Three surprising lessons from a visiting Tunisian journalist

Hannah (second from left) and her family host visiting Tunisian journalist Arwa Kooli in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Myrick family)

Seattle Globalist youth reporter Hannah Myrick (above: second from left) sits down with Tunisian  journalist Arwa Kooli (second from right) to pick her brain on journalism, women and global social change. 

When I first met Arwa Kooli, a Tunisian PhD student engaged in social media and political communication, I immediately knew she was no ordinary woman, but one who wanted to make a difference.

Kooli came to the U.S. through the World Affairs Council and was a part of an exchange program in Seattle that works with the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA).

Throughout dinner, the conversations meandered from politics, her impressions of Seattle, and debunking myths of what people think about her culture. Here where some of her surprising observations.

1. Seattle is a city of immigrants

“What surprised me was that huge presence and differences between the refugee community in Seattle,” Kooli said.  “I was even joking with an American friend, telling her, ‘Where are the Americans? Everybody is an immigrant!’”

The organization that Arwa worked with, ReWA, is a King and Snohomish county-based organization that provides cultural and linguistic aid to women refugees and immigrants from all around the world.

The organization was founded by a group of resettled women, dedicated to leaving a positive impact on other women and their families.

Arwa found out about ReWA through a center whose goal is to empower Arab Women. “I thought of it as a great opportunity to visit the U.S, which was one of my dreams, and especially to learn more about the political and civil system in U.S. and women’s status as well.”

During her time at ReWA, Arwa worked with women from many different cultures, religions and backgrounds who had experienced domestic violence and sexual assault.

2. Being a woman journalist in Tunisia is not as hard as we might expect

Since a young age, Arwa had aspired to be a journalist, even at the protest of her family.

“When I applied for college I hesitated and said ‘maybe they are right.’ I was going to study English literature instead of journalism.” Kooli said. “However I chose journalism and have never regretted it.”

Press freedoms around the world.
Press freedoms around the world. (Larger version here)

Her goal is to write about politics in a way that “touches and affects peoples lives, such as rights, food, corruption and international relations.”

Many Americans tend to view the whole of the Middle East as a region where all women are oppressed, but this is not always the case.

Although Tunisia does rank low when it comes to press freedom, women have historically had more social and political rights than in neighboring countries and are now fighting to maintain them.

As Kooli pointed out, “In my country I have had the chance to study and work without feeling oppressed because I am a woman.”

She says her male counterparts in journalism receive the same pay grade she does.

“All the rights that the Tunisian women have should be protected and no one has the right to change them,” Kooli said.

3. The Arab Spring has changed the face of social and political change

The Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia, dramatically increased the participation of people in government in the Arab World, and altered the role of women in society.

Since the Arab Spring it has been even more clear to Kooli that journalism was her destined career path.

“After the revolution I totally feel that media can change and affect people easier than any other power, like legislative or any other.”

She plans to take her experiences with ReWA and what she’s learned about the issues they are addressing back to Tunis and make a difference there.

“I would love to to start a project that would spread civic awareness in Tunis and make people more aware of their environment, their social relationships and the importance of being an effective member in society,” Kooli said.

Thanks to Arwa’s fresh perspective, I have a new view of not only Seattle, but of Tunisia and the role of women in the Middle East.

Just one dinner lead us to an inspiring conversation, that connected us from all the way across the world.