As a senior editor and writer for World Magazine since 1986, Mindy Belz has reported from countries around the world, focusing on war and persecution in the Middle East. She is the author of “They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians from the Middle East.” On Tuesday, she spoke at Hillsdale College about her experiences as a journalist covering international persecution and the refugee crisis.
What inspired you to focus on Christian persecution in the Middle East?
When I first started doing international reporting, the Middle East was the last place I wanted to focus; the language is different, the culture is different, the food is different — and there’s a lot of conflict, so it seems like a forbidding place. 9/11 was really a catalyst; then it just seemed like we couldn’t ignore the Middle East. What kept me going back was meeting the people. It’s a place of amazing hospitality, amazing people who are very resilient and very religious, almost in their DNA. It’s been drawing me back to keep telling those stories.
What is it like interviewing refugee children?
It’s really challenging. Yesterday, I was in a school in Detroit that has predominantly refugee children. They still in many ways are traumatized; I realized I had to be really careful and considerate of that and all that they’ve been through, trying to find out their stories without reopening a lot of trauma. This is their safe place, and they don’t want to keep going over that. I think it is the children that get me. You see just what an incredibly challenging and tragic story theirs is, because they’re old enough to have really absorbed and will always remember what they’ve seen. Some of these kids have seen their parents and siblings killed. One had his brother killed right beside him in a bombing. I never dreamed that this was the kind of thing I would be covering, but it is what’s happening. If there’s anything that sort of haunts me or disturbs me, it’s these kids, and the ones who are old enough to understand that what they’re seeing and living through is not what life should be.
What are the dangers of going to these countries as a reporter?
I’m often asked, “Were you afraid?” And the honest answer is no. It’s not that I’m a brave person; it’s just that this is not the thing that makes me feel afraid. I find that it’s the same things that worry me here that worry me there, like getting lost or having a driver that doesn’t show up. I do try to take precautions. But once I’m in a situation and I know that I have this job to do, I don’t think a whole lot about it. I think it’s usually after the fact that you realize, yeah, that was probably pretty dangerous. I was in Mosul in Iraq in February, and you’re hearing airplanes overhead and guns in the distance and shelling, but the thing that you realize is that the people there are living with that every day. They’re living with it all the time, so when you’re there on the ground, you realize this is normal life for them, so you shouldn’t be afraid. Usually the people that I’m reporting about are in much more danger than I am at that given moment.
How has reporting in these areas shaped you as a person and as a journalist?
Having a bigger perspective on the world helps you to put everything in perspective. A lot of our political squabbles and debates almost seem immature in comparison to what people are living with as a result of political decisions. It’s been really discouraging to me the way that refugees have been talked about in this country and politicized over the past year and a half. It’s disheartening and tragic to me, because I’ve seen the situations and tragedies that these people are coming out of. You don’t leave your homeland, unless you are truly, truly desperate. “Refugee” has come to be a suspect term, and we have so historically been a country that has welcomed those people. I think there’s a real desire to turn inward and protect what we have, and we know that historically that doesn’t work out well and biblically that doesn’t work out well. We can protect our security without having to denigrate refugees. It makes me heartsick to see what other people live with in other countries. That’s a huge way my perspective has been shaped by what I’ve seen and done and where I’ve been.