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When my fiancé left, I found the courage to pursue my true calling

When my fiancé left, I found the courage to pursue my true calling

The bright bathroom lights weren’t helping my confidence as I stared at myself in the mirror. I still looked tired, despite the layers of foundation I’d applied to fill in the dark semicircles under my eyes. My mother had tried her best that morning to straighten my thick, curly hair, but the bits around my face had already started to frizz.

I tried to focus on counting my breaths. Four seconds in, hold, exhale for longer, just like I was taught. I didn’t have much time, and I needed to get it together. I was at the London headquarters of the largest human rights organisation in the world, and I had one shot at convincing them to hire me.

But this was not where I had thought I would be today. I was meant to be at home in Cairo, waking up next to him, still giggling about the night before and recounting stories of the funny things that had happened. I was meant to be wearing my new white “Mrs” pyjama shirt and getting excited about having brunch with family who had flown in to be with us for our special day.

Instead, here I was. Alone, with grief overwhelming my entire body, in this overlit bathroom. I moved my right thumb to the back of my ring finger. For the past year, it had been what I’d done in difficult moments to calm myself. I’d twist the thin bit of metal until I sensed the sharp edges of the diamond and then push it back around again. It reminded me that somebody loved me, that a new life was awaiting me.

Now, rough skin had replaced the feeling of my ring, another cruel reminder of what I’d so suddenly lost.


I heard a knock on the door. “Are you ready for your interview, Sherine?” said a voice, with a mixture of confusion and concern. “They are all waiting.” I had asked to use the bathroom as soon as I arrived in the building, 15 minutes ago. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to sit in a waiting room; I wanted to avoid people for as long as possible.

“Yes. I’m ready,” I answered, grabbing the handle of the bathroom door and letting myself out. I was led up two wide flights of stairs and into a conference room.

“Sherine Tadros is here to interview for the head of office position at the United Nations,” announced the woman as she opened the door, revealing a large man wearing a brightly coloured African shirt known as a dashiki, and a slight woman with fine brown hair. They were both sitting behind a long desk. On the wall behind them was a photo of a life raft in turbulent waters, filled with terrified women and children holding on to their belongings. In the corner of the photo, “#IStandWithRefugees” was written in big black letters against a yellow background. I recognised the hashtag as one of the organisation’s main campaigns.

I sat down in front of the two interviewers and realised there was a laptop on the desk with another man’s face staring at me. He had a wide smile. “Our colleague from the Kenya office is joining us on Skype for the interview,” the woman with the fine hair explained.

She introduced herself as Audrey, head of the refugee and migrants team. I recognised the man next to her with the African shirt: I’d spoken with him on the phone a few weeks earlier when I was thinking of applying for the job, and he had patiently talked me through the steps. He was much taller than I had imagined, with a round, full face that was imposing yet gentle.

His name was Tawanda and he was a prominent Zimbabwean lawyer and human rights advocate who was now a senior director. “I’m glad you reached out and could make this interview. What a lucky coincidence that you are in London today,” Tawanda said.

Lucky, I thought. If he only knew the truth of why I was here, how my life had been ripped away from me without warning two days ago when my fiancé left on what should have been our wedding day. How I had spent most of the time since in bed, on a cocktail of anxiety medication and sleeping pills, numb to the world.

“Thanks. Yes, very lucky,” I replied, trying not to make eye contact.

For the next hour, the three interviewers took turns asking me questions. My body started to relax, my hands let go of the arms of the chair, and my back sank into the hard plastic supporting it. This was familiar territory, being asked questions and having to think quickly while looking thoughtful.

For the past decade, I had been a foreign news correspondent, covering wars and conflicts across the Middle East for two big television networks. I’d learnt to keep my cool in front of the camera, crafting clever answers to complex questions even when I could barely hear them over the sound of gunfire or the shouts of protesters.

I knew how to shut everything else out: conflict reporting is about looking in control when you are anything but, and I had mastered that art.

As the interview went on, I became more animated. For the first time in days, I felt like myself. I was almost enjoying it. My mind was busy picking the right words and arranging them in the perfect order. I didn’t have to work out what to do about the mess my life was in; I just had to focus on what to say next.

As the interview went on, I became more animated. For the first time in days, I felt like myself. I was almost enjoying it.

Audrey was asking me about the growing Syrian crisis that had arrived on Europe’s shores. It was mid-2016, and according to the UN there were now over four million Syrian refugees. The world had been shocked into action the previous year after seeing a photo of the body of a two-year-old boy called Alan Kurdi, who had washed up on a Turkish beach as he and his family tried to reach Greece.

I had been there. Deployed to the beach that afternoon to report the story, I had found one of the guys who was first on the scene and had taken photos of Alan’s dead body. The toddler’s blue shorts were by his ankles and his nappy was barely hanging on, covered in kelp. He was face down in the sand, but you could still see red marks on his cheek.

I remember thinking about the more sanitised photo of Alan that went viral. Perhaps that was the only way to make people care about what was happening – to clean him up and hide his brown, scarred face so that Western mothers and fathers could imagine him as one of their own, rather than just another desperate, dark-skinned child.

One of the interviewers asked me what the refugees I had spoken to wanted from the international community, and specifically what the UN could do to try to help them. These were the kinds of questions I’d been asking myself for a long time, and the answers came easily. They were more relevant and important than the sterile questions I had spent years being asked by news presenters sitting in studios. I answered honestly and simply: The refugees wanted to go home safely. In the meantime, they wanted to be treated with dignity, and for their basic rights to be respected in their host countries.

Sherine Tadros on assignment in Tunisia in 2015, when she was working as a Middle East correspondent.

Sherine Tadros on assignment in Tunisia in 2015, when she was working as a Middle East correspondent. Credit:Zein Ja’Far

The final question was one I had prepared for, but it still took me by surprise. “Why do you want to leave journalism for activism?” Tawanda said. “You’re the Middle East correspondent for Sky News. That sounds like a job many people would want.”

Fair question. I was at the top of my game, my team had just won multiple awards, and there was no way this new job would offer anywhere near the salary I was on. Part of the reason I wanted out was that I was exhausted by the constant travel, by living in dangerous places, by the daily stress and pressure. And I was afraid of the person I was turning into. But that wasn’t the whole truth.


“My job ends at the wrong point,” I replied, realising as the words came out that I wasn’t making sense, a suspicion confirmed by the look on Tawanda’s face. “What I mean is,” I went on, “I ask questions and try to expose what’s going on. But then I leave and move on to the next story before anything is done. Before the refugees resettle or go back to their homes. I’m tired of reporting and moving on. I want it to be my job to do something about the suffering I’ve witnessed.”

I had spent over a decade working in the media and had come to a simple realisation. There are many worthy and valid reasons to want to become a journalist, but those were not the reasons I decided to become one. Once I’d realised that, there was no turning back. There was something else I was meant to be doing.

In the process of making change, we all have different roles to play, different callings. Perhaps because I now felt I had lost everything, I had finally found the courage to pursue mine. I didn’t just want to expose injustice, but to fight it.

Edited extract from Taking Sides: A Memoir About Love, War, and Changing the World (Scribe) by Sherine Tadros, out now.

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