| 1. Tell us a little bit about your background.
I’m a 23-year-old Arab American journalist. I’m a Chicago native, but I’m currently living in Washington, D.C. I completed my undergraduate degree in psychology and pre-occupational therapy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. After completing all my pre-requisite classes for occupational therapy and my observation hours, I realized that this is not the career path I wanted to take. I took a year off school after graduating and taught 1st grade at an Islamic school. I then applied for graduate school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where I specialized in multimedia journalism. There, I was a Social Justice Scholar and a national security specialization student. I spent my last 3 months of my program in DC reporting on the White House, Congress, State Department and the Supreme Court. I was also selected by my school to be a scholarship recipient of the White House Correspondents Association. As a student, I got the opportunity to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Jerusalem and the West Bank to report on different stories. I am currently at Weekend All Things Considered at NPR.
| 2. How did you get into the field of journalism?
I always knew I wanted to go into journalism. What many people don’t understand is journalism is more than just asking questions – anyone can do that – it’s much deeper. It’s having the ability to connect with all kinds of people and that’s something I’ve been able to do for a really long time. Like I mentioned before, I didn’t have the most traditional path into the field of journalism. My background was in psychology and the medical field; it was completely different than anything related to journalism. But somehow I always found a way back to journalism. In college I wrote for the school newspaper and I interned at a radio station. The reason I went into the medical field is because I was discouraged from becoming an on-air reporter because I was Muslim. Post 9/11, we knew there was fear in our community and the people closest to me believed that I may not find a job because of my hijab. But after some time, I started noticing how Muslims were misrepresented in the media and I was dissatisfied with the news. So I decided to take that negative energy and turn it into positive and more productive work. For a while I was upset with that because I felt that I wasted my time not studying journalism. But in reality, I didn’t. I am discovering that everything I’ve learned is somehow relevant in the work I am doing today. I feel that all my experiences have made me a more well-rounded journalist.
| 3. What was your most memorable interview?
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing many high profile celebrities including Tyrese Gibson, Maher Zain, Mohammad Assaf, Ziad Khoury and more. I’ve also had the honor of interviewing the most prominent Islamic scholars including Imam Omar Suleimen, Nouman Ali Khan, and others but my most favorite interview/story was the Turkmani/Elaly family – a Syrian refugee family who had just resettled in the US for a few months. That interview was truly life changing. Hearing about the family’s hardships just made me so thankful and redefined the way I look at life. Living in America we are very blessed in so many different ways and it is so easy to look past these blessings.
| 4. Tell us about your trip to Guantanamo.
I was selected to go to Guantanamo Bay because I was a national security specialization student at Medill. While I was there, I was covering the pre-trial commissions of Abd alHadi al Iraqi, an alleged senior commander of al Qaeda. It was a super awesome experience to say the least! When we think of Guantanamo we think of Middle Eastern men in orange jump suits being tortured. Although that image may be true, to see life on Guantanamo was not how I would ever imagine it. There are ordinary people living there. There is a Pizza Hutt and McDonalds (crazy, I know!!). It was bizarre to think about. Going there as a journalist was difficult when it came to media access. We couldn’t just go out, walk around and talk to people on our own. We were kind of babysat the entire time. Officials claim that they are transparent when it comes to covering Guantanamo and its issues, but we were monitored the entire time. Our work was monitored too. We had to show officials our pictures and videos before we transferred them anywhere. It was interesting for me to interact with the army too. Many of them have served in Iraq and Afghanistan for years but I was still asked questions about Islam and my hijab. I thought it was surprising but I was more than happy to help educate them. I can talk so much about this experience but overall I’m so thankful I got to go on this trip. I’m passionate about national security and foreign policy so for me this trip was very fulfilling.
| 5. Which do you enjoy/prefer- Radio or TV?
There isn’t one I prefer over the other. I consider myself a multimedia journalist and journalism is always evolving so I think it’s so important to become proficient in all mediums. When I was in journalism school I made sure that I could write, shoot video, edit audio, take photos and do everything. And now, I’m confident to say I can do it all.
| 6. Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
I see myself somewhere in the Middle East, preferably Jerusalem, Ramallah or Gaza, reporting from on the ground. This is my passion. And as someone who speaks both English and Arabic and has the understanding of both cultures, I see being a foreign correspondent is my calling.
| 7. What has been your greatest challenge to date?
Some may expect it to be my hijab but alhamdulliah if anything it has helped me out in so many ways actually. I’m finding that news organizations and journalists are welcoming and look past that. Many have actually embraced this because I have a perspective that is not commonly found in newsrooms. Yes, I’ve had some negative experiences with some people in the field but overall I’ve been treated with so much respect.
So I guess my greatest challenge is being away from my family. My family is in Chicago and I had to move for school and work, and it’s been really tough. I’m a very family oriented person and not being close to them has been something I’m learning to figure out. But at the same time, it has only made me love and respect them even more because they’ve been so supportive of my choices.
| 8. What are ways we can encourage Muslim youth to explore careers in media and arts?
For starters, we should hold careers in the media and arts with high regard as we go when it comes to careers in medicine, law, engineering, etc. Being a journalist is really tough work and as journalists we have so much power to shape the way people think and the way our government administers its people.
Muslims are always quick to point their fingers on how the media always stereotypes us, which YES, it does happen. However, when there are only a handful of Muslims in the media, who will speak out against issues and provide news organizations with alternative perspectives? Muslims know their narrative and we should encourage Muslim youth to embrace and take control of their narrative in journalism, filmmaking, writing, music and so on.
| 9. What advice do you have for young Muslim girls going into journalism?
* Do not be discouraged but be ready to be strong enough to face some really tough situations. You should not go into this field thinking, “Oh I’m Muslim – they think I’m oppressed and that I’m a terrorist.” Do not play the victim and do not play the race card – meaning: “I want to be a hijabi journalist.” Your hijab is part of your identity and does not define your skills or accomplishments. It does not determine whether or not you will be a successful reporter or producer.
*Let your work define your success. If you are a good and hard working journalist, people will see you for that.
*Don’t be afraid to be yourself and think differently. Individuals who’ve made true change went out of their comfort zones and did what no one else was thinking of doing.
*In this time and age, I feel it is important to tell young people: Do not focus on social media. Having a huge following can be great– but just because someone has a million followers on social media, it does not mean you are a great journalist or an expert. Remember social media can make anyone look like a big shot.
*Never believe you are the best. When you start to think that, take a step back because you’ve entered a very dangerous mindset. There is always room to improve and you should always seek to be kinder, more compassionate and more knowledgeable.
To learn more about Noor’s work, follow her on Twitter/Instagram @nfwazwaz
And like her page: www.facebook.com/noorifyourself