Deen (CPJ)
Deen (CPJ)

Finding success in exile from Sierra Leone

It was just days ago that my daughter had her 11th birthday. She was excited about this birthday as never before, but I understood why. A couple of days prior, she was accepted to the Frederick Douglass Academy in Manhattan for middle school starting next fall. The school is regarded as one of the best in the city and going there has been her dream.

Later that evening, the family, all well dressed, gathered to observe the day. Balkisu was about to cut her cake when one of her younger siblings suddenly moved past her and dashed for the cake. It was a dramatic scene that made us all laugh. But then something struck me: The thought that all of this could not have happened had I not had the opportunity to escape death and seek refuge away from home. My daughter may have lived to see her 11th birthday but her younger brothers who were born here in the U.S. would not have been there at all. How lucky we all are, I thought.

This year marks my 11th year of seeking refuge away from home. My forced exile came on the heels of attempts on my life by members of the then-brutal rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front during the decade-long civil war of the ’90s in Sierra Leone. My crime was being a journalist and, worse still, reporting on the war. If not for the Committee to Protect Journalists, I wouldn’t have lived to see this day.

Living in exile as a journalist has been challenging for me particularly because I now no longer carry out what used to be my daily responsibility: Bringing the news to the Sierra Leone public. But there has been plenty to be proud of.

As a freelancer, I have gotten to experience the high standards and competitive nature of the American media. Since coming over to the U.S., I have been reporting as a correspondent for the Sierra Leone media, including the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation. I have reported on events relating to Sierra Leone in particular, and Africa in general.

With the help of CPJ, I got a freelancing position at the Voice of America in Washington between 2001 and 2005 reporting on Nigerian developments in the state of New York. Aside from writing a couple of articles for American publications, I also have had the opportunity to share my experience with journalism students at various universities, explaining the challenges that journalists face in crisis situations in third-world countries. Presently, I work in the administrative department of The Associated Press at its New York Headquarters, where I became the second Sierra Leonean to win the prestigious AP Gramling Spirit Award for efficiency. The first was Clarence Roy-Macauley, a former AP West Africa correspondent. All of this creates an opportunity for me to gain a broader sense of the important role the media play in shaping society. And I have been playing my part in shaping Sierra Leone.

Aside from gaining a better understanding of and practicing the profession I cherish, I have also been privileged to attend a great institution of learning here in the United States. With both a B.A. and an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University, I can safely say my life as a journalist in exile is a success.

Aroun is a freelance journalist living in New York. After covering human rights violations in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, for local television and radio stations, Aroun was forced into hiding. He fled his home country in 1999. In 2002, his family followed.