Nadira Isayeva, a 2010 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner, has been living in exile since she left her native Dagestan, in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus, in November 2011. Isayeva, the editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Chernovik, had been harassed by security forces for her relentless, critical coverage of their heavy-handed anti-terrorism operations in the region. Yet she was hesitant to leave, unable to imagine herself not reporting on these issues.
After fellow human rights advocates finally convinced Isayeva to leave, she came to New York, where she works as a fellow at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. (The interview has been edited).
Nicole Schilit: When did you decide you needed to leave Dagestan?
Nadira Isayeva: I decided to leave in August, but I didn’t leave Dagestan until November 20, 2011. The fundraising, my friends began to organize in August. In November, I left and went to Moscow, where I was hosted by my friends for two months–it was excellent. Finally, the Harriman Institute agreed to host me and I arrived in New York in February 2012.
NS: What was the greatest challenge you faced when you first arrived in the United States?
NI: It was intense but because of only one thing: the language.
I lived in my first apartment, a dormitory. I lost it, only for one reason: I could not understand them when they asked me about prolonging [the lease]. The person who brought me there negotiated with them about me staying the full cycle, but toward the end of the month, they asked me about it, and they spoke so quickly I didn’t understand they were asking me about the expiration of my lease–so I had to leave the dormitory in two days.
But, to be honest, only now am I recovering psychologically. And only now I really understand, I realize that I am happy to be here. But there are many, many absurd rumors and gossip about me–that I am a wimp, that I ran out, that I escaped from my country–and I’m sorry about my parents, about my relatives. They look at me sometimes, angry–not angry, they [just] don’t understand me entirely. They miss me, they’re sad, and sometimes my mother says to my sister, “Why did you show her the announcement for this job in the United States?”
NS: How is the work you’re doing from here different from the work you were doing at home?
NI: It’s another level. And I know in my native country, they are afraid, they couldn’t understand who I know, with whom I have contacts. I feel more free now. I feel the whole world–the global world. It’s another experience, and I understand now what my friend, the human rights defender, said: “You need to go out, you need to go abroad, because everything you could do at your newspaper you did already.” I couldn’t imagine myself out of it, but now I see I could influence [the situation at home from the United States].
NS: What advice would you give to organizations that want to help people in similar situations to you: journalists who have to go into exile?
NI: Try not only to help financially but to help and widen the range of different programs to improve skills.
I’m grateful for many reasons because I meant to stay here doing nothing, I meant only to be a lazy person, laying on this bed, but [people] helped me, really…. I came to an unknown environment, and the very important thing is my first time being here, things were organized for me.
NS: What is your hope for the future?
NI: I dream of huge media. I see the lack of media in my region. I want to see influential media–say, which compare with the BBC, Al-Jazeera, something new–break through in my region, but I don’t see who could do that. … CCTV, the Chinese channel in New York and Washington, recently opened. And China is a huge empire that has money. They have resources. And Al-Jazeera, it’s another kind of example. CNN, it’s an enterprise, a profitable enterprise owned by businessmen. Strategically, who could be interested in opening this region to the world–like Al-Jazeera opened the far regions? [My] region is very interesting–it is very emotional territory–and I feel there is a lack of information in the international world about it. And this I want for my territory.