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Saudi Arabian journalist Safa Al Ahmad gave a talk after accepting the Wallenberg Medal from President Mark Schlissel Tuesday night. She spoke in Rackham Auditorium to a crowd of a few hundred community members and students.
The Wallenberg Medal is named after 1935 University of Michigan graduate Raoul Wallenberg, who saved more than 80,000 lives in Nazi-occupied Hungary during World War II. The award is given to those who “demonstrate the capacity of the human spirit to stand up for the helpless, to defend the integrity of the powerless, and to speak out on behalf of the voiceless.” Al Ahmad is the 27th recipient of the award, joining notable recipients like Elie Wiesel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama.
“If I’m going to be honest, this completely feels like imposter syndrome,” Al Ahmad said. “I don’t know why I was chosen … all I can say is that I’m overwhelmed and honored, and I hope I deserve it.”
As a journalist and filmmaker, Al Ahmad has produced documentaries about the uprisings in the Middle East. She said her reporting on the complexities of the conflict in areas of Yemen has put her in great danger, yet she has continued to cover this area.
“It’s constantly keeping me on my toes as a storywriter,” Al Ahmad said. “You never think ‘Oh, that’s it. I’ve seen it all in Yemen.’ You have not and you never will. So, on a personal, selfish level, I find it’s really important to keep engaged and interested, intrigued by a story.”
Al Ahmad has forged connections with her interview subjects, some of whom she has grown close with over her years of covering the area. As she returned to Yemen over the years, she recognized the effect the trauma from the civil war was having on people’s perception of time and reality.
“Nothing prepares you for how you need to handle these cases,” Al Ahmad said. “How do you maintain distance, but also empathy (and) trust? They become your friends, you talk to them all the time, and so the boundaries are very difficult to deal with.”
In addition to being a journalist, Al Ahmad covers her stories through film, directing documentaries that were broadcast on programs like PBS and CBS.
“The camera is an interesting addition to a war zone, because it enables me to filter everything through that frame, through that lens,” Al Ahmad said. “It actually gives me emotional distance.”
Though she is both a filmmaker and a journalist, Al Ahmad said she prioritizes the story being told over the quality of camera work.
“I’m not one of those people who’s going to make a beautiful film, and I don’t really care about that as much as, ‘Are you getting the information that you need from this scene?’” Al Ahmad said.
As someone applying for the Wallenberg Fellowship to learn about the lives of Yemeni refugees and asylum seekers, LSA senior Ayat AL-Tamimi attended Al Ahmad’s lecture for the opportunity to learn from someone who is doing groundwork in a similar field.
“I think at the heart of it was that she talked about all these war and political factions, but I don’t think any of that mattered in the grand scheme of the story,” AL-Tamimi said. “What mattered was the human element, and people’s lives and how those have been impacted by people who put ideology above human life.”
LSA junior Jalal Mawri, who attended the lecture, is a Yemeni-American student who lived in Yemen until 2013. Mawri said he felt a personal connection to Al Ahmad’s stories, as two of his cousins had been killed in airstrikes in Yemen.
“It was brutally emotional,” Mawri said. “When I was hearing those stories that she was saying, I got really emotional. I had a few tears coming out of my eyes.”
Al Ahmad became emotional while sharing stories of civilian casualties she had encountered while on the ground in Yemen, ranging from a five year old girl who died alone standing in line to get water, to a mother who lost her two boys to a missile strike that hit them while they were playing outside.
“If anything, this was a reminder that you can have five factions warring in a village, but in the end, a kid is still a kid who answers to his mother,” AL-Tamimi said. “A faction doesn’t take that away.”
Currently, Al Ahmad is working on a podcast about Saudi Arabian human rights in Arabic. She is also looking to continue her coverage of Yemen in the future by revisiting her footage and seeing how the understanding of the conflict has changed.
“For a lot of people, access is more important than the story itself,” Al Ahmad said. “I hope I never get accused of just being someone who has access but no real journalism.”
At the end of her lecture, Al Ahmad was met with a standing ovation from the audience. This was followed by a Q&A section, which included a question from an audience member about being a female reporter in the Middle East.
Al Ahmad responded that she sees her gender as being a superpower, since she can cover Yemeni women with sensitivity to their culture and situation. Other questions addressed Al Ahmad’s opinion about other conflicts in the Middle East area and the relations between the region and the United States.
Reflecting on Al Ahmad’s speech, AL-Tamimi was moved by her description of the Yemeni people being impacted by the civil war.
“I think what really moved me to tears when she talked about how people being here is a sign of people not forgetting about Yemen,” AL-Tamimi said. “I think people often forget that people living in the Middle East are people.”