This past week I was fortunate enough to spend 6 days galavanting around the United Kingdom, exploring only a tiny fraction of all that is explorable- and who better did I have the pleasure of doing so with than the lovely Sama Dizayee by my side? While my column will be focused more so on traveling experiences, I want to take a second to put Sama in the spotlight she deserves. Sama is a Kurdish journalist/reporter currently residing in Washington D.C working for Voice of America. Among all of the experience she has acquired over the years, some of the side work she currently does includes contributing to BBC World News often, writing for The Kurdish Globe Newspaper on occasion as well as hosting and producing a weekly segment on one of Kurdistan’s leading radio stations, XFM 105.7. And after taking some courses at Oxford University last spring, she was invited back to speak at this year’s event about the roles journalists play in today’s society.

Back in September 2014, Sama and I came into contact through a mutual friend’s birthday. When learning I was moving to Spain, she filled me in on her TEDx talk she would be giving in Oxford in January and invited me to attend, since I would be living relatively close. She was even kind enough to offer to let me stay with her for the duration of my trip (this sort of opportunity is like winning the lottery for a traveler on a budget). She had told me to just show up on her doorstep, so of course I was planning on doing just that. After a long 8 hours of traveling from bus to metro to plane to train to metro to a nice long walk filled with the “Where am I, I’m so lost…hmm so this is how I die” thought running through my head, I found myself on a doorstep at 1 am Thursday night. Turns out, I was at the wrong doorstep, two apartment complexes away (so close, I was SO close). She came down to my rescue and we ended up staying up late, chitchatting the night away. And so began a most memorable week.

Sama spent the next few days focused and practicing her speech to perfection. In between running around London, getting on wrong buses and catching up with friends, I had her practice on me plenty of times (seriously, I had her speech memorized by the time she hit the stage). But in having this pleasure, I got to witness Sama’s raw skill behind the curtain and not just a well-rehearsed performance put on for an audience. This process of constant rehearsing, the nerves, and the doubts not only illustrated Sama’s dedication but the fact that she is just as human as everyone else. As cliché as it sounds, she exemplified the fact that effort and hard work goes a long way.

As she approached the stage, I sat in the audience twiddling my thumbs and nervously tapping my right foot- I felt the pressure and I wasn’t even on stage! Her speech was written and organized with the utmost clarity and she delivered it flawlessly. Sama began by inviting the audience back in time to when she was 15 and experienced her first explosion caused by war, specifically the 2003 Iraq-US war. Without hesitation, she had picked up her camera to record all that was happening outside her home-  the unity of her neighbors helping strangers injured by the attack, something that is rare when watching mainstream media. This was the moment she knew she wanted to be a journalist, “Someone who  reports the truth and real images to the world, not just what the mainstream news wants us to see and believe.”

She continued to solidify her credibility by telling another story of witnessing horror in Iraq during the war. And with this story she tied in the politics of Iraq (post Saddam Hussein’s regime) and educated us about the effects that de-ba’athification had on the people of Iraq. Sama explains that the “Division and the fight over power is a major reason as to why ISIS exists today. Most of ISIS intelligence members are exba’athists.” She castigates the false sense of democracy and freedom the present government in Iraq has created, “Leaving out so much of its population to look for such violent alternatives.” Personally, I found this to be a refreshing new perspective most aren’t aware of when it comes to discussing the terror group.

She then began the end of her speech with some much needed optimism- by highlighting the success that Kurdistan has had in unification under a fair political  system. She finished by addressing social media and the power it contains. Things like Twitter and Facebook have helped start “A worldwide war; not the kind involving guns, but the kind involving words.” And as she beautifully wrapped up her speech, she showed us the famous image from the recent Charlie Hebdo attack: a pen representing freedom of expression, reminding us all to get online and express ourselves with words and to bring people together.

“Unity is what my country needs and unity will be the solution against extremists like ISIS. Join me in social warfare, without bloodshed.”

“Unity is what my country needs and unity will be the solution against extremists like ISIS. Join me in social warfare, without bloodshed.”

As applause filled the auditorium, I felt even more fortunate and honored to have been able to watch and learn from her while she added this major life achievement to her already long and growing list of accomplishments. She is an inspiring role model with a humble character, limitless potential and an abundance of adherence to the niche she found at the age of 15.

Sama Dizayee and Media Ajir backstage.

Sama Dizayee and Media Ajir backstage at TEDxOxford (sponsored by Neptune Investment Management)

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