Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ammar Al Shahbander – A True Believer

Eulogy for a friend and colleague delivered at a memorial service in London, October 13, 2015.
By Anthony Borden
  • Ammar Al Shahbander with Anthony Borden, pictured in 2012. (Photo: IWPR)
    Ammar Al Shahbander with Anthony Borden, pictured in 2012. (Photo: IWPR)

Ammar Al Shahbander was a true believer. He believed passionately. He read and thought. He wrote and he spoke. He travelled and saw and met. He organised. He emailed a lot.

Ultimately, for his vision, for his belief, he sacrificed.

As far as I know, Ammar truly believed in no party. At least, he did not join the fray. He despised sectarianism in all its forms, particularly extremism. He did feel that the West had a vital role to play in Iraq. At one point, he seriously considered a political position for himself, was tempted and then declined. I like to think that this was his better self, avoiding the political cesspit and remaining independent. 

For Ammar’s real belief was in the individual. Every one of us. Everyone he met. Everyone he worked with. Certainly every single journalist, citizen journalist, civil society worker or youth activist he trained and supported.

Ammar believed profoundly that every single person’s voice could make a difference.

A sociologist by instinct, as well as by training, he came to the media not as a profession but as a matter of principle.

In a society in crisis, everyone deserves a voice. And even in the most challenging of circumstances, it is the accumulation of these voices that will make the difference.

For Ammar, the media was a platform for a society to be heard. He devoted his working life, and finally gave his life, to establish the strongest and most vibrant platform for free expression in his native country that he could.

As Sir David said, he laid a foundation stone for a free press in Iraq.

Born in Baghdad, the son of an opposition politician, Ammar came with his family in exile, first to Kuwait, then Iran, Syria and finally Sweden. There he met Angela, and proposed immediately.

By 2000, fluent in four languages, Ammar was studying sociology at the University of Westminster and dabbling in student journalism.

Crucially, he and a tight group of exile friends developed a dream: to return to their country and help build a new, democratic Iraq. It would become his very personal struggle.

I first met Ammar in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, with my colleague Duncan Furey, as we scouted out ways to launch our programme.

In a white T-shirt and jeans, we saw him work the room like an experienced politician – liberally spreading his broad smile and warm handshakes. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. This was our man, we thought. We knew we had to bring him to IWPR.

Our Iraq programme was launched by our colleagues Hiwa Osman, Maggie Zanger and then Susanne Fischer. Ammar joined around the time of the US “surge”. Our offices there expanded quickly. We didn’t have the capacity to manage this scale of work. But he got on with it, building an operation that peaked at 150 Iraqi staff, our largest-ever single programme.

Ammar’s programmatic vision was creative and principled. He was committed to making social and political change happen from the ground up, and was constantly thinking about how Iraq could be knitted together, how different groups could work across dividing lines and, above all, how women and young people could be encouraged to participate.

It may be that his single strongest professional talent – what we may miss most institutionally – was his ability to come up with brilliant project ideas.

He was a team player. He consulted. He talked often to Iraqi and Western government officials, experts and colleagues.

Yet the ideas were always his own, and they were numerous. I apologise for this laundry list, itself incomplete. But each and every one was precious to him:

  • giving independent media houses the resources and skills to grow;
  • using media and communications tools to make conflict resolution happen at community level;
  • strengthening the voices of women and young people in social media;
  • building bridges between the media and human rights groups;
  • setting up a local monitoring group on journalist safety and free expression;
  • solid, reliable media coverage of Iraqi elections;
  • a human rights TV magazine and a women’s radio programme;
  • giving women the skills to get into media and advertising.
  • And throughout, training thousands of Iraqi journalists in the practice of professional and ethical reporting.

I remember talking to the State Department about a fascinating project to improve access to information. This wasn’t to be a dry exercise in legislative drafting. Ammar envisaged, and was then funded, to orchestrate a two-year national dialogue across the country that bridged media professionals, civil society groups, academics, experts and government officials – all to develop ideas for improving Iraq’s media legislation.

Ammar hugely appreciated the support he received from Washington. Explaining the State Department’s enthusiasm for the project, the official told me, ‘We want to support Ammar to be Ammar.’

But Ammar being Ammar didn’t just mean having a profound understanding of Iraq and the broader Middle East. It was the way he spoke.

Last year in New York, I introduced him to a journalist friend to talk Arab Spring. Suffice it to say that by very late into the evening, I was left exhausted, my journalist friend quite inebriated, while Ammar, drinking water and utterly in his element, could have gone on all night.

There was that warmth of spirit, and the mischievous twinkle in his eyes, yes. But more alluring – in fact unique – was his sense of hope. With his long-term perspective from the ground, Ammar could always see a pathway to a positive future, no matter the present crisis. No one spoke about Iraq, no one held a room, like Ammar.

Acting US Ambassador Robert Ford spent several hours with Ammar, hearing about IWPR’s work and discussing developments in the country. As they departed, Ford remarked to a colleague, “Best day in Iraq, ever.” Ammar had that effect on many people.

Despite his growing family, Ammar was determined to stay in Iraq. He had no hero complex, but he knew he could not be who he was without being there. This wasn’t easy, especially for Angela. They tried relocating to Baghdad, but it did not work. So he travelled back and forth from London regularly. Late last year, Ammar and Angela celebrated the birth of their fourth child. He spent a very long time every day talking to them all via Skype.

On a personal level, Ammar and I shared so much, achieved so much together, had so much fun at it, and were so deeply fond of each other. He was a company man in the best sense. While he and I were both building our families, he was also a core part of the team that built IWPR into the organisation it is today. This kind of shared experience cannot happen again, it’s a one-off. So a foundation stone for us, too.

Ammar stayed with IWPR and stayed in-country because – despite everything – he never did lose that dream of a better Iraq.

With his extensive team, Ammar’s achievements are substantial: training a generation of Iraqi journalists, establishing and strengthening dozens of media and civil institutions, supporting the production of thousands and thousands of professional TV, radio, print and online reports.

But his true achievement was this: to help keep alive the flame of hope and possibility for countless Iraqis.

Talk to his staff. To Iraqi journalists. To women and women’s groups. And to young people, who matched his youthful nature and for whom he had special affection.

The story you will hear is the same. Ammar found them, recruited them to the project, trained them, supported them. He gave them responsibility, helped them develop and made sure they succeeded.

Above all, he gave them belief.

Ammar was one of the country’s few dreamers. A patriot for a civic Iraq. As one of his close colleagues called him, “The pure soul of Iraq”.

Ammar Al Shahbander left us on May 2, the eve of World Press Freedom Day, after attending a concert of an Eagles cover band at a Baghdad cultural centre he had helped establish.

I wrote it first in those awful early days, and I will ask it again now. In the worst of environments, Ammar gave hope. Will that hope be extinguished? Or is it just possible that his passing may inspire those he touched to recommit to that dream?

The answer is up to us.

Bless you, my friend.

Anthony Borden is Executive Director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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