Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim is the winner of the 2016 XCity Award for her documentation of women living amid the conflict in Syria, and for training more than 100 citizen journalists in the war zone.
Erhaim beat 24 other nominees for the award and £500 prize, which honours a former City student who has made an outstanding contribution to journalism.
Over the last two years in Syria, Erhaim (International 2011) has trained more than 100 civilians, approximately a third of them women, in print and TV journalism. In doing so, she has helped establish many of the new emerging independent newspapers and magazines in the war-torn country.
Erhaim spoke to XCityPlus about winning the XCity Award: “Being recognised and nominated by a tutor at City makes me so proud. I am honoured to be recognised alongside such great journalists.”
With the help of a scholarship, she was completing her master’s degree at City when the civil war erupted in 2011. She worked for the BBC in Arabic, travelling back to Syria to report on the conflict until 2013, when she decided to return. Since then, her reporting from within Syria has appeared in The Economist, The Guardian and many other outlets.
The former International MA student credits City for her success since she graduated. “Studying at City was such an achievement. It helped me get my first job and my work has been recognised by international organisations as a result.”
As a Syria project co-ordinator, Erhaim works with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), an international organisation that supports journalists in countries undergoing conflict, crisis or transition. She has taught dozens of Syrian civilians the necessary skills and strategies to become citizen journalists, all at no cost to them.
“I want to help my fellow citizen journalists. I feel a burden to complete what my colleagues and friends have died for. They died to make the world see what is going on, and I will make sure that happens.”
As international news organisations and freelance reporters fled the country amid conflict, citizen journalists in Syria are a key source of news about the ongoing conflict. Her training has provided ordinary citizens with a chance to document their experiences. In doing so, Erhaim has played a vital role in sharing information about the conflict from within Syria with the rest of the world.
Working amid danger is an everyday ordeal for Erhaim. Based in Aleppo, one of the main sites of the Syrian civil war, safety is never a guarantee. Speaking of the conditions, she said: “It’s pretty dangerous for anyone to live there, but there is an extra layer of danger that is applied to any journalist. It puts you on the wanted list. You could easily be arrested, kidnapped or killed, and no one would be able to help you.”
Despite the incredibly tough circumstances she faces everyday, Erhaim describes her decision to return to Syria as “the most natural thing to do” and instead deems giving birth the most difficult thing she has had to face since her return.
Michael Bromley, interim head of Journalism at City and a member of the judging panel, said: “I am genuinely in awe of what she has achieved. Zaina’s experience as a journalist has empowered Syrians to report on their own circumstances and is a powerful demonstration of the contribution journalism can make.
“It is also flattering of our journalism programme at City, that she felt able to use what she learnt here in her work in Syria.”
Looking to the future, Ms Erhaim does not see it getting better for either journalists or civilians in Syria. She said: “In reality it’s getting worse for every Syrian – inside Syria and out.”
Past winners of the XCity Award include freelance foreign correspondent journalist Iona Criag and The Guardian’s James Ball for his data journalism work on the Snowden files.
The four other alumni shortlisted for the award were George Arbuthnott (Investigative, 2009), Jenny McCall (Science 2014), Adam Benzine (Magazine 2006) and Ben Whitelaw (Newspaper 2011).