This post is part of Baby Hero’s series of profiles for International Women’s Month, celebrating women who #MakeItHappen. Amna Nawaz is an Emmy award winning journalist who currently heads up NBCNews.com’s Asian America vertical. In 2013, while pregnant she reported from North Waziristan, Pakistan making her the first journalist to be given access to this volatile region. In this inspiring interview (that had us in goosebumps), Amna talks about how she brings her entire self to her job, her joy and fear at the moment she became a mother to Karam and her take on women’s issues.
I’ve always, from a very young age, really enjoyed storytelling. I was a voracious reader and loved to write. Both habits were strongly encouraged by my parents and teachers. My father, a former journalist himself, used to edit my work and even went so far as to have one of my stories (a spectacularly ridiculous tale called “The Wish Boy with Apples”) bound and printed, complete with my crayon illustrations. I was eight years old, but vividly remember getting such a kick out of seeing my byline and watching other people read my work. Translating that joy into a form of service led me to journalism. My parents were always volunteering their time – organizing and giving back to our community in some way. I was made very aware, by the way they led their lives that we were luckier than most of the world, that but for a slight twist of fate our lives could have been very different, and that we should find a way to leave things a little better than we found them. I try to stay true to that in my work.
In 2013, I was the first foreign journalist allowed inside North Waziristan , a volatile region bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. Military embeds are always challenging in their own way. Add morning sickness and early-pregnancy exhaustion to the mix and things get interesting. My husband, Paul, and I were the only ones who knew I was pregnant when I went to North Waziristan. It was such an important story, one that wasn’t being told because no reporter had been allowed access before, that we both agreed I had to go. The Pakistan Army were doing all they could to ensure my team and I got in and out safely – making helicopters available to avoid ground travel in disputed terrain, sending out suppressive mortar rounds while we were on the ground at the regional base. But moving around the area and talking to people on the ground, it was instantly clear how isolated and underserved these communities are – how much more than deserve than they’re getting.
We all want the same things for our families – to keep them safe, to be able to help them when they’re sick, to give them a chance at a better life. Parents there complained that their schools had been destroyed. That they had to drive hours to reach the nearest medical facility. That they didn’t know when the fighting would stop. The gap between the lives they lead and the life I knew Paul and I would be able to provide our daughter felt enormous. Which is why telling their stories is so incredibly important. That gap shouldn’t exist.
I remember the mom who pulled her children to safety as the flood waters rose in northwest Pakistan, swimming and dragging her toddlers to higher ground while 6-months pregnant herself. I remember the woman determined to maintain a sense of normalcy for her kids, despite having left everything behind in Syria and now cobbling together an existence in a dusty, poorly-resourced refugee camp. I remember the mom in Texas who never let her children see her cry, even though the center of their family – her husband – had just been killed because of a tragic accident far from home.
But I don’t think I’ll ever forget Gul Pikai. She was 14 when I met her, the youngest of four girls in a family of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. She was the first in her family to go to school because of a fabulous social enterprise business - Popinjay. (See her story here). Her family had been through so much. Her father died when she was young. Everyone in the family, led by her mother, worked grueling hours to make ends meet. Gul Pikai talked about rent and medical costs and the days they’d go without eating with a somber matter-of-factness. But she still had this light that radiated from within, like she saw possibility ahead that others didn’t. She attacked each minute in class with a fierce concentration. She raised her hand first. She finished her assignments early and always did extra work. While other girls joked around or giggled during class, as children do, Gul Pikai focused with laser-like intensity on the teacher’s lesson. She stared at the words on the blackboard as if her life depended on it. In a different world, with different circumstances, Gul Pikai’s path to opportunity and success and fulfillment would be a foregone conclusion. But the odds are so unfairly stacked against her. We should all be incensed by that.
It never ceases to amaze me how, as a journalist, you’re given permission to drop into someone’s life and ask them to share their thoughts, hopes, and fears – and they do. During my time with the network’ s investigative unit, I reported on everything from mortgage fraud whistleblowers to the effects of US foreign policy abroad to the fallout from manmade disasters. At the heart of each of those stories were people who left me in awe – families who’d lost their homes, wives who’d suddenly become widows, kids who had to endure way more than many adults. People trust us, as journalists, with parts of their lives they wouldn’t share with friends or neighbors. And I think each time that’s happened – in homes and conversations around the world – it’s felt like another highlight. It really is a privilege, to be given that kind of trust.
Launching and running NBC’s Asian America vertical has been a humbling and gratifying experience. There’s enormous responsibility that comes with being one of the first news organizations in this space, but there’s such a wealth of stories from the community that all deserve much more attention than they’re getting. We do our best every day to fill that void, to elevate those voices online and on-air, and to better serve millions of people across the country. I’ve always said I try to bring every part of myself to my job – as a woman, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a Muslim, a Pakistani-American, a chocolate-lover, a Virgo; being a mother only deepens and broadens that identity. This isn’t the kind of job you can do at arms-length. It’s a lot like the rest of life – you have to show up. You have to bring your whole self.
There’s probably a lot of overlap from our marriage to our parenting approach - a lot of collaboration and communication, a good amount of improvisation and flexibility, all underlined with fairly sizable senses of humor. Paul and I pull lessons from our wonderful parents as well, who raised us to be grateful, empathetic, enthusiastic participants in the lives we’re carving out. I think like most parents, we just try to be the best possible guides we can be for our daughter as she figures out her own path (which will obviously also include getting straight A’s, running for President, and saving the world, obviously!
I have jumped out of a plane, covered war zones, and been threatened because of my work. but for all the joy and love I felt that particular day, I don't think I've ever been as scared as the first moment I held Karam in my arms.
The best piece of parenting advice I ever got was to never to take anyone else’s parenting advice. Being a parent is such a joyful, exciting adventure. But it is hard. Being a good parent is harder. And everyone’s idea of how to do that is different. New parents need to cut themselves, and each other, some slack and trust that we’re all doing our best to do right by our kids and the communities they’ll one day inherit.
I want my daughter Karam to find what makes her happy, what challenges and moves her, what gets her excited to get out of bed every morning. I want the possibilities around each corner to delight her. I want her to know and value empathy, to understand how lucky she is, and just how very little separates each of us from the other. I want her to learn that kindness and compassion are perfectly compatible with strength and resolve. I want her to live her life inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Those are the long-term goals. In the short-term, we’re shooting for becoming potty-trained and keeping crayon off the walls.
Until we start seeing “women’s” issues as everyone’s issues, we’ll never really close the gaps that need to be closed. There is an abundance of evidence that proves how women are at the heart of every community – empowering them, securing their rights, increasing their opportunities only serves to improve the social structures in which we all live. There are corners of the world where basic health improvements can literally change the vector of entire families’ lives. There are imbalances within systems that protect status quos to the detriment of the constituents. There are crimes being committed with impunity because of instability, economics, and sometimes – a basic lack of understanding. Women often bear the brunt of these issues, but they’re also at the forefront of solving them. I am heartened by the scale and dedication of efforts made by men and women I’ve met over the years – getting every child into school, showing every person a path towards justice, giving every voice a chance to be heard. You have to believe it’s getting better. I truly do.
Baby Hero is on the frontlines of a global battle with a basic goal – to give every child a fair shot at life. It boggles the mind to think that such simple elements – in each of the kits provided to mothers – are all that separates life from death in some cases. I think a lot of people are looking for a way to make their contribution, to feel like they’re making a difference some way. Baby Hero gives people an option. It’s hard not to be a supporter and fan.