Ferguson

Many businesses on West Florissant Avenue are boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision.

The convenience store where Michael Brown allegedly stole cigars is  boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision. 

I did not cover the story in August when a black teenager was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Nor did I have any idea that I would be thick in the middle of things one day.

But here I am, amid a deep freeze in Missouri, waiting with everyone else for a grand jury decision on whether the police officer, Darren Wilson, should be indicted in the killing of Michael Brown.

So far, it’s been an eye-opening experience. I am learning about a part of the country that I have not seen before.

Here are links to a few of my stories:

It’s her Ferguson — and it’s not all black and white

Ferguson awaits grand jury ruling

A tale of two streets

In the shadow of the storm, a quiet grave

 

 

‘Dead Man Walking.’ Live nun talking

me&helen

On my last night in New Orleans, Sister Helen and I visited death penalty attorney Denny LaBoef at her home. Denny took this photo of us.

My journalism brings me face to face with all sorts of interesting people. Over the years I have met extraordinary men and women and ordinary ones who have extraordinary tales to tell.

Occasionally, I run into exceptional people, the kind who make me stop to reflect, respect and admire.

Sister Helen Prejean is one of them.

I’d known about her work for decades — I first learned about her ministry on death row when I, as a young reporter, began covering criminal justice issues in Florida. When her book, “Dead Man Walking” was published, I read it and immediately connected with her. She vomited after witnessing her first execution in the electric chair. So did I.

Last week, I was finally able to spend some time with her. She came to pick me up at the New Orleans airport. “Text me when eagle hits tarmac,” were her orders.

She was waiting patiently for me in her Toyota outside Delta baggage claim. Immediately, I got a first-hand experience of her lead-foot driving.

Over the next few days, I came to know a woman who has dedicated her entire life to the sisterhood, to the Catholic church, to the poor and disenfranchised. I also came to know a woman who is full of life and laughter and joy in her heart, despite the fact that she has been dealing with executions for 30 years. I could not get over her verve for life. I also gained a couple of pounds eating Oyster Po’ Boys with her. They were deelish.

My story on Sister Helen published today on CNN.com. Shortly after, I received another text from her — yes, she loves her iPhone.

“Moniiiiiiii!,” it said. “You amaze me. What a comprehensive, lively, piece. U r an incredible, encyclopedic, compassionate journalist. Even the parrot joke! I’ll call soon.”

I felt tears welling.

I’m raising a glass of Scotch in your honor tonight, Helen.

Sister Helen is perhaps America’s best known abolitionist. You and I may not agree with her position on the death penalty or other issues for that matter.

I was inspired not because she is a death penalty abolitionist but because she is a woman of courage, compassion and conviction. And a whole lot of strength.

Journalists often lose their sense of all the good in this world because we cover so much misery and suffering. Sister Helen gave me back a little bit of my diminishing faith in humanity.

Read the CNN story here:

http://us.cnn.com/2014/08/06/us/executions-dead-man-walking-nun/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

Rena

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Rena Golden

Hasan Zeya used to boast about how he was still practicing medicine into his early 80s. But at 84, he no longer is happy about his age. His daughter, Rena, passed away last week, days shy of her 52nd birthday.

“She did a bad thing. She cut ahead of me in the queue,” he tells me at her funeral Sunday.

Tears well in his eyes, though he keeps a brave front among the hundreds of people who have come to pay tribute to Rena. The weather, dreary and wet, matches the mood inside the inside Temple Kol Emeth.

Rena’s memorial was exactly how it should have been. A rabbi and grieving husband spoke of her incredible talent, compassion and ability to inspire. They spoke of a daughter, a wife, a mother, who gave her all to her family.

Rena worked for many years at CNN, a majority of her time spent as a leader at CNN International. The temple was filled with journalists who stood in awe of her.

Watch a birthday message from Dr. Zeya to Rena  on her birthday last year:

Dr. Zeya tells me how his own father had been a journalist in India but discouraged his son from ever becoming one. It was hard work and no money. But maybe that’s where Rena got her passion.

As a little girl, Rena would make her parents watch as she pretended to be a news anchor. She would hide under the table and appear from behind the tablecloth to the deliver the news.

Rena came to America on her sixth birthday. Dr. Zeya had wanted a better life for his family and moved to North Carolina from a remote part of the Indian state of Bihar. His family hailed from the place where Mahatma Gandhi launched his civil disobedience campaign in India — there’s a scene in the Oscar winning film that shows Gandhi arriving at that train station.

Dr. Zeya tells me he was happy to leave what he called the “most backward place in India.” For a variety of reasons.

He tells me he loved that in Chapel Hill, he could shower with hot water spewing from the faucets. And that he did not have to sweat through the entire summer like we did in India when the electricity went out and the fans stopped for hours. I felt connected with him — and to Rena — in a whole different way.

I never really spoke with Rena much about her early childhood in India. My connections to our homeland, of course, were much stronger since my parents chose to return there many years ago. But in a strange sort of way, it was comforting to know now that Rena had experienced life as I had there. She was only a year and half older than me.

My deepest connection to Rena was that when I first met her more than 20 years ago, she was the only other Indian woman I knew in mainstream journalism in the United States. Now, of course, there are many successful South Asian women practicing great journalism. But back then, there were few. Rena knew that and encouraged women like me to keep pushing forward.

As I speak with her father, I realize where she got a lot of her spunk, though he insists that it was she who inspired him.

Dr. Zeya tells me he never wanted to color his children’s thoughts about big things in life. Like religion. He wanted Rena to make up her own mind. It was exactly how my father had raised my brother and me. He never allowed organized religion to infiltrate our home. He wanted us to figure it out for ourselves.

Sunday afternoon, Dr. Zeya sat in the temple to hear Rabbi Steven Lebow tell the audience what Rena had said to him when it became apparent she was going to die.

She told him she didn’t fear death — she never had in her painful two-year battle against lymphoma. She worried only about what would happen to her children, Sabrina and Adam, and to the love of her life, her husband, Rob Golden.

She also told Rabbi Lebow that she wasn’t religious, though she considered herself deeply spiritual. It was a statement that made her father proud.

We spoke of religious tensions in India. Dr. Zeya sipped Sprite and launched a conversation on Islam. He believes followers of that faith must rethink their path to the future. It was not a discussion I’d expected to have at Rena’s funeral and at first, I was caught by surprise.

But on the long drive back home on 1-75, I decided otherwise. My conversation with Dr. Zeya was exactly what Rena would have wanted. Smart, forward-thinking, outside-the-box, provocative, even, and totally unexpected at a funeral. She would have liked that her father initiated an intelligent conversation with her friends and colleagues.

The rain came down harder. It was as though the entire world was mourning the loss of Rena Shaheen Zeya Golden.

WAR & Fashion

Carnage: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria.

Catwalk: Armani, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent.

War is ugly. Fashion is beautiful. War projects the worst of humanity. Fashion displays sartorial splendor in its highest.

War is fraught with danger, even for journalists and especially for photographers who must get up close to their subjects to frame an image.

Fashion is far less perilous, though photographers must also get intimate with their subjects on and around the runways.
There are photographers who shoot both: battlefields and runways, guns and glamour. At first, photographing war and fashion appear as incongruous acts that are difficult to reconcile. Until, perhaps, you take a deeper look.

Check out this provocative project on CNN. It was our Director of Photography Simon Barnett’s idea. I got to interview some very cool people for the story.  http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/02/world/war-and-fashion/index.html

A New Year’s salute to amazing people not on any lists

Zhanna

I met Zhanna Dawson at her Atlanta home in April.

Today, we bid goodbye to 2012 and usher in a new year. It’s a time of cheer and remembrance.

We like lists. So we have the top 10s of everything from movies to gadgets to events. And there are lists of admirable people. Barack Obama was Time’s Man of the Year. Malala  Yousafzai topped other lists. As did Mohamed Morsy, the Egyptian president and Olympians who set records and won medals last summer in London.

Then there are all those people who perhaps made the news in remarkable moments and then faded to the background again. Their names are not on any Top 10 lists though it’s likely they went on in their acts of courage, brilliance and altruism.

There are countless people, of course, who deserve recognition. I am naming a few who I had the opportunity to write about in the last 12 months.

Dr. Kasem kept the Hippocratic Oath at a makeshift hospital in the besieged Syrian city of Al Quasyr. He knew every patient could be his last; that at any minute, a rocket could slam into the building at any moment. Instead, he kept moving the hospital from building to building and held steadfast to the medical oath he took that demands that he do all he can to save lives.

“If I will die when I help people, it is good for me,” he told CNN many months ago. “Because I am a doctor. I must help people, especially in this very catastrophic time. After the revolution, before the revolution, during the revolution, I will help people.”

I don’t have any way of knowing where Dr. Kasem is today. Whether he is even alive.

Back in February, I wrote about how the Tibetan New Year, Losar, was silent and dark in 2012. Tibetans decided to forgo festivities to honor all the monks and nuns who have self-immolated in protest of Chinese rule. Think about what that takes — to set yourself afire because of your love for homeland.

In the West, we seldom hear about what Chinese occupation is doing to Tibet, how an entire culture is eroding.

And I salute survivors of tragedy and trauma everywhere who  found ways to carry on living.

In 2012, I was lucky to have met Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, who survived the Holocaust in her native Ukraine by playing the piano for the Nazis.

She is in her mid-80s now, yet I was so taken by her verve for life. I could not stop listening to a recording of her playing Chopin. I could not stop hearing her stories of the war — how she felt when she played for survivors of Auschwitz.

She was was a triumph of spirit amid the worst of humanity.

Tonight, I will sip bubbly and make resolutions for the new year. And I will celebrate the lives of extraordinary people I have met and hope that their achievements always serve as a guide for my own aspirations.

A future star











This summer, another crop of interns spent time with us at CNN, working in various departments from the CNN Wire to Headline News. Chelsea Bailey was one of them.

Young, bright, smart, personable, curious. Chelsea has all the qualities to make a great journalist. Most of all, I appreciated her eagerness to learn and her verve for life.

She reported and wrote about all sorts of topics — from a vial of killer Ted Bundy’s blood helping to solve cold cases to Florida fishermen catching a massive shark. She helped me report one my stories about a group of devout Hindus suing a restaurant for having served them meat.

At other times, she was part of the wires team, updating daily stories or gnashing her head to come up with a new angle to the heat wave report.

Always, she approached her assignments with a big smile.

I taught a magazine writing class at UGA last semester and discovered the incredible rewards of working with young people who want to take up my profession, especially in a time when print journalism is undergoing a zillion changes. I miss teaching now. So when Chelsea and Molly Green showed up from the University of North Carolina this summer, I found an added dimension to my days at work, and relished it.

Working with Chelsea made me see journalism with fresh eyes. She helped energize me, inspired me to carry on.

Thanks for all your hard work, Chelsea. I will miss you. And I know you will shine.

New hope for a son of Libya


This is Bashir Al Megaryaf. He’s holding a poster demanding the release of his father, imprisoned in a Libyan jail for two decades. Bashir was only 1 when his father was detained. He has not seen him since.

But he has new hope in his heart that the two may be together again as the Libyan uprising against strongman Moammar Gadhafi gathers steam.

Bashir was among a crowd of Libyans demonstrating in front of CNN Center in Atlanta on Saturday. I had just finished writing a main Libya story for CNN Wires and CNN.com; had watched gruesome videos and listened to the on-air descriptions by witnesses of Gadhafi’s bloody crackdown that was unfolding in Libyan cities and towns.

Writing about the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have been overwhelming — they are such powerful stories of human perseverance and courage. I wished so many times that I might have an opportunity to cover the story from the ground.

Thus far, I have seen it only from the CNN newsroom.

So when I stepped out into the gloriously sunny and warm afternoon Saturday, accosted by thousands of people attending a hair show, a cheerleading convention and a circus, I felt compelled to walk over the waving Libyan flags and the voices that rang out the loudest on Marietta Street.

Meeting Bashir brought Libya home for me. I have been reading a new book of my father’s writings and could not imagine a life without ever knowing him. Suddenly, the idea of freedom in Libya, a nation have never visited, became very personal to me.

I hope to write more about Bashir in the days ahead. Meanwhile, you can read about Libya and the rest of the region on CNN.com