Queen Mary Alumni

Alumni profile - Shamim Ara Chowdhury

For the past four and a half years I’ve been living in Istanbul and working as a foreign correspondent for the Turkish English-language news channel, TRT World. During this time I have reported from all over Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Some of the stories I’ve covered include the 2017 Rohingya refugee crisis from inside the camps in southern Bangladesh; the Syrian war, both from inside Syria and from the Turkish border; the fight against ISIS in Iraq; the rise of communal violence in Sri Lanka; Donald Trump’s first tour of Asia; the French yellow-vest protests, (when I got tear-gassed on the Champs Elysees!); The 2019 Spanish elections; the siege of Marawi by ISIS in the Philippines and much, much more.

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What did you study at Queen Mary? I studied Chemistry with Business Studies at Queen Mary College (QMC), as it was known in those days, from 1988 to 1991. During my time, QMC merged with Westfield College to become Queen Mary and Westfield, University of London. It’s hard to believe I was there more than a quarter of a century ago! I was reminded of exactly how long it’s been some years back, after I had become a journalist. I was filming near the campus when I decided to pop into the Students’ Union shop. I got chatting to the girl behind the counter. When she discovered when I had started QMC, she replied: “That was the year I was born.” I’m surprised I didn’t burst into tears there and then!

Why did you choose to study chemistry at Queen Mary? What sparked your interest in the subject? I hate to reinforce stereotypes, but I took up the sciences for my A levels because my late father placed a lot of importance on them. But as it turned out, my chemistry grade was pretty decent and I discovered I quite enjoyed the subject. I’d half-heartedly applied for some biological sciences courses at various universities across the country but decided I didn’t want to study them after all, and, at the last-minute, Queen Mary offered me a place. I was hugely relieved because it had a reasonably good reputation, so I accepted the offer.

Although I was fairly competent at chemistry, I knew very early on into my degree that I didn’t want to continue with it once I’d finished studying. It’s not that I didn’t respect the subject; on the contrary, I had - and still have - huge admiration for the field of chemistry and all those involved in it. It was simply a case of coming to the realisation that my personality and natural abilities were far more suited to something that involved people, politics and the arts. However, I was also aware of how highly regarded science degrees were and I really wanted a decent degree in a solid subject under my belt which I could later use as a platform for other things. Besides, I’d made friends and was having fun, so I limped through the first two years. Thankfully, by my final year I found myself becoming interested in some of the modules I’d chosen. I eventually graduated with a reasonably respectable, though not brilliant, degree.

Can you describe the path since graduating from Queen Mary that has led to your current role as a journalist? I became a journalist seven years after graduating. I drifted somewhat for the first two years, slipping in and out of temporary jobs, starting an IT course and half-heartedly applying for one or two ‘professional’ jobs. Then, in early 1993, encouraged by my father, I went to New York City to work as an intern for the UNA-USA, a non-governmental organisation affiliated with the United Nations that specialised in the field of diplomacy and international relations. For the next six months I immersed myself in the world of global geo-politics and met a whole host of influencers including former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and many others. I even ended up contributing to a book published by UNA-USA. By the time my internship was over I was hooked on international news and knew I’d discovered my vocation in life.

But it would be another five more years before I could even start to realise my dreams. I returned to the UK and started a job with the Immigration Service, or the UK Border Control Agency, as it is now known, stamping passports at Heathrow Airport, simply because it was the only job I could get. Still, it paid well and enabled me to continue my studies. During that time I took an A level in English literature by attending evening classes. I completed it in one academic year and was heartened to receive a grade A. I then went on to complete a part-time Masters degree in a political science-related subject, which I hoped would help in my chosen career. I also worked at my local newspaper on my days off, putting together their arts and entertainments pages and building up a portfolio. Eventually, I applied to City University for a place on its coveted newspaper journalism course and was delighted to get accepted. I finally quit my job and went back to full-time study for a year, after which I was lucky enough to get taken on by The Daily Express as a trainee reporter.

Your work has taken you all over the world, covering everything from wars, refugee crises and elections. Can you expand on some of the issues you have covered and reported on? Over the course of the past twenty years or so I have covered every kind of story imaginable. During my two years at The Daily Express I wrote for most sections of the paper, including the politics pages, personal finance, the foreign news section, the travel pages and even business. I then moved to local television, where I trained in all aspects of news production. After that I freelanced for a few years before joining Sky News as a deputy foreign news editor. It was here that I truly fell in love with foreign news. I received a good, solid grounding on how 24-hour television news works, and three years later moved to Al Jazeera English, where I stayed for nearly eight years, working out of its London offices. I was mainly office-based, but I did help cover some major stories as a field producer, such as the 2014 Ukraine crisis, the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory complex in Bangladesh and the 2014 Bangladesh elections. I also started on-camera reporting while at Al Jazeera.

For the past four and a half years I’ve been living in Istanbul and working as a foreign correspondent for the Turkish English-language news channel, TRT World. During this time I have reported from all over Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Some of the stories I’ve covered include the 2017 Rohingya refugee crisis from inside the camps in southern Bangladesh; the Syrian war, both from inside Syria and from the Turkish border; the fight against ISIS in Iraq; the rise of communal violence in Sri Lanka; Donald Trump’s first tour of Asia; the French yellow-vest protests, (when I got tear-gassed on the Champs Elysees!); The 2019 Spanish elections; the siege of Marawi by ISIS in the Philippines and much, much more. I have also interviewed many high-profile personalities including the Pakistani Foreign Minister, the Gambian Justice Minster, the Turkish Prime Minister, the International Affairs adviser to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, the son of radical preacher, Abu Hamza and many others.

Out of all of the above moments, what story did you feel like you were really in your element reporting on? Or that it was your duty to report on and spread awareness of? It is impossible to find the words to describe the psychological impact the Rohingya refugee crisis has had on me. From August 2017, more than 730,000 mainly Muslim Rohingya fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state to southern Bangladesh, escaping a massive crackdown by Myanmar’s military. I travelled to the camps several times to cover the story and listened to many of the refugees tell me how they were raped and tortured, their family members murdered and their houses burnt down. The story was covered extensively by the world’s media, but for me it became so much more than just another assignment. Because of my own ancestral background, I felt a profound sense of familiarity with these people and their suffering left a very deep and painful impression. But it was more than that. I saw for myself hundreds of people from the very old, to very young entering Bangladesh barefoot after having walked for days, if not weeks, starving and wretched. I saw men with multiple bullet wounds. I saw children crying incessantly for mothers who had been killed. It is impossible to ever forget that level of suffering when you’ve seen it with your own eyes and I definitely think that reinforced in me a determination to keep reporting the plight of the Rohingya. But the story isn’t over. The Rohingya are still inside the camps and a legal process has recently begun, with Myanmar’s army standing accused of genocide. My intention is to keep spreading awareness about their suffering for as long as I have to.

The other story I covered that is very close to my heart is Bangladesh’s recent economic boom. I am not a business reporter, but I pitched a week-long series on this topic for my channel’s flagship business programme, Money Talks, because I was aware of how Bangladesh had transformed its economy in recent years but how hardly a single media outlet had picked up on it! I felt it was my duty to bring this story to light, not least because I wanted to dispel widely-held beliefs that Bangladesh was a poor, disaster-prone country with little going for it. I came up with the concept myself, set up all the elements and interviews and travelled to Bangladesh to do the filming. We ended up broadcasting five extended reports and a half-hour documentary, which was widely received all over the world. To this day, it is one of the projects I’m most proud of.   

Have there been moments where you have been in danger travelling to war torn countries for example? When you’re reporting from inside a war-torn country, you are constantly at risk. Most of my deployments inside Syria have been with the Turkish army, when we’ve gone into cleared areas, so the risks haven’t been too high, but there have been times when we’ve entered the country using local escorts as guides. These men are trusted figures and we check their credentials thoroughly beforehand, but things can always happen that are not in their control. For instance, there’s the risk of stepping on an unexploded landmine or coming face to face with armed men who do not belong to any accepted opposition group. It’s impossible to eliminate all risks, even in areas where there’s no fighting. And it’s not just in Syria. When I reported from the Philippines city of Marawi, which had been overrun by ISIS in 2017, I was about to do a live broadcast when I was told there was a sniper just a few houses from where I was standing. That’s not to mention the low-flying fighter jets circling directly above us. More recently, I was covering a Turkish military operation from the country’s southern border as Kurdish fighters from inside Syria relentlessly fired mortars into the town where I was based. Some landed just streets away from where I was standing. Around a dozen people were killed by the attacks over the course of just a few days.

It may sound a bit strange, but a lot of the time, during moments of potential danger, as a reporter you find yourself remaining completely focused on your work! Of course, your survival instincts become more heightened and, if need be, you act swiftly and decisively to protect yourself and your colleagues, but you don’t really switch off from the job. I remember during the instances I’ve described being completely prepared for my next live broadcast or knowing exactly what I wanted to film. Naturally there is fear, but somehow I’m able to put that aside and keep my mind on my job. I think the key is to recognise that there’s a usually a tipping point when the risk of danger outweighs professional duty, and that’s when you stop what you’re doing immediately, but, thankfully, so far I haven’t been in a situation where things have got that bad.

My company always takes all the necessary measures to ensure the safety of its staff. Anyone who goes into a war zone can only do so once they’ve completed a special health and safety course known as HEFAT, where we’re taught advanced first aid and what to do in specific, potentially dangerous scenarios. Anyone who hasn’t completed the course won’t be sent to areas of conflict. But no organisation can ever guarantee one hundred per cent safety in these circumstances. Due to the very nature of the story, it’s just not possible. War reporting is a vital part of what we do. When ordinary people caught in conflicts are experiencing unspeakable suffering, when they are being bombed and are witnessing their family members die, the responsibility on us journalists to reveal their plight to the outside world becomes of utmost importance, but there’s no way we can do that without taking some risks.

You have worked in various capacities for Sky News, the BBC and ITV News and you have written for The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Huffington Post. How does it feel to have your voice and views disseminated across all of these well-known media channels who reach wide and diverse audiences? Al Jazeera English and TRT World are aimed at an international audience, and research shows that people from all over the world watch both channels. Previously, I had worked for organisations that were aimed mainly, though not exclusively, at UK audiences, so in a sense as my career has progressed my audience base has expanded. As for my op-eds for The Independent and the Huffington Post, I wrote those while working full-time for Sky News and Al Jazeera. They were something I did on the side because feature-length writing is my first love and if I don’t do it for a while I start to miss it. The kind of readers op-eds attract very much depends on their subject matter and the style in which they are written. In my case, I think it’s safe to say there’s an overlap between those who watch my reports and those who read my articles. It is, of course, great to reach a wide and diverse audience. That is, after all, our aim, but I think the important thing to remember as a journalist is that you are there to provide a service. Whatever you produce is not about you; it’s about your reader or your viewers. If there is enough public interest in your work, it will reach a wide audience.  

What do you find most rewarding and exciting about your job? I love the fact that no two days are ever the same. On any given day, I can walk into the office in the morning and be flying out to Jerusalem or Spain or Iraq the next day - or even that very afternoon! The thrill of what the next assignment might be is what gets me out bed every morning. I’ve never been attracted to the idea of a 9 to 5 job; one where I’m office-bound and confined to routine, so working as a roving reporter suits me down to the ground. I also love the fact that my job requires me to travel to places I would most likely never have otherwise visited. I’ve stayed with cattle-herders in deepest Mongolia; witnessed the dead-pan expressions of North Korean soldiers at the DMZ, the demilitarised ‘no-mans-land’ between North and South Korea; I’ve taken ten-hour drives across remote parts of Mindanao Island in the Southern Philippines in order to interview the leader of South East Asia’s largest rebel group; I’ve even been to parts of Turkey that few foreigners have ever heard of. Then there’s the creative side of what I do. I love every stage of the production process, from filming to scripting and finally editing. It’s so rewarding to see an idea materialise into something tangible. What we journalists essentially do is tell stories and I just love the entire process of story-telling. But without doubt the best part of my job is opportunity to meet and talk to people from every walk of life. I have interviewed every kind of person imaginable, including Rohingya refugees who have escaped rape and torture in Myanmar; internally displaced Syrians trying to survive in freezing cold camps; Peshmerga fighters in Northern Iraq who helped defeat ISIS; activists and aid workers who have devoted their lives to ease the suffering of others; Korean war veterans; far-right politicians; senior cabinet ministers; artists, dancers and many others. My job gives me license to delve into the lives of these people in a way that few other jobs do, and this is the most fascinating and humbling aspect of what I do.

You are also a judge for the Asian Media Awards, what does this role involve? What makes someone worthy in your eyes of receiving an award? I’ve been judging the ‘Journalist of the Year’ and ‘Best Investigation’ categories of the Asian Media Awards for seven years now and it’s something I enjoy immensely. Each year, as the two other judges and I wade through reams of material submitted by the five or six finalists, I’m constantly amazed by the incredible contribution Britain’s South Asian community has made to the media industry. It makes me feel very proud when I’m reminded of how successful these talented young people are. What we judges look for are strong stories, consistent quality, great writing, good production and editing and, above all else, originality. It’s always hard to decide on a winner because most of the finalists are outstanding, but it’s also really rewarding knowing I’ve played a part in giving the winner the recognition he or she deserves. And once the judging process is over we get to attend the glamorous awards ceremony itself, which is always great fun!

What was special about your time at Queen Mary? Can you give examples of your most memorable moments? Even though it was a long time ago, I still have many fond memories of my days at Queen Mary. Some moments, however, stand out more than others. I remember on one occasion I attended the Pakistan Society committee elections. The process was quite disorganised, and in my view, not very democratic, so I decided to write an anonymous article about it for the student magazine. I remember how it caused quite an uproar and how my identity was eventually discovered! It earned me a notoriety that lasted quite some time! I also remember attending several ‘International Evenings’ which took place in the Great Hall. These were essentially cultural evenings put on by students from a number of different countries and backgrounds and were always very enjoyable. Generally, I remember Queen Mary being a very liberal, inclusive, chilled-out place. The students there were politically aware, and even active, but Queen Mary didn’t have a radical feel about it in the same way that some of the other London colleges did. They seemed more focused on studying and having a good time.  

How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? I would not have even got my first job without a degree, so in that sense attending Queen Mary paved the way for my entire working life. But my subject itself played a direct role in my journalism career. When I was accepted into City University, as a science graduate, I was eligible to apply for a Wellcome Trust Bursary. To qualify, I was asked to write a 500-word news article using a post-doctorate thesis as my primary source. I was deliberately given a subject I didn’t study – neuroscience – but I somehow managed to make sense of it and submitted my article. Only a handful of bursaries where given out, even though there were many applicants, and I was lucky enough to receive one of them. The money paid for my fees and most of my living costs. Since then I’ve actually come across quite a few news journalists with science backgrounds. I’ve found that the skills I gained through studying the sciences have come in very useful in my journalism. Studying chemistry trained me to be analytical and logical in my thinking and to pay very close attention to detail. These transferable skills continue to help me in my working life.

Do you have a favourite spot on campus? If so, where is it and why? I remember spending a lot of time (way too much time, in fact!) in the lower refectory in the main building, sitting around and chatting with friends. These were the days before smart phones or the internet, so you had to be quite resourceful if you wanted to maintain regular contact with friends, but we knew that, on any given day, if we hung around the ‘lower ref’ long enough, everyone we knew would at some point pass through. I also loved the Octagon and hung out there quite a lot. It’s such a stunning, light, airy room and always had a calming effect on me. I also liked the lawn in front of the main building, especially when the weather warmed up and the students lounged around enjoying the sun. I’m originally from London, so I pass the campus from time to time. Many parts of it are now beyond recognition. The chemistry building and some other faculties have been pulled down, and in their place new buildings have sprung up. But thankfully Queen Mary still has a sense of familiarity about it that brings the memories flooding back every time.

What do you think is unique about Queen Mary compared to other universities? What I loved most about Queen Mary was its diversity. In my time, it attracted British students from all backgrounds, as well as many overseas students. This mix of people was what made it such an interesting place to study, added to that fact that although it had high academic standards – it is, after all, in the Russell Group of Universities– it was not at all elitist. I also loved the area. London’s East End is so historic and multicultural with a large Bangladeshi population. My parents emigrated to the UK from Bangladesh, so I was drawn to that sense of familiarity. I remember there were some great food places in the area, in particular Lahore kebab House just off Commercial Road. My friends and I used to eat there all the time. After all these years it’s still there and as popular as ever! The area around Queen Mary had a raw, edgy vibe to it back then. It’s a lot more developed and trendy now, but much of its original character is still there, which is great.  

What advice would you give to current students and Queen Mary graduates? I would say that although it’s important to study hard, your future need not be defined by your subject. A good degree will serve you well whatever you decide to do later in life. The world has changed beyond recognition since I was an undergraduate and young people are facing challenges that were unknown to us, such as Brexit, climate change, soaring house prices and much more. I do worry about what the future holds for them, but at the same time I know that so many young people are actively trying to make the world a better place, and that gives me a lot of hope. Still, it’s hard to give any specific advice to Queen Mary students, other than work hard and play hard. Your university days will be over before you know it, so just make sure you make the most of every single day.