Former CNN conflict journalist Arwa Damon on how war rewrites children’s destinies



The reporter started a non-profit after she realised that journalism can’t make a difference in the lives of those you are reporting on

Arwa Damon, 44, who became a household name for intrepid ground reportage for CNN from troubled hotspots in the Middle East and North Africa since 2006, quit the American TV news network in June to pursue other adventures in life, including helming INARA, a non-profit humanitarian organisation, which was founded in 2015 and provides medical treatment to refugee children from conflict-hit Syria.

Arwa was born in Boston, USA, to an American father and a Syrian mother. She is the granddaughter of Muhsin al-Barazi, the former Syrian-Kurd Prime Minister of Syria, who was executed in August 1949 during a coup d’état.

She had decided to become a journalist after 9/11 and moved to Baghdad prior to the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003.

Arwa began her career at CameraPlanet, a supplier of media content for television newscasts. For three years, she covered the Middle East as a freelance producer working with CNN, CNN International, PBS, Fox News and other media outlets before joining CNN in February 2006.

Her coverage delved deeper into the fierce fighting in Iraq between Daesh and the Iraqi national army and associated paramilitary groups.

Her reporting has made viewers understand the complexities of the conflict in the region.

In 2018, she won the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for her reporting on the fall of Daesh in Iraq and Syria and three Emmys for her coverage in Iraq and Syria, including Outstanding News Special for Return to Mosul.

However, her ground-breaking reportage — her last assignment was as Senior International Correspondent for CNN based in Istanbul, Turkey — is a thing of the past, as she explains the trigger behind setting up INARA, which is an acronym for International Network for Aid, Relief and Assistance.

“I’ve been in countless war zones and witnessed first-hand the impact war has on populations around the world. In 2017, when I was in Iraq with CNN, we came across a young boy named Youssif who was doused in petrol by an unknown masked man for no apparent reason. He was horribly disfigured, shocked, and in excruciating pain — the kind of pain no five-year-old child should ever go through… I felt like we needed to mobilise immediate help. With CNN’s call to action, we were able to bring life-altering change and that was the precious moment when I realised we could do more to help others just like him, who are in dire need of assistance and others who were abandoned by the rest of the world,” she recounts.

The international response to Youssif’s story exceeded Arwa’s expectations, and that reminded her that the kindness of strangers still exists.

“The revelation led me to think about starting a non-profit organisation that could tap into that generosity and build the links needed to help a child like Youssif, which is how INARA was born,” she says.

INARA, in Arabic, means “lighting the way”, and in Arwa’s case, she “wants to be the light that illuminates these children’s way on the right path towards recovery, and make their futures a little brighter, after having looked at life and seen all the darkness war and conflict leave in their wake”.

The response to her non-profit outfit has been overwhelming as acclaimed Syrian designer Nabil el-Nayal, too, got involved with it. “A few years ago, we were introduced to each other by a common acquaintance of ours. Nabil was very interested in the work INARA does and offered to design some T-shirts for us,” she says.

Similarly, American stage actor Thomas Sadoski and his wife and actor Amanda Seyfried have joined forces with INARA.

“Thomas and Amanda have a passion for helping children worldwide find safety and peace. They are good friends of mine and naturally became involved with INARA after reading the stories of the children we were helping and seeing first-hand the change that has been transforming their lives,” she says.

In retrospect, Arwa reminisces, “the moment I was able to call Youssif’s parents and tell them their child would be getting medical help has been highpoint of my career”.

She hastens to add there have been multiple low points when “you realise that journalism can’t make a difference in the lives of those you are reporting on”. “It’s the culmination of those low points that led me to establish INARA.”

She has chalked out the roadmap for the fledgling charity. “INARA was established to treat those impacted by war and conflict regardless of their ethnicity and religion. Our goal is to keep expanding our medical and mental health programmes to help more and more children in dire need in different conflict areas around the world, and for that we need more funds and donations from people who understand the necessity and importance of what we do,” she says.

Arwa went on an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania — the highest mountain in Africa — on July 27, which is her cry against the futility of war and to raise funds for INARA, and is likely to conclude on August 7, if the mission is on schedule.

“There’s no good that can come out of war… However, we can learn so much from those who have been through the unimaginable and have survived despite the odds. People sometimes get desensitised to others living in war zones. But when you’re right there with them, you can understand and feel what they’re going through, and you know without a doubt that their lives are worth fighting for,” she says.

“On this expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro, I’ve taken with me two children whom INARA has treated as well as two other war-impacted individuals to raise money for INARA and help many more young minds who are in need. Our climbers — from Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine — are united in saying ‘the impact caused by war is universal, the response to it should be as well’”.

“Though they will be challenged every step of the way, emotionally and physically, they are all determined to reach the summit and amplify their message to the world,” she says. “They all carry the visible and invisible scars of war, yet they refuse to give up hope, they refuse to stop fighting for themselves, for their future.”

Data shows that it costs around $7,000 (Dh25,711) for each conflict-hit child to provide medical and mental healthcare to either significantly reduce the impact of an injury or reverse it.

INARA aims to raise $700,000 (Dh2,571,100) to fully treat another 100 children injured due to mindless war and violence. “However, we need you to donate and support these climbers who will do their best to reach this summit and show those just like them that they can do anything they set their mind to. We can’t change their past, but we can alter the course of their destiny by providing them with medical and mental health…These climbers want to help others impacted by war have a chance at healing and reaching their own summits in life, and you can too,” she adds, as hope springs eternal.

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