Student Journalist Explores the Human Costs of Conflict

photo: Sophia Jones
September 28, 2012

In Spring 2012, as the political uprisings in Syria entered their second, bloody year, people around the globe watched as the death tolls rose and civil war loomed. Amidst the fog of war — random shelling and mortar fire, thousands of civilian deaths, uncounted numbers of displaced — Sophia Jones pursued the story.

"I spent most of my time with refugees who had recently fled the violence across the border [into Turkey]. Many had lost everything — family members, life savings, homes. But what they didn't lose was hope. I have often found that those who have experienced their darkest hour have more hope than anyone else," said Sophia, an Elliott School junior.

Sophia, who had been studying Arabic in Cairo, spent her April 2012 semester break reporting as a freelance journalist from the Turkish-Syrian border. At a refugee camp there, she interviewed civilians who had fled the violence in Syria as well as members of the Syrian resistance army. Her articles have been published in the International Herald Tribune, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, NPR, Newsweek, and The New Republic.

For Sophia, the border experience was not a one-time adventure, and her publications were not a fluke. By the time she was 14 years old, Sophia's articles had appeared in dozens of publications; two years later, as a high school junior, she traveled alone to Kathmandu to report for a Nepalese magazine. After this first foreign assignment, which allowed her to observe the aftermath of a coup d'état firsthand, Sophia was hooked on international journalism.

"I found that in many under-reported regions, writing about what is happening on the ground, from first-hand sources, is often just as valuable as aid work," said Sophia. "As Americans, we are incredibly lucky. It is necessary that we hear stories from those who are directly affected by our international power."

With these experiences in mind, Sophia enrolled in the Elliott School three years ago, planning to pursue international development studies. She quickly found that her multi-disciplinary Elliott School classes expanded her approach to war journalism, instilling a deeper understanding of the drivers of conflict. A junior-year internship as a researcher with Foreign Policy also stretched her as a journalist and student.

As Americans, we are incredibly lucky. It is necessary that we hear stories from those who are directly affected by our international power.

"After three years of courses focused on conflict and security, where many of the subjects are military-oriented, focusing on security, I now try to balance my writing in both human rights and security," she said. "Syria is a perfect example of a conflict that needs more than a development and human rights approach. I find myself interviewing both NGOs in refugee camps, as well as Free Syrian Army captains."

In 2012, Sophia was awarded the Overseas Press Club Fellowship from Reuters International and posted for Summer 2012 in Ramallah, in the West Bank. Her work continues to focus on the human dimensions of conflict, exploring Palestinian-Israeli relationships, the lives of female entrepreneurs, and social justice issues. This Fall, Sophia has returned to Foggy Bottom, starting an internship at NPR's foreign desk in Washington during her senior year at GW.

Sophia's parents, both writers, say they worry that the harshness of conflict would affect Sophia on a personal level.

"Sophie has fierce drive and a strong moral compass but she is also very young. We worried that it would be hard for her to reconcile her sense of justice with the real world that is so full of injustice, especially in war zones and poverty-stricken areas. We were worried that she would be overwhelmed," said Deborah Hufford, Sophia's mother. "But as it turns out, she is also a realist and very grounded. She realized that she can influence many more people and affect positive change through her writing."

Sophia says interviewing subjects for her May 2012 Foreign Policy article, "Brothers in Arms" — her favorite piece to date — strengthened her convictions about the power of journalism.

"As they told me stories from Syria — some that continue to haunt me — they looked out over Tahrir, overwhelmed with nightmares of war but also with intense hope," she said. "After the article was published, I received an email from a friend of one of the young Syrian men I interviewed. He informed me that his friend had safely snuck back into Syria to fight for freedom, and that he was praying for him. It was a simple email, but I found myself consumed with emotion. This article undoubtedly changed my life. I hope to one day walk the streets of a free Damascus, and personally thank this man for his story."