An Interview with Rasha Elass

Dina Hughes, Reporter

Everything in Washington D.C. is big, this was my first thought as my mom and I explored the many monuments and history surrounding the Capital. This is also where I met Rasha Elass, a journalist with an amazing story and someone who happened to be good friends with my mom. When I first met Rasha, My mom had told me the many stories of Rasha and her life. All the things my mom said to me tied to one word in my brain. Brave.

My mom and I spent the evening with Rasha, being whisked around by her to many amazing places. While showing us around, she told us about herself. By the time she was finished, I was in awe of all the amazing things she had accomplished. It is now my privilege to share the story of Rasha Elass.

Rasha was born in Damascus, Syria. She grew up all around the Middle East moving quite a lot. At the beginning of high school, she went away to a boarding school in England where she studied sciences and math. however writing was what she always loved the most. 

Rasha explained throughout her life that writing was always important to her, it was one of her favorite subjects throughout school. However, it took her a long time to realize she could pursue a career in it; she lived many lives before journalism even occurred to her. “There was a pre-journalism era, and a journalism era.” she states.

The many careers of Rasha Elass lived during the pre-journalism era began after she attended  George Washington University in the heart of Washington D.C.  She majored in finance and after college moved to New York City to pursue her financing career.

She worked in finance and banking. she explains that she was writing during this time, however it was very dry. She wrote about financial research and analyst reports, and explained that she always felt like something was missing, but couldn’t quite place it. Before the summer of 2001, Rasha’s whole department was laid off due to the stock market crashing. She decided to take the summer off and look for a job in the fall.

This changed with the fall of the Twin Towers in the autumn of 2001. She refused to go back to writing the dry financial reports that she had worked on previously. She describes the frustration she felt of hearing the journalists talk about the Middle East in a post 9/11 world. She thought they had very little understanding and context  of the Middle East to be covering it. She believed she could do a  much better job.

Despite these thoughts, it still did not occur to Rasha to go into journalism. She began to distance herself away from banking and began to search for jobs in many different fields. This included documentary filmmaking, she had a few acquaintances that worked in the filmmaking industry, so she began to get in touch with them.

After about 2 or 3 years of living many lives and working many jobs, it finally hit her. She was walking down Broadway in New York and she finally had her epiphany that journalism was the thing missing from her life. 

That fall she was accepted into Columbia University in New York. She received her Master’s Degree in Journalism and began a prestigious internship at Reuter’s. She explained that Reuter’s is “hard” news. They tell straight facts as they are coming in. After the internship was over, they offered her a job in Damascus, Syria as a Reuter’s correspondent. Because she had Syrian Citizenship, it was easier for her to be a journalist there.

After being in Syria for a little while, Rasha accepted a job in Abu Dhabi for a new newspaper that was aiming to be the New York Times of the Middle East. She moved to Abu Dhabi and stayed there for two years where she got 2 cats, Pumpkin and Gremlin. These two will become important later in the story.

Once she left the job, she returned to the United States, after only being in America for a few weeks, the Arab Spring began in Syria in March of 2011. The Arab Spring was a series of protests throughout the Middle East that were against government power. The protests and rebellions in Syria were against the Assad Regime.

Rasha knew there was a big story there so she returned to Damascus. The Syrian Government censored the media even more during the protests, journalists had to go to a place in Syria called the Information Ministry to show their credentials and basically be scared into submission by the Regime.

Rasha knew that when she returned, she could not go to the Information Ministry as a journalist during wartime for they would not give her permission to write. She knew that she would be an undercover journalist for the Syrian war. 

She would go to places that were being bombed and speak to the people fleeing, she did not ask their names or any information. She simply asked what was happening in the area they were fleeing from. 

Everything was done with the theme of secrecy in mind, this meant that her name was rarely ever in the byline of her articles, or else she would get caught and possibly killed. Rasha also got her information with the help of her cats.

Her two cats reacted differently based on what type of bomb exploded. If it was a mortar shell bomb, they would tense up before the bomb hit. If it was a car bomb, they would jump as the bomb happened. This helped Rasha give more information to what was happening. 

In Damascus, the capital of Syria, the outskirts were constantly being bombed from planes by the regime due to the protests around the edge. In the center of Damascus, the rebels would put car bombs around. 

Rasha elaborated that people would be going to the grocery store and end up dead due to a car bomb. The work that Rasha was doing was extremely heroic and dangerous. 

Rasha escaped getting caught by only a day. She and her friend had snuck into a highly government controlled area. As she was asking a man some questions, she remembers the exact moment that he got suspicious. She described it as a bug when it’s antennae go up.

He asked her name and she had no choice but to give it to him as for the area they had snuck into, they had already given their names. When she got back to Damascus, she packed a bag to go to Beirut where she had an apartment.

After close-calls, Rasha would always go to Beirut to lie low for a few days just in case. This time she brought her cats with her which is something she only did every once in a while. Once in Beirut, she received a phone call from her friend in Syria explaining that she shouldn’t come back as people were knocking on the doors asking for Rasha Elass.

After barely escaping from Syria, she moved back to the States where readjusting to not being in a war took some time. She moved to D.C. again and now works as an Editor at Newlin Magazine. Rasha said that although she feels quite settled in to Capital, she does not know what the future holds and where she will end up.