Former SPJ student officer reporting in Iraq launches Kickstarter campaign to purchase protective gear

Sheren Khalel celebrates her 25th birthday in Erbil, Iraq.

Sheren Khalel celebrates her 25th birthday in Erbil, Iraq. (Photos by Sheren Khalel)

By Carlos Restreppo
St. Louis Pro Chapter board member

Tuesday was Sheren Khalel’s 25th birthday, but this Webster University graduate is not asking for gifts or a cake.

Khalel, a former officer of her SPJ student chapter in St. Louis, is asking her friends and family for support to help her stay alive, or at least unharmed, as she covers the ongoing conflict involving ISIS militants in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.

“ISIS forces are close to our border, about 25 miles away,” Khalel said in an interview with STLSPJ. “It’s really tense right now. In the city center, there are police and Peshmerga (Kurdish army) out on every corner. There are trucks with guns situated on them and police cars are everywhere right now trying to assure people that the city is safe.”

But not safe enough.

Khalel, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in global journalism, is working with two other colleagues as they freelance their way through the Middle East. The group recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $3,000 for the purchase of protective equipment such as bulletproof vests and helmets.

The campaign, Keep Us Alive Covering Conflict in the Middle East, sheds a light on the dangers freelance war correspondents face when they “go at it alone.”

“With the ever changing political landscape of Iraq at the moment, we realize how important it is to have up to date equipment, particularly tools that could save our lives,” Khalel wrote on the Kickstarter page. “As we are young, struggling freelancers, we look to you, our friends and family, to give us a boost.”

‘We are responsible for ourselves’

Scottish photojournalist Matthew Vickery, who is part of Khalel’s freelancing entourage, said volatile areas are often the places with the most important human stories, but the stories remain largely untold due to the dangers involved in covering them.

“If there’s any point to being in a conflict zone at all we should be striving to find people and stories who are in such a position, but in order to do that you have to be smart and do everything in your power to keep yourself safe while on the ground,” Vickery said. “As freelancers, that is much more difficult because we don’t have the support of a big company to help keep us safe. We are responsible for ourselves.”

According to New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 2014 has already seen three reporters murdered in Iraq, one of the most violent countries in the world to practice journalism.

“With not a single conviction in the 100 journalist murders of the past decade, Iraq remains the worst country in the world for impunity,” the CPJ says.

One of the murdered reporters was a freelance journalist killed the same day as Khalel’s birthday, in the same Kurdish city where Khalil is currently working, the CPJ reported.

That is not deterring Khalil, who was raised in St. Louis.

“When it comes down to it, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Khalel, whose stories have appeared in the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor, and Vice News, among others. “There are a lot of careers I could have picked that have the potential to make an impact in the world and don’t come with a need for a bulletproof vest. For all the risks I may take in my career, it’s completely worth it knowing that I could be telling a story that would otherwise go untold.”

From left, freelance journalists Sheren Khalel, Matthew Vickery and Abed al-Qaisi fly over Syria on their way to Iraq.

Looming deadline

Khalel and her two colleagues have until Sept. 2 to to meet their funding goal. As of Tuesday, Aug. 11, the campaign has raised $1,786. If their goal is not met, all the money will be returned to the contributors.

Khalel said she hopes those who support independent journalists around the world will fund their effort.

“Freelancers are increasingly being utilized to cover conflict zones, but without the support and protection from the companies that are so willing to take their reports,” Khalel said. “As young freelancers, we don’t yet make enough disposable income to completely cover the costs of necessary protective gear, but everyone has to start somewhere.”

Carlos Restrepo is public relations chairman of the St. Louis Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is a 2012 graduate of Webster University’s journalism program and a communications specialist for two homeless shelters.


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