WATERVILLE, Maine — Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has seen it all in the Middle East.
She has covered the fall of Muammar Gadhafi in Libya, women voting in Saudi Arabia, protests in Egypt and battles in Afghanistan.
On Sunday evening at Colby College, she was the 59th recipient of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism. Nelson was given an honorary doctorate by Colby president William “Bro” Adams at the ceremony in front of about 300 people.
Lovejoy, a graduate of Waterville College, later renamed Colby College, was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Illinois on Nov. 7, 1837 for his abolitionist writings.
Nelson opened NPR’s Kabul bureau in Afghanistan in 2006, and continues to work as a foreign correspondent for NPR. She has also worked for the Los Angeles Times and won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for covering the crash of TWA flight 800.
Nelson shared her experiences of working in the field and the difficulties of working as a woman in a male-dominated society.
She told a story of a young Saudi woman named Ruba, whom Nelson accompanied with others to try to register to vote.
“Standing like a silent, black ghost among them, I recorded their effort,” said Nelson. “They argued ferociously with male officials to register them to vote. Their courage took my breath away.
After all, these women are trained from birth to stay hidden and not draw attention to themselves.”
They weren’t allowed to vote, but the women said they felt empowered.
She later told about her experiences of protests in Egypt. One day particularly stuck with her, referred to as the “Day of Rage.”
“Scores of people across Egypt were shot and killed by police and by thugs who reportedly were paid by the government,” she said. “In downtown Cairo, the tear gas was so thick you couldn’t get away from it. I had a scarf wrapped around my nose and my mouth, but had forgotten to bring protective glasses.
“Soon I was blinded by a stream of tears. Some of the protesters urged me to pour cola in my eyes, claiming it would take the sting out,” she said. “Some of my colleagues swore by this, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pour the sugary soft drink on my face. Instead, I allowed my translator to lead me by the hand out of the main street along the Nile River to try to hitch a ride away from the gas.”
She said she has had instances where she has questioned if what she did was worth it.
“I’ve had several such soul-searching moments,” Nelson said. “Like when I was arrested in 2004 in Iraq by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army. I was the lone Western reporter in Najaf, which was under Sadr’s control at the time. U.S. Marines had taken position around the city and were preparing to attack.
“Unbeknownst to me, Sadr’s religious court in Najaf held a trial with me in absentia. The judges issued an execution warrant for me claiming I was an American spy,” she said. “For more than six frantic hours, I pleaded with the black-clad gunmen to not take me to nearby Kufa mosque where such executions were being carried out.
“But it was my father’s ethnic background that saved me, as I later learned. He was born in Iran. And the Iranians who were working with Sadr’s forces ordered them to let me go.”
She credited her husband, Erik, who was with her at the ceremony, for keeping her going.
“Thank you, Erik, for that sacrifice,” she said. “And thank you for your love and support all these years with which, I couldn’t do any of what I do.”
Nelson seemed touched to be given the award, which honors a man who fought for free speech until his death.
“Most of us try and emulate the journalistic tradition of commitment and courage that Elijah Parish Lovejoy set the standard for,” she said. “But in many places, the dangers of doing so are as great now as they were during his time.”
After her speech, she fielded questions from guests. A reception and dinner was also held.