Witness to History
By Liam Farrell
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NPR, AP IMAGES
From writing about sludge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to covering protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, journalist Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson ’85 (below left) has witnessed the gamut of human experience.
But no matter the location or the language, Nelson has found the everyday and the historic share common ground.
“People are people. They want to be happy, they want to be healthy. It’s heartening,” she says. “I’m really glad I’ve had the chance to see that.”
Nelson, now based in Berlin for National Public Radio (NPR), has spent two decades giving readers and listeners a window into events around the world. She started at the Easton Star Democrat and went on to outlets like Knight Ridder and Newsday, where she shared a Pulitzer Prize for covering the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800.
The daughter of a German mother and an Iranian father, Nelson was steered away from pursuing medicine by an introductory journalism class at Maryland. An interest in foreign affairs was solidified by a 1994 trip with Army doctors to Haiti that provided a front-row seat to what she calls the “intensity of the human condition.”
“Intense” is the word to describe Nelson’s career. In Iraq, a militia captured her and had a warrant for her execution as a spy before releasing her. She speculates that her Iranian background may have been why they let her go.
“In the worst situation, I tend to be calm. That doesn’t mean I’m not afraid,” she says. “No matter how many preparations you make, you have to be ready for the unexpected. I was lucky.”
Nelson switched from print to radio in 2006, when she opened the Kabul, Afghanistan bureau for NPR. Print outlets have shifted from the international coverage she values; in Kabul, she battled harsh winters and scarce resources, and covered her head with a blanket to keep the sound of electric generators from interfering with recordings.
Like many journalists, Nelson has seen a lot of pain. She interviewed a Palestinian mother who murdered her own daughter in an “honor killing,” and documented opium addiction among Afghan women and children.
“I still cry at certain stories,” she says. “I really hope that doesn’t stop because I wouldn’t be a really good storyteller.”
Nelson credits her husband and 24-year-old son with giving her the strength to take such challenging assignments. Erik, a 1987 Maryland graduate, met his wife at The Diamondback, and says being a journalist himself has been a big help.
“I’ve seen her go through all different levels of risk and it’s been a challenge getting used to it,” he says. “A lot of these places kind of make the last place look more inviting.”
About a week after he said that, Nelson was broadcasting from the violent protests in Kiev, Ukraine.
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