The New York Times foreign correspondent and Pulitzer Prize nominee Rukmini Callimachi addressed Prep students and faculty in an assembly on October 24.
Beginning with her childhood in Romania, she traced her journey to becoming a journalist through her family’s immigration to the US, her freelance work, her position at the Associated Press and, most recently, at The New York Times. She has covered everything from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to poverty in West Africa to Islamic extremism.
She recalled a particularly memorable story of hers while in Niger, where she followed Soumaila Wantala, a Tuareg man who had to sell his last camel in order to survive a catastrophic drought. “A man measures his worth in camels there,” she said. Her reporting was so influential that it drove several readers across the US to donate enough money to buy Wantala two new camels and a herd of goats.
In 2014, while covering Islamic extremism in Mali, she discovered documents that turned out to be receipts recorded by an al Qaeda accountant. The papers contained information about al Qaeda’s bureaucratic structure, and her coverage of it earned her a Michael Kelly award for journalism. She compared it to the current situation with ISIS, which “is a lot smarter than we give it credit for,” she said.
At the end of her talk, several students asked her questions about US support of the Kurds, the effects of language on the fight against ISIS, ways to protect the rights of non-radical Muslims, the refugee crisis and the psychological causes of radicalization. Her responses occupied the gray area between the personal and the political, offering details of her experiences without straying into partisan arguments. “I’m a journalist, so it’s not my job to say what we should do,” she said.
No matter the subject at hand, it is evident in Callimachi’s approach that she sees a story in everything and everyone. Though she acknowledged the evil of ISIS acts, she also acknowledged “we have to get away from this black and white [thinking].” Only a better understanding of their motivations can help stop them, she said. “After all, they are human beings.”
She advocated the same depth of understanding regarding the refugee crisis. Pointing to the number of refugees Europe has taken in, roughly a million, and then the number the US has, roughly 10,000, she insisted we should welcome and include more refugees in our society. “We are a nation built on immigrants,” she said.
This intent to understand ties all of Callimachi’s work together. Whether covering acts of terror or acts of love, she says, “It’s about compassion.”
One of Callimachi’s colleagues is Prep alumnus Bryan Denton ’01, a photographer for The New York Times who lives in Beirut and covers the Middle East. Recently, he followed as counterterrorist forces pushed to take back Mosul from the Islamic State. Last week, he was injured by the shrapnel of a suicide car bomb near Bartella, a city outside Mosul. View his account of the event in “ISIS Sent Four Car Bombs. The Last One Hit Me.”
Read Callimachi’s article “Sale of Niger Nomad's Last Camel is Sign of Hunger.”
View some of Callimachi’s recent coverage of Islamic extremism at The New York Times.