Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow Has Compelling Story of His Own

Hani Zaitoun

Photo by Hani Zaitoun

Hani Zaitoun has been awarded a 2019 Pulitzer Center Student Reporting Fellowship.

He will travel to Estonia to examine how the country is responding to increased Russian military activity. Zaitoun is one of 43 student reporting fellows. The fellows will fan out across the globe to shed light on some of the most underreported, critical challenges of our time.

Read the Pulitzer Center Announcement

This story was originally published in February 2017:

From war-torn Damascus, to Berlin's Freie Universität while working for CNN and The Washington Post, to conversations by Skype with students at a small liberal arts college around the globe, Hani Zaitoun's path to Davidson College is a tale of escape, fortitude and the national and global tension over refugees.

When Hani Zaitoun, 20, said goodbye to his mother and sister in war-battered Damascus, he knew that he likely wouldn't be back anytime soon.

He kept that to himself as he headed off to a U.S. State Department-organized education trip to the Midwest and Washington, D.C.

He purposely juggled his return flight 30 days later to go through Germany, which had been admitting thousands of refugees. He landed in Munich and, instead of heading to his connecting flight, approached the armed German national police guarding the airport and asked for asylum.

He called his mother to tell her he wasn't coming home.

German officials questioned him for nine hours before admitting him as a refugee.

Last month, a year-and-a-half later, he stepped on to Davidson's campus with a student visa. Donald Trump was one week from his inauguration and, days after that, banned Syrians and others from entering the United States.

Zaitoun made it under that wire, but wonders how he will see his family again.

"I felt really helpless in the first couple of days," he said, "but I got a lot of support."

He started doing what he did when he left Damascus, and at the airport in Munich and at a refugee camp in Germany -- figuring out a plan.

"You don't see life coming," he said. "It comes, and then you have to deal with it."

Out of Syria

Civil war was shredding Syria in the summer of 2015. A mix of rebels, Islamic State fighters, Hezbollah and regime forces tore apart cities and each other with mortars, bombs and firefights. Islamic State fighters massacred 146 civilians in Kobani.

"You woke up every morning with missiles," he said. "Electricity was off 16 hours a day, and there were water shortages."

Zaitoun's father had been killed in a car accident. He and his mother spoke of his looming military conscription into the Syrian army. He thought of those conversations when he called her from the Munich airport to tell her what he had done.

"She said, ‘I think it's better if you stay outside Syria for the next couple of years,'" he said, recalling, perhaps, the hardest words a mother can say. "‘You should not come back. Just watch the news, and you'll know.'"

Television news reported an intense mortar attack on Damascus. No end in sight.

He knew.

"It hit my mom when I told her I did it," he said, pausing. "You have to be rational and take the risk. That was the turning point in my life."

His first 40 days in Germany, Zaitoun was housed with a dozen other refugees in a room designed for three. He was grateful. Others shivered in tents.

Zaitoun received a dinner invitation to the home of a German family who volunteered at the refugee camp, and soon thereafter they offered to be his hosts. He moved in, and together they crowd-funded money for his integration paperwork.

He found some old friends -- and a job.

"Hani had worked with CNN before in Damascus," emailed Atika Shubert, CNN's senior international correspondent based in Berlin. "He's a voracious consumer of news. And when he saw our team on the streets of Damascus, he walked over and volunteered. He was a huge help in guiding our team around the neighborhood. So, when we heard that he had made it to Germany, we offered him an internship in the Berlin bureau."

Global Communications

The CNN bureau, along with work for The Washington Post, matched Zaitoun's quick mind and bottomless energy.

He hustled research for story pitches that made their way to London and Atlanta and back. He dove into new and emerging media formats and platforms: video, drones, facebook live, 360-degree virtual reality. He worked the phones, covered a beat and ventured out on assignments. On one excursion he hung back, out of sight from his crew in Dresden, because his Syrian heritage might stir trouble.

All the while, Zaitoun was learning German at a lightning pace, "with a hint of a Bavarian accent, no less," Shubert wrote.

One day, Zaitoun was exploring the State Department's Education USA page on Facebook, which led him to the web page for the Davidson Refugee Support student organization, and from there to the inbox of one of that group's organizer's AJ Naddaff '19.

"He knows how to ask the right questions," said Naddaf, like Zaitoun an aspiring international correspondent.

They conversed and became instant friends and, they hoped, future fellow Wildcats. They began prepping Zaitoun for the SAT, via Skype, with other Davidson students. Zaitoun ramped up his accelerated language absorption, learning his now-fluent English by watching Suits and listening to NPR.

Naddaff alerted the Admission Office to Zaitoun's application. He was accepted on an Alvarez Scholarship for international students. President Trump had just been elected, and Zaitoun and his Davidson support network worried, only half-jokingly, about impending prohibitions on Syrians entering the United States.

Immediately departments across campus -- admission, financial aid, residence life, international student services, academic advising -- kicked his file into high gear to expedite his arrival as a mid-year transfer.

"We knew the clock was ticking," said Chris Alexander, associate dean for international programs. "We wanted to get him here before the inauguration, but we had no influence over the visa process. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. In Hani, that's exactly what we got!"

Leaving Germany was not necessarily easy for him, Zaitoun said. Life was good, and he admired the German commitment to access to healthcare and education for all. But for him, coming to Davidson was the next logical choice to make and opportunity to take. With his compass set on education more than location, he jumped at the Alvarez Scholarship.

Within 10 days of Zaitoun's arrival, President Trump's executive order banning travel was sowing confusion and dissent in airports and embassies around the globe. Zaitoun spoke at a rally sponsored by the Muslim Student Association.

Settled In

"People would ask me how I'm ‘settling in.' I'm settled in since the first day! It's just not a problem anymore," he said. "You start losing nostalgia and attachment to the places you've been. [But] you're used to waking up, seeing your mom's face and getting breakfast.... Later, you don't care about the place as much anymore. You care about the people."

For now, he's focused on what's next at Davidson. He is Naddaff's Arabic AT and Naddaff is his French AT. They are proceeding with plans for joint summer research in France, even if emerging U.S. travel policy means refashioning Zaitoun's part into a stateside translator.

"A year ago I never knew I was coming to Davidson," he said. "Students are privileged here. They have access to a lot of stuff, and you've got to use it and appreciate it.... It's only going to be like that for four years."

He hopes he'll get to tell his mother and brothers and sisters about it all in person.

"I hope that I will get to see them soon," he said. "I don't know when that is going to happen."

CNN's Shubert said there is a key to Zaitoun's resilience.

"What makes Hani remarkable is his ability to connect to people no matter what language is being spoken," she said. "Hani is non-stop. And that's a good thing."

John Syme



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