By Sarah Wynn
Life for 26 year-old journalist Riham Alkousaa is very busy.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, she graduated from Columbia University with a master’s in Political and Global Affairs and recently got engaged. She is currently doing part time freelance work for Frontline until her internship with Reuters in June via the Dow Jones Foundation program.
Originally from south Damascus, Syria she left as a refugee to Berlin, Germany in September 2014. In 2016 she moved to New York City.
In Damascus she got her bachelor’s in journalism at the University of Damascus.
Alkousaa’s personal life and journalism career had striking differences in Syria compared to the U.S.
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad does not support independent journalism, making it hard for Alkousaa to report.
“Within the dictatorship, which is facing you everywhere, you cannot do any stories, you cannot write anything that they would think is wrong,” she said.
Checkpoints are plentiful and Alkousaa said a bus ride that should only takes 20 minutes, takes an hour and a half because of the checkpoints. And since living in Damascus is very expensive, milk is hard to afford.
However, Alkousaa said living in Damascus is still very different from its six-hour drive neighbor, Aleppo. She wrote an opinion piece for Al Jazeera on the cities’ notable differences and believes that Syrians living in Damascus are finding ways to separate themselves from battles in Aleppo. Alkousaa said people are instead finding a way to cope by denying what’s happening in their country, evident on social media.
Alkousaa said she would scroll on her Facebook and see American journalist and friends posting about Aleppo and then see a post about pizza and parties from people living in Damascus.
“The only people that aren’t concerned about what’s happening in their country, are the people living in the country,” said Alkousaa.
She also said when Aleppo was attacked, some Syrians would cheer about the killings and others would cry.
Journalism is very difficult to do in Damascus. Alkousaa couldn’t do investigative work and had a very hard time convincing people to talk to her. She worked at a local economic magazine, news outlet Syria Today, and a local radio station.
She said she had to work two full time jobs to make $160 a month, and couldn’t afford her own place, or a room so had to share a room with six other women.
One of the topics she covered most was a hunger siege in Syria, and she said it was very difficult. Two hundred people died of starvation in Damascus in refugee camps.
When Alkousaa left in 2014, she left behind her family, two sisters and two brothers, all four younger.
“I miss them, but with technology you feel more connected and in a way more distant, but you’re comfortable with being distant,” she said. “I’m used to it.”
She is excited to work at Reuters, and though she is new at American business reporting, she’s eager to start the Dow Jones News Foundation training starting May 21.
Previously she did freelance for USA Today, the Washington Times and was the managing editor at BarakaBits.
Her mentor, Jabeen Bhatti, managing editor at ARA Network, is based in Berlin where she met Alkousaa through a mutual journalist. Bhatti said one of Alkousaa’s most prominent strengths was her relentlessness.
“So while the writing was perfect, she went out and got what you needed to get, and had so much enthusiasm for it,” said Bhatti. “It wasn’t just a job for her.”