Wallenberg medalist says her subjects are the courageous ones


While working as a journalist and filmmaker in Yemen, Safa Al Ahmad met a woman whose sons were playing outside when a missile struck.   

Afterward, the woman went out to look for her children – and found only an earlobe. She wrapped it in a napkin and put it in her pocket.

That harrowing story is one of many Al Ahmad has risked her life to tell while reporting on the war in Yemen. In recognition of her work, the University of Michigan awarded Al Ahmad the 2019 Wallenberg Medal.

Photo of Safa Al Ahmad
Filmmaker and journalist Safa Al Ahmad delivered the 2019 Wallenberg Lecture on Tuesday at Rackham Auditorium. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

During the award ceremony Nov. 19 in Rackham Auditorium, President Mark Schlissel thanked Al Ahmad for her bravery and determination. 

“You truly epitomize the ideal of making a difference with your own life,” he said.

The Wallenberg Medal and Lecture program honors the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg, a U-M graduate credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews during World War II.

The university awards the medal annually to people who demonstrate the capacity of the human spirit to stand up for the helpless, defend the integrity of the powerless and speak up on behalf of the voiceless.

Al Ahmad, who is from Saudi Arabia, has produced documentaries for the BBC and PBS about the uprisings in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

She has reported on Yemen since 2010. The conflict there involving Houthi rebels, militant groups, and the Yemeni government and its Saudi allies has devastated the country. 

“In making these films, I think to me, the true acts of courage are those who decide to entrust their stories to me,” Al Ahmad said. “They decide to share, relive, what are some of the worst moments of their lives … and this weighs heavily on me.

“I rarely walk away from making a film and feel like I’ve done it justice. Their stories haunt me.”

Al Ahmad often paused as she spoke, choking up when describing how the conflict has affected the people of Yemen. She recounted an experience in which a local woman intervened — and likely saved her life — when two teenage boys with AK-47s stopped a vehicle in which they were traveling.

Watch a video of the Wallenberg Medal ceremony and lecture.

Schlissel said Al Ahmad puts herself in harm’s way in pursuit of the truth.

“There are car rides in the dead of night to areas controlled by protesters, trips on foot across mountain passes and visits to families in areas of cities decimated by mortar fire, (which) all serve to expose what is happening in a place where the government would prefer that you don’t see what’s going on,” he said.

Wallenberg graduated from U-M’s College of Architecture in 1935. A Swedish diplomat, he saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II by issuing documents that placed Jewish people in Budapest under Sweden’s diplomatic protection. He also established a network of safehouses.

Al Ahmad said she is happy awards such as the Wallenberg Medal put a spotlight on the situation in Yemen, but also frustrated that her work has not been able to bring an end to the conflict. 

She said she suffers from “imposter syndrome” when reflecting on the previous medal recipients.

“This legacy is daunting,” she said, “and I truly don’t feel like I deserve it.”


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