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Powerful stories shared at YJI’s Washington DC forum, ‘Silence Will Not Save Us’

Frida Zeinali speaks about Mahsa "Jina" Amini who died in the custody of Iran's 'morality police.' (YJI photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Three young women hailing from Ukraine, Pakistan and Iran presented their personal stories and the struggles in their countries at Youth Journalism International’s recent public forum, “Silence Will Not Save Us.”

I was lucky enough to attend as both a reporter and an audience member, but I will gladly admit that at points I was so captivated by the stories of the three courageous, accomplished, and well-spoken young women that I fell slightly behind in my note-taking.

So, the following is my best attempt to summarize the tremendous tellings of our very own Tanya Tkachenko of Ukraine, Arooj Khalid of Pakistan, and Frida Zeinali of Iran. 

The March 16 forum, which took place in the historic National Union Building, began with introductions by YJI Correspondent Sreehitha Gandluri of Maryland.

Tkachenko, Khalid and Zeinali are “not only people I look up to, they are people I think everyone should look up to,” Gandluri said.

After hearing the three tell their stories, I wholeheartedly agree. 

Panelists Arooj Khalid, Tanya Tkachenko and Frida Zeinali. (YJI photo)

The first to present was Tkachenko, a first-year student at Georgetown University studying International Politics and Security. But just eight short months ago, she was at home in Kharkiv, Ukraine, a city that’s in close proximity to the Russian border. The Russian invasion has proven destructive, shocking, and terrifying for Tkachenko and her family. 

Tkachenko, a YJI Reporter, started off her presentation by dispelling a myth about the war in Ukraine: this didn’t just start a year ago, when Americans first started hearing about the conflict. The war really started in 2014, when Russian forces occupied Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula on the Black Sea which happened to be her family’s annual vacation spot.

Tkachenko explained how relations between Russia and Ukraine have broken down more and more in the past nine years. It’s affected her to a greater extent because her mother, father, and brother all work for the Ukrainian military.       

Everything changed for Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, when Russia began attacking the country. Tkachenko’s mother woke her up by telling her the war had started, and she soon found out that there had been two explosions in her city of Lozova. Then 16, Tkachenko rushed out to get groceries, only to discover that widespread panic had started to affect her city. By 7 a.m. food was already missing from grocery store shelves.

Tanya Tkachenko of Ukraine speaks while Frida Zeinali listens intently. (YJI photo)

Tkachenko’s brother is a member of Ukraine’s special forces, their strongest and bravest. He was stationed in the seaside city of Mariupol, which is even closer than Kharkiv to the Russian border.

Tkachenko’s brother and his regiment were fighting to defend the city beginning when the war picked up in speed in February 2022 until May 2022, when they were ordered to surrender due to the total destruction of Mariupol.

Tkachenko’s older brother was one of the last soldiers out. 

After the surrender of Mariupol, Tkachenko said, she and her family saw her brother in a video published by the Russian media, leading them to discover that he had been captured as a prisoner of war. The devastation is only exacerbated by the fact that he has a wife and two young daughters who remain back home in Kharkiv, waiting to hear from their husband and father. 

Tkachenko’s father – a veteran of the war in Afghanistan – had recently resigned from military service when the Russians attacked in February. But when he saw the war spreading across the entire country of Ukraine, he declared that he wouldn’t sit back and let his son fight, despite suffering a severe concussion in Afghanistan. 

With her father and brother off in military service, it was just Tkachenko and her mother for months until she escaped to Spain with a friend on a refugee program. The distance from home and lack of support in Spain proved difficult, so with her mother’s help, she returned home.

Soon after returning from Spain in May, Tkachenko got the news that she had been admitted to Georgetown, and in August, she arrived in Washington. Since then, Tkachenko has been back home to visit once during winter break, and while things there are difficult, she remains hopeful.

School in Kharkiv remains virtual, though losses of electricity are common. Tkachenko closed her presentation by declaring that pride and patriotism in Ukraine are at an all-time high, with more and more people beginning to speak in Ukrainian instead of Russian at home. 

Frida Zeinali speaks to the audience and shares a slide. (YJI photo)

Next to share was Zeinali, a graduate student in Marquette University’s Communication and Media Studies program. An Associate Editor with YJI, Zeinali has been studying in Milwaukee since August. It’s a drastic transition from life at home in Iran, where people live under the brutal rule of the Islamic Republic. 

Zeinali shared the story of Mahsa “Jina” Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s ‘morality police.’ Zeinali explained that Mahsa was her formal name under Islamic law but that her loved ones called her Jina.

Upon her arrest, the ‘morality police’ claimed she was wearing her hijab improperly. Two female Iranian journalists, Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, covered the story. A photo Hamedi tweeted of Amini’s grieving parents went viral. Within days, Iranian security forces had arrested and jailed both women journalists.

Zeinali said they are just two of the 37 female journalists currently jailed in Iran for simply doing their jobs, and Iranian citizens are not happy. Protests and revolts have swept the country, despite the rule of the Islamic Republic growing ever harsher.

At least 477 protesters have been killed since September 2022, but Zeinali said that number is actually much higher, because many protester deaths are being written off as suicides or accidents. 

Revolutionary sentiment in Iran is growing, Zeinali said, with 81% of Iranian survey respondents saying no to the simple question “Islamic Republic: Yes or No?”

Many Iranians support the idea of a secular, pluralistic, and democratic Iran, she said, but the Islamic Republic continues to buckle down on their anti-democratic values, from cutting off the Internet to neglecting due process for any dissenters. 

According to Zeinali, Iranians are frustrated at the severity of the laws and the wide scope of control the regime has on everyday life – for instance, all entertainment must go through the government’s filters, severely limiting access. Attacks by the Islamic Republic’s regime come randomly and without warning. Amini’s arrest show the results can be deadly.

As Zeinali powerfully stated,  “Anyone could’ve been Jina.”

Khalid, a climate educator and a crusader for girls’ schooling in Lahore, Pakistan, was the final speaker of the night.

Arooj Khalid tells the story of her Pakistani girlhood while Tanya Tkachenko and Frida Zeinali listen. (YJI photo)

She started off by sharing a personal anecdote, telling us that when she was younger, she put The New York Times masthead on her bed frame, because she wanted it to be the first thing she saw when she woke up every morning.        

Khalid dreamed of being a journalist in a country where women’s education and empowerment is severely lacking. The turning point came at age 14 when Khalid found Youth Journalism International, and soon afterwards wrote a story about a young girl in Pakistan who was working as a maid instead of attending school.

That award-winning story started Khalid’s journey as an activist for girls’ education.

Although she began working with NGOs and other volunteer organizations, Khalid never really felt like her work was directly helping the girls. Since the only logical move she saw was to create her own organization, Khalid she started a welfare community called Hasas that runs workshops for girls in schools. It was only the beginning.

Arooj Khalid speaks while Tanya Tkachenko listens. (YJI photo)

Khalid, an Associate Editor at YJI and a member of its board of directors, has since interned at newspapers, went to university in Lahore and studied abroad for a semester at Michigan State University, all with the intention of expressing the need for improved girls’ education.

To specifically engage Pakistani girls in science and technology, Khalid has gone into schools to do chemistry experiments with the students and teach them how to use the internet.

She noted that there was some controversy at first, as parents were unsure about getting their daughters involved in science because it went against the country’s norm. But once they saw how much their daughters loved it – and how helpful it was to have someone in the family who knew how to use the internet – parents came around to the idea.

Most recently, Khalid has become a fellow with the Malala Fund and is one out of 25 young women from around the world featured in a book about female activists called Dare to Learn: The Power of an Educated Girl.

This month, Khalid presented to the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women, which ironically convinced her that she did not want to work for the UN. 

In the future, Khalid intends to keep fighting for equality in womens’ education in Pakistan and all around the globe, because she knows it is possible.

The evening ended after two meaningful hours filled with respect, bravery, and pin-drop attentiveness. As always, I’m grateful for the opportunity to hear such diverse stories, and honored to be a part of the same organization as these outstanding young women. 

Baylee Krulewitz is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

Watch a recording of the forum here:

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