From the shadowy entrance of a long tunnel in Central Park in New York, Arwa Damon cuts a slight figure. Damon has a sort of tough girl bohemian look, composed of a dark scarf, a long silver pendant necklace, matching bracelets, a metal belt buckle, blue jeans and tattoos that partially appear from underneath her rolled up sleeves. Posing for photos, Damon, who serves as CNN’s senior international correspondent, is in town for the News and Documentary Emmy and Edward R. Murrow ceremonies, before heading back out on assignment where, in the coming weeks, she will report from around Syria and Raqqa, and eventually Niger to investigate the deaths of four U.S. soldiers.
Damon joined CNN in 2006, after a three-year freelance career in Iraq and the Middle East. At the network, she spent seven years at its Baghdad bureau, covering the battle for Fallujah, the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein and subsequently, the country’s first national elections. Damon would go on to cover the Arab Spring, the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Boko Haram, the Syrian refugee crisis and the Mosul offensive, among other stories.
On a rainy day recently, Damon spoke to WWD about her experiences reporting from war zones, while peppering her conversation with anecdotes laced with off-color jokes — like the time she was worried about getting shot while on the toilet during a gun battle in Iraq because she didn’t want to be found wearing “Hello Kitty” underwear — in order to diffuse the grave nature of her job.
WWD: What’s the story with your tattoos?
Arwa Damon: [Pointing to her left forearm]. So, that is a coin from the era of Queen Arwa of Yemen who was one of the first female rulers in the Middle East. Her husband died and she took over the throne and was believed to be very wise but strict. And that’s the lion and the snake-dragon on the gates of Babylon in Iraq because I obviously spent so much time in Iraq. I have a very personal connection to it. That’s the Turkish evil eye. [Showing the tops of her fingers] That’s the name of my nonprofit in Arabic, and I got tattooed before I launched the nonprofit so I would not allow myself to give up. These are Moroccan Henna designs because I grew up in Morocco and my parents met there. [Shows right arm] The black lines — I liked the way they looked but in the Middle East, you wear a black band when someone dies. It’s not for individual people, or it would go all the way up my arm. I have a big one up my leg. It’s a henna tattoo.
WWD: How’d you get into this kind of journalism?
A.D.: I think the desire to be a journalist started post-911. I’m Syrian American. I speak fluent Arabic. I’d come back to the States for college. I went to Skidmore in upstate New York. I was coming from Turkey, and I’d noticed that I could talk about concepts and ideas and people who seemed foreign to Americans, and they were interested in what I had to say. I think some of it is maybe because I’m very unassuming and I look American, but I’m very much from there as well so I can speak with authority about all of these issues. I guess naïvely and idealistically, I thought I could bridge divides, especially post-911 when you really saw this East-West divide growing, this chasm against the Muslim population, and as of course, when the U.S. was gearing up for Iraq. It went from being a thought I had in my head to being a visceral need to go and try to explain people to each other.
WWD: You started out working in textiles — how did you get to war zones?
A.D.: I was working in textiles, which is my fancy way of saying I sold bathrobes and towels. We had an online site. I knew all about double-ply and single-ply and I don’t know what. Coincidentally, my textile company was next to a company called Camera Planet and they were working with NatGeo to send a team to Iraq. I interned with them and I was doing research and I was making a lot of phone calls to the Ministry of Information in Baghdad at the time. Long story short, Camera Planet wasn’t going to send me overseas because I had zero experience. I messaged everyone, including CNN, trying to [get a job, saying], “Hi I speak Arabic. No, I don’t have any experience.” I found another place called Feature Story News. They had been trying to get visas for a while, and they agreed to take me with them. I was very fortunate because the correspondent that I worked with was also their president, and the cameraman at the time, were still to date some of the best journalists I’ve ever been exposed to. So to have them as the baseline of what good journalism is kind of helped me.
WWD: When was that?
A.D.: About two-and-a-half weeks before the Iraq War. I remember I ran into a bunch of people who told me I would never make it the minute I stepped into the Al Rasheed Hotel. I had a nose ring and this spiky short blonde hair and bracelets and baggy pants with a bazillion pockets. I was like: “Hi I’m here!” There was always something about Iraq.…I have never been able to let that country go. It is a part of me. Even under Saddam Hussein, even despite what the country went through, and despite how violent and tribal it can be, there is still a certain purity to the kindness of the population.
WWD: Were you ever scared?
A.D.: To be fearless is to be reckless. I think you need a certain level of fear because you need to respect the danger and the minute you stop sensing fear, that’s the minute you stop respecting the danger, and that’s when things can happen. Obviously, you can’t panic. It can’t be overwhelming. It can’t be paralyzing. You always need to have that pit in your stomach. You always need to have that awareness about you.
WWD: When the war started, did you feel unprepared?
A.D.: No, not the reporting, not the journalism. I took to it right away. I was part of that group of journalists that got kicked out of Baghdad right before the war really started. Then, we went to Amman, Jordan and basically sat around waiting until we could get across the border and go back in. I think I kind of learned about war and how to cope with war alongside Iraq’s escalation from being semi-OK right after Saddam fell. Sure, there was looting and there were crowds, but as the Iraq War got worse, I learned more experiencewise along with it. It wasn’t a sudden, I had to cope with this, situation.
WWD: How long were you in Iraq? Were you embedded?
A.D.: Seven years. Yes, I did a fair amount of stuff embedded.
WWD: What’s that like?
A.D.: In the early days, you could literally drive up in your civilian vehicle in a soft skin, and be like: “hey, what do you guys have going on today?” And then they would just take you with them. As it got progressively worse as they created more of a system, you’d have to put in for embeds. Then war got worse and it went from soft skin to armor, to you can’t show up at the base without a structure being in place that would allow them to bring you on base. My first big embed was probably the Battle for Fallujah. I was out there for two weeks maybe before we got back onto a base.
WWD: What’s your goal as a journalist when you go into war zones?
A.D.: To a certain degree, you’re always second-guessing whether or not you did that person’s sorrow and that person’s story justice. When you think about it, we are, for TV, putting a camera in someone’s face in their, most of the time, darkest moment. I mean, they’ve lost everything — everything they know to be real is gone. Oftentimes, they’ve lost someone they love, a close family member. Their country has completely fallen apart and we’re asking them to bear their soul and their pain to us, and we have to take that and then turn it into a news report. We’re not going to stop the wars. We know that. If I can just get people overseas to stop and watch and not turn away from what is happening or feel something enough for the next time they see a story from whatever location that it is I am reporting from…and empathize and have compassion…maybe they’ll do more research about the issue or the story.
WWD: Do you often feel you are often trying to be the voice of the people?
A.D.: Most of the time. I’m naturally very empathetic and compassionate. [Publicist asks Damon to share her nickname]. They call me balls of steel, heart of gold.
WWD: Is that going to be a tattoo?
A.D.: No. No.
WWD: You have a nonprofit for war-wounded kids. Is it hard to be unbiased?
A.D.: I think we need to be human. Nobody is objective. We need to go in and be human — especially today, especially given everything that’s happening around us, especially given the divides between populations that are growing and what’s at stake in terms of our collective humanity, and the fact that our moral compass is broken.
WWD: Tell me about your nonprofit, INARA.
A.D.: My nonprofit is about children. I do it because not just the medical need, but also you see such a massive difference. The nonprofit started because this kid named Youssif who we interviewed in 2007 when he was five had gasoline dumped on his face and was set on fire. His dad went around and he looked for help. His face was just.…We did the story and there was an outpouring of support from all around the world. He ended up coming to Los Angeles, and he was like “wow.” One, compassion of strangers exists and two, later on, the impact of what we did for that kid. He doesn’t remember the attack anymore. He used to be able to, when we first met him and over the few years after, describe what had happened. He doesn’t have a memory of it anymore. It isn’t his defining memory. What he remembers is kindness and people helping him out, coming to America, and the doctors. He wants to be a doctor and he wants to treat other children. I understand it’s one child, but you realize the impact of changing someone’s narrative and changing how they view the world and how they view other people around them. Abandonment has a massive traumatic impact on someone especially when they’ve already been traumatized by war.…I started INARA in 2015. I was 25, and I’m 40 now, and yes, you can print that because I’m going own it.
WWD: What is the mission?
A.D.: There are actual gaps that exist in medical assistance provided to children, and I’m talking about life-altering medical assistance. We go in and highlight those gaps during a needs assessment and then try to tailor programs toward the gaps that exist. Some of it is injuries directly caused by a weapon of war….they’ve scarred in such a way that they can’t move their arm or they can’t move their neck. We had one girl whose jaw was blown off and she went in and had initial surgery but all they did was pull a skin flap over. That’s it, it’s the end of her life in public. We rebuild the jaw and got the dental implant surgeons to do the implants for free and we had to get the implant company to give us the implants for free. It is quite niche. We also have a big referral program.
WWD: So much is happening in the news. How do you get your stories to resonate?
A.D.: There are certain realities about the world we live in. Syria and Iraq are just not going to get on air every day. For us as journalists, we’re still trying to navigate this world. Journalism is changing. How do we tell our stories — especially with the wars that have continued for so long? How do we keep it relevant?
WWD: How do you process what you see in war zones and then come back here?
A.D.: It’s a cycle. I think my nonprofit obviously has helped a lot especially with the journalism not resonating the way it used to, you feel that need to do something more. It’s a process and it takes time to recognize that you need this space. It takes a part of you and you have to be willing to give it up.
WWD: What are the pros and cons of being a woman in a war zone?
A.D.: Pro, obviously, I can go in and talk to the men and I can go in and talk to the women and children, who are in the back room who don’t come out when there are strange men in the house. I’ve also found that because women are viewed as being more understanding that people have a bit more of a tendency to open up to you to a certain degree. I’ve always found it to be an advantage — except when I have to go to the toilet.
WWD: What has been your closest call?
A.D.: There’s been a couple. My cameraman and I went in with the counterterrorism forces to Mosul, got ambushed with the unit we were with and basically were under siege a good 20, 28 hours. That was the longest sustained period. But actually all things considered, the closest call is probably things like, you know, when the bullet spits past your head where you feel how hot it is but it doesn’t hit you, where the bomb goes off underneath the Humvee you’re in and the driver somehow swerved at the last minute so it didn’t blow up underneath you.
WWD: How does your family view your work?
A.D.: My dad understands that I’m not trying to be the story. My mom is very proud but struggles a lot with it especially with Syria because her father, my grandfather, was the prime minister and he was assassinated. She says, “Syria took my father, I don’t want Syria to take my daughter.”
More on Media People: