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Why Can’t I Be You: Lara Setrakian

The founder of Syria Deeply (and our personal Oprah) tells us how to get her job.

I want to give readers a little bit of a basic quick overview and context of what’s going in Syria right now.

For almost three years now, Syria has been in a state of turmoil. It started out with peaceful protests against the Assad regime in 2011, mostly started by young people who wanted more political rights.

I saw that the first thing on the timeline on your site was that some teenage boys who were arrested for graffiti or something, right?

Exactly. It started with teenagers tagging graffiti on the walls of one city in Syria, demanding greater political rights and socially challenging the government. The government cracked down really swiftly and really violently. They arrested those teenagers, which sparked a wider reaction of people saying, “What are you doing? They’re just kids expressing themselves.” Syria has been, for decades, such a repressive place that you can’t speak your mind. But once people started speaking out, it started catching on. They were inspired by what had happened in Egypt and Tunisia and all of these other places that have been seeing revolution. So people in Syria started to protest in the streets, and the government cracked down very harshly. They wanted people to stop, pronto. The government started opening fire, it got very violent. Eventually, those protesters felt that they had to pick up weapons to fight back. And that was the real beginning of what would escalate into a civil war.

Over time, this conflict got messier and messier, and now you have what we believe are dozens of different groups fighting against the regime for different reasons. Some of them are extremists who basically want to establish a religious Islamic state. That’s totally different from the original protesters, who just wanted freedom and democracy. But the conflict got so out of line that it created a wide-open space, and in that space we’re seeing everything from Al Qaeda groups to protesters to civilians getting wrapped up in this fight. That’s why it’s so hard to understand what’s going on over there now, because there are so many characters involved. You have some countries backing Bashar al-Assad, like Russia and China and Iran; and then other countries against Assad, like the U.S., France, the UK, and Turkey. And that makes it even harder to solve, because now everybody else is getting involved in this fight as well. It’s like Syria itself is tied up in a knot. And it’s going to take some really smart diplomacy, and some really strong ceasefires, to try to unravel it. I have one Syrian friend who told me it’s gonna take 10 years for the country to get back to where it was before this all began.

Wow.

There’s a lot of building to do. Roads, hospitals, schools [have been] demolished. More than a fifth of the people in the country are now roaming around homeless, because their neighborhoods have been bombed to bits. It’s really hard. There are millions of people who are living without a shred of hope as to what the next year’s gonna bring. People have burned through their savings. Food has gotten much more expensive. It’s brutally cold this winter, and people don’t have electricity, so they’re freezing in their homes! It’s a really huge catastrophe. There are a lot of ways for people to help, it’s just that we don’t always understand how.

What are those ways?

You can check out Save the Children, MercyCorps, UNICEF. They’re all doing fantastic things to try to help people in Syria. I highly recommend that people go look them up and do what you can, even if it’s just to fund-raise at your school. Anything can help. It’s a really important time for the world to be paying attention to and doing something about what’s happening.

Did you study journalism in college?

I didn’t. I studied political science. If I could do it all over again, I would have studied history.

Why?

It’s so helpful to understanding why things are the way they are.

Do you think college was necessary for you to get where you are?

I think college was necessary because it got me on the college radio station, which is where I really discovered my passion for this.

What was your show?

I was just a news director—we would do news briefs, and we would do a Sunday show. I always thought I might be a journalist, and I did a high school internship one summer at CBS News, so I knew I loved journalism, but I didn’t get a chance to practice it till I was in college, at the radio station. And that practice became the cornerstone of everything I’ve gotten to do since then.

College is a really good place for you to explore what you think you might want to do and what you might want to be without any risk, because you’re just trying things on. I think the most important thing that young women should do with their time in college is to pursue what they feel passionate about. Not to study what everybody else says to study, and not even always to listen to your parents’ opinions on what you should do with that time. Because everyone—especially if you’re a girl—is always telling you what to do. It’s like, really, give it a rest! [Laughs] Listen to what everybody has to say, thank them for their advice, reflect on it, and then do what you feel is right. That’s the process. Trust yourself, listen to yourself, and go for it. Do what you love. You don’t ignore people’s advice, but you don’t just jump at it either. They don’t have the answer. You have the answer.

I think it’s easy when you’re aspiring to something to look at people your age who have achieved that thing and feel that they’re just lucky, or that it was dropped into their laps, and to feel jealous, and to dwell on the fact that the world is unfair. I mean, the world is unfair. What do you say to people who are feeling that way?

I think the world delivers knocks to everybody. It’s all relative. And it’s very important not to judge. A lot of people would look at my career and say, “Wow, that’s an interesting career.” But I started out from zero—and it wasn’t that long ago. Everybody says that in media it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. But I didn’t know anybody. The truth is that you can do anything. The possibilities are endless.

The way I rose in journalism was, well, first, I leapt at the opportunity to do an internship at ABC News, but that could have been anywhere. The more important thing is that once I got there, I always brought ideas to the table. Diane Sawyer met with all the interns at the beginning of the summer and said, if you have ideas, send them to me. So I would go online and look at what was going on in the world and send her my ideas. I emailed her very politely and very gratefully and said, “Thank you so much for meeting with us. Here are five ideas.” She wrote back and said, “Thank you. These don’t really work.” So I tried again and sent other ideas, and after a while some of them started to get on TV! That was pretty cool.

So eventually when I applied for a job at ABC, they all remembered me as the girl who had all these great ideas and got them on TV, you know? I got recognized just for trying to make something out of nothing and putting myself out there and really respectfully and politely writing emails to a lot of people and sending them my ideas. And they were all so cool with it! They were grateful. People are always thirsty for ideas. Always have something to offer. Even if you come from nowhere and have nothing, you also have something to offer. Your ideas will get you as far as you want to go! Your hard work and the quality of what you bring to the table are what’s gonna attract people to support you. And then really great things are gonna happen.

Do you have a final message that you want to deliver to the teenage girls of the world?

You’re amazing. You are actually amazing! Be really nice to yourself.

That is great. You’re awesome.

You’re awesome too. ♦

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8 Comments

  • mangointhesky February 14th, 2014 4:44 PM

    She sounds so impressive!

    http://theconfettireport.blogspot.com

  • thebrownette February 14th, 2014 7:22 PM

    THIS IS SO CRAZY. I’ve been thinking for ages about how I wish news was like this. I want to follow it, but its’ difficult to understand the history quite often.

  • Laia February 14th, 2014 10:49 PM

    i love her! i feel like i really needed to read this right now.

  • Violet February 15th, 2014 1:51 AM

    That was Amazing.
    Thank you so much for making me discover Lara and for sharing her great advice.
    +++
    V

  • puffling February 15th, 2014 9:31 AM

    SO WISE.

    I agree with Laia, I definitely needed to read this. I am on a break from preparing for a super important interview and this has just given me more fuel.

  • Lillypod February 15th, 2014 11:18 AM

    same name woooo

  • Alexandra T. February 16th, 2014 5:23 PM

    wow she is actually amazing. so much respect for Lara Setrakian, this article is really inspiring.

  • whimsicalshann February 17th, 2014 11:53 AM

    thank you, thank you, thank you x1000 for posting this. her comments on not beating yourself up as a writer are exactly what I needed to hear right now.