Zaina Erhaim: “No one is left in Aleppo”


The 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Journalism Fellow Zaina Erhaim (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)

The Index Award-winning journalist Zaina Erhaim was due to travel to the USA this month along with three other Syrian women to screen their documentary series, Syria’s Rebellious Women. But President Donald Trump’s executive order on the travel ban for seven majority-Muslim countries, including Syria, saw the US State Department-funded tour cancelled.

Syria’s Rebellious Women, a documentary filmed by Erhaim in 2015, tells the stories of women who are doing all they can to help her country survive during this horrific time. Explaining how the film came about, she told Index: “I put three of the five profiles online because the women filmed agreed on putting them. I met them while living inside Syria.”

Speaking about Khaled Issa, who featured in Syria’s Rebellious Women before he died from injuries sustained from a blast that targeted his home in Aleppo, Erhaim said: “Sadly it’s not a unique incident, but not all the media activists are ‘lucky’ enough to get the media attention and concern that Khaled did.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row equal_height=”yes” css=”.vc_custom_1488992779654{background-color: #dd3333 !important;}” el_class=”text_white”][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_custom_heading text=”Protect Media Freedom” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:28|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]

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We monitor threats to press freedom, produce an award-winning magazine and publish work by censored writers.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″ css=”.vc_custom_1488991756172{background-image: url( !important;}”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The cancellation of the US tour is the second time within six months that Erhaim had been made to feel completely unwelcome by the authorities of a Western country. In September 2016, when entering the UK on invitation of Index on Censorship to speak about her experiences alongside veteran journalist Kate Adie, the journalist’s Syrian passport was confiscated at the request of the Syrian government.

In December 2016, the last civilians of Aleppo were evacuated, including Erhaim’s husband Mahmoud Rashwani, who is now in Edlib. “No one is left in Aleppo,” Erhaim explained. “For activists, living in an Assad-controlled area means being arrested or killed. Many families of the activists were arrested for staying.”

In a recent column for The Guardian, Erhaim described how residents of Aleppo often burn their photos and other important possessions as they left Aleppo to prevent soldiers from getting their hands on them. She told Index that people also burned their cars and other useful possessions so that the militias can’t use them.

The 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Journalism Fellow Erhaim was named one of Reuters’ Unsung Heroes of 2016. She said that while it’s great to be remembered among “actual heroes”, she doesn’t feel that she did enough to be included with them.

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Zaina Erhaim: Balancing work and family in times of war


This week, UN officials described the Syrian regime’s offensive against the besieged city of Aleppo as “barbaric”. Following the collapse of a short-lived ceasefire, Syrian forces again began bombing Aleppo on Sunday, a continuation of the “unrelenting onslaught of cruelty”.

Aleppo is the former home of Zaina Erhaim, activist, journalist and winner of the 2016 Index on Censorship award for journalism for her work training citizen journalists to report on the conflict within the city.

2016 Freedom of Expression Fellow Zaina Erhaim

Zaina Erhaim is the 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Journalism Award-winner and fellow. A Syrian native who was studying journalism in London when war broke out in Syria in 2013, Erhaim decided to return permanently to report and train citizen journalists in the war-ravaged country. Read more about Erhaim’s work.

The battle for Aleppo has been raging since 2012, the same year Erhaim’s husband, the activist Mahmoud Rashwani, was arrested and tortured by the Syrian regime for participating in peaceful protests.

Writing on 11 August 2016 Erhaim – who now lives in Turkey with the couple’s seven-month-old daughter – said: “Among the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people living on Aleppo’s eastside, Mahmoud hadn’t had any vegetables or fruit for the past month.”

She added that shortages of food – from fresh produce and canned food, to eggs, flour and baby milk – along with a lack of fuel have have left the people of Aleppo increasingly vulnerable.

Speaking to Index on Censorship, Erhaim said she was “incredibly proud” about her husband’s “brave” work searching for survivors among the rubble of bomb out buildings in Aleppo alongside other volunteers.

On 15 August, it was Rashwani’s neighbour’s home which was left in ruins. The neighbour – a journalist – along with his pregnant wife, were killed, while Rashwani escaped with a knee injury, Erhaim told Index.

Rashwani’s home, which he shared with Erhaim before she left the city, was also damaged.

Rashwani travels between Syria and Turkey to be with his family, but the journey has become increasingly difficult as the war rages on, Erhaim said.

Erhaim herself faced difficulty with a border this week. Travelling from Istanbul on 22 September to attend an event organised by Index on Censorship, border officials at Heathrow airport held the activist and her child for an hour before confiscating her passport after it was reported by the Syrian authorities as stolen. She was told that her passport would have to be returned to the Syrian government.

Erhaim was able to enter the UK on an old passport. However, this passport is now full, making future travel plans and visa applications potentially impossible.

Now back in Turkey, she will continue to work on projects with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, she told Index. She is in the process of selecting five activists for a filmmaking project and has just completed hostile environments, first aid and digital security training with a number of journalists – essential skills for anyone reporting from Syria.

Erhaim will also continue to work on the Women’s Blog on The Damascus Bureau, which has just received a book deal from a French publisher. “The first edition will be in French and will be followed by editions in Arabic and English,” she told Index.

Speaking ahead of the Index event on women who report from war zones, Erhaim told Index: “The voices of women are very important because they are telling what is happening behind the frontline. While the major concern for most of the men in these situations is the actual conflict, women also think about education, health systems, clinics, social traditions, the changes in wedding styles – they are reporting on life.”

Nominations are now open for 2017 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards and will remain open until 11 October. You can make yours here

Winners of the 2016 Freedom of Expression Awards: from left, Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi (campaigning), Serge Bambara -- aka "Smockey" (Music in Exile), Murad Subay (arts), Zaina Erhaim (journalism). GreatFire (digital activism), not pictured, is an anonymous collective. Photo: Sean Gallagher for Index on Censorship

Winners of the 2016 Freedom of Expression Awards: from left, Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi (campaigning), Serge Bambara — aka “Smockey” (Music in Exile), Murad Subay (arts), Zaina Erhaim (journalism). GreatFire (digital activism), not pictured, is an anonymous collective. Photo: Sean Gallagher for Index on Censorship

More about Zaina Erhaim

Index condemns UK’s seizure of award winner’s passport

Women on the front line: Zaina Erhaim and Kate Adie on the challenges of war reporting

Zaina Erhaim: “I want to give this award to the Syrians who are being terrorised”

#IndexAwards2016: Zaina Erhaim trains Syrian women to report on the war

Women on the front line: Zaina Erhaim and Kate Adie on the challenges of war reporting

Journalists Zaina Erhaim and Kate Adie will speak at Write on Kew. (Photos: Sean Gallagher, Ken Lennox)

Journalists Zaina Erhaim and Kate Adie spoke at Write on Kew. (Photos: Sean Gallagher, Ken Lennox)

On 24 September Index on Censorship’s CEO, Jodie Ginsberg, gathered with former BBC chief news correspondent Kate Adie and 2016 Index award-winning journalist Zaina Erhaim in Kew Gardens to discuss journalism in war  zones and what it’s like to be a woman reporting from crisis points.

Kate Adie has been a prominent figure in journalism since the 1980s, covering, among other major events, the 1980 London Iranian Embassy siege, the Tiananmen Square protests, the Rwandan Genocide and the war in Sierra Leone. After 14 years as BBC’s chief news correspondent, Adie now works as a freelance journalist, author and presents From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4.

Zaina Erhaim is a Syrian journalist known for her activism in Aleppo and teaching journalism skills to the men and women in Syria. Erhaim currently works as the Syria project coordinator with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Ginsberg asked Adie and Erhaim what influenced them to become journalists. Erhaim said her mother was the only family members that supported her career choice. The rest of her relatives told her: “Nobody wants to marry a journalist.”

Growing up in a conservative society where the regime censored everything, Erhaim was inspired to study journalism in the UK. After the escalation of the war in Syria, Erhaim knew that she could never abandon her home in Aleppo. She returned to the ravaged city to train journalists, particularly women, to spread the untold stories of those hurt by the war.

Adie discussed how her generation was affected by the aftermath of World War II, with women being incorporated into the workforce during warfare then pushed “back to the kitchen” after the war ended. She admits that growing up she had no expectations for her career, but after visiting East Berlin during the Cold War, she discovered that the rest of the world was not as comfortable as the one she grew up in, fueling her desire to become a journalist.

Exploring the challenges woman face in journalism, Adie said that there were obvious concerns in countries that view women as secondary beings. The fear of being raped or assaulted is always present, she said, adding that there are judicial systems in place that could see her imprison for being a female out alone in public.

Adie emphasised that she does not like to be portrayed as a “woman journalist” but instead a “journalist who happens to be a woman”.

As a woman, Erhaim was not allowed to travel to the “front line” of the Syrian war. However, this allowed her to focus on the unreported stories and train Syrian women and men in journalism. She experienced some difficulty when training men, saying that many refused to look her in the eye because they thought it shameful to be taught by a woman. This was not something she cared about, considering her focus was to get the untold stories to the public.

An audience member later asked whether there are real front lines in warfare anymore, to which both Erhaim and Adie answered no. Adie stated that contemporary front lines are “complete fantasy,” stressing that war is no longer something that stays on the battlefield, but something that divides a village and follows you home.

Parting with advice for aspiring journalists, Erhaim simply stated: “Don’t go to war zones.” Adie reminded the audience that journalism is tough and often doesn’t pay well, but telling people about the world and bringing a story back will be the most rewarding feeling a journalist can accomplish.

More about Zaina Erhaim

Confiscation of Syrian journalist’s passport is appalling

Zaina Erhaim: “I want to give this award to the Syrians who are being terrorised”

#IndexAwards2016: Zaina Erhaim trains Syrian women to report on the war

24 Sept: Women on the front line at Write on Kew

Zaina Erhaim: Syria’s Rebellious Women


A series of short documentaries directed by 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards finalist Zaina Erhaim were screened at the Frontline Club in London last night.

Syria’s Rebellious Women was filmed by the Syrian journalist over an 18-month period to offer a rare insight into the difficulties faced by women living and working in rebel-held parts of Syria.

The films, which show a side of Syria rarely seen in the media, tell the individual stories of heroic women who continue to document war, provide medical services and deliver supplies to civilians despite disapproval from their families and the male-dominated society.

Erhaim told the audience that she decided to make the films after failing to find anything about Syrian women throughout history during her own research, and wanting to ensure the work of these women was remembered.

She said: “The main reason I made the films is because I am Syrian, and I’m a woman. I tried to do some research six years ago about Syrian women who participated in Syrian history and I couldn’t find anything.

“So I felt like we had to capture this work that the women are doing because in the future the men are going to be writing the history and these heroines are going to be forgotten.”

As a female journalist Erhaim faced many struggles when making the films, including being forbidden from filming in certain locations, just for being female; meaning she had to teach a male friend to use a camera in order to film scenes for her. Her friend was then hit by a missile after helping her.

She said: “Sometimes you need a hand and there are plenty of people willing to do that, free of charge; even if they are sacrificing their lives for you.”

Erhaim has spent the last two years training hundreds of citizen journalists, many of them women. She is also the Syria project coordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), an international organisation that supports journalists in countries undergoing conflict, crisis, or transition, who co-presented the event with Index and the Frontline Club.

When asked if she was optimistic about Syria’s future she replied: “No, I’m not. I think I’m being realistic; I don’t see any change happening, at least for better. Not for women, not for men, not for Syrians.”