famine and the deaths of thousands of citizens. Freedom House’s 2016 Press Freedom Report on Yemen revealed a breakdown in enforcement of protections for journalists. Members of the Houthi rebel movement constantly carry out raids on media outlets and journalists are detained in territories where the group has gained control.
Assabalani said that while news outlets in the West may devote more attention to the Syrian conflict due to the high number of refugees coming out of the country and into Europe, she believes it is essential to view what is happening in Yemen as a “human” issue.
“With Yemen, it’s just like, ‘oh, we’re sorry for them but it’s far away from us,’ so no one is talking about it that much,” Assabalani said. “But it’s not that far. Whether we like it or not, we’re part of it. And we need to feel obligated to contribute to it, to help, to report more about it, and to understand what’s happening.”
— Lama Fakih (@lamamfakih) March 16, 2016
Despite claims of “fake news” and other recent criticisms of the press worldwide, Assabalani says that one way for journalists to gain back the public’s trust is to reclaim its role in society as an essential tool for democracy.
“Media is that powerful to the extent that it can change authorities,” Assabalani said. “It should be everybody’s responsibility that journalism is not about competition. It’s not about fame, it’s not about being the ‘hero.’ It’s about giving a voice for the voiceless.”
Regardless of all the success Assabalani has achieved so far in her career she explains that she is still tied to Yemen. Since coming to Paris, Assabalani has rebuilt her relationship with her parents, who remain trapped in the capital city of Sana’a which was taken over by Houthi rebels in 2014.
“My parents are there and I am going to do everything possible, everything possible, to protect them, to make sure that no airstrike will hit them,” Assabalani said. “I don’t want them to die that way.”
Since the day that Syrian officers stormed her workplace Assabalani’s life has changed, but her commitment still remains the same: to use her reporting as a means to help bring peace and justice in the places she calls home.
“The war to end, that’s my biggest hope” Assabalani said. “No blood anymore. No violence. No war-torn refugees anymore. No tears. No kids dying because of chemical attacks or hunger, torture or prison. And I want those responsible for all these disasters to take responsibility. My hope is to end the war with justice.”