Four months had passed since my only aunt, Shireen Abu Akleh, was killed by an Israeli soldier in Jenin while reporting on one of many illegal Israeli raids in the city.
Her murder has been met with neither accountability nor justice. It has been months of grief, disbelief, and emptiness for our family and her loved ones.
During the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in May 2021, Shireen was field reporting live, day and night, hopping from one city to another, covering the Unity Uprising that erupted in Palestine. I was stuck in San Francisco but glued to the TV screen, worried about my people and about Shireen’s safety.
On August 5, 2022, Israel launched yet another assault on Gaza, killing 49 Palestinians, 17 of them children. As soon as I heard the news, in a force of habit, I picked up my phone to text Shireen and ask her where she was and if she was safe. But… I couldn’t.
Watching Al Jazeera that week was not the same. I sensed Shireen’s absence more than I ever did before — an absence that was felt not just by my family, but by her colleagues, friends, and others who have been following her brave and unique coverage for the past 25 years. She truly was the voice of Palestine, the purveyor of truth and justice, who dedicated her life to exposing Israeli crimes and celebrating Palestinian life. Her voice continues to resonate and her memory remains strong, because her impact was stronger than the bullet that took her life.
The legacy she leaves behind will be forever etched into the collective memory of all Palestinians and Arabs who followed her journey throughout the years. Her voice was greatly missed over the past few weeks, since she was the face of war and peace in all major Palestinian news events throughout her career. She bravely covered the Second Intifada, military invasions into the West Bank — especially in the Jenin refugee camp — elections (national and international), wars on Gaza, major milestones in the history of Palestine, and the daily struggles and accomplishments of Palestinians. She conveyed the realities of Palestinian life, telling stories to the world in an attempt to counter disinformation campaigns led by Israeli and Western media.
I was fortunate enough to grow up bearing witness to Shireen’s iconic work. I looked up to her and was inspired by her courage and poise. Whenever I was asked what I aspired to be when I grew up, I would proudly reply: “I want to be like Shireen!”
I remember watching Shireen working on her TV assignments as she sat at the dining room table in our house. My late grandfather would make her Nescafé in her favorite white mug that had a picture of a bear fishing, and bring it to the table as she got some work done. I was always excited to watch her on live TV, but it was even more inspiring for me to sit right next to her and watch her report live over the phone from home.
I did not quite understand the nature of her work when I was young, and I was not aware of the challenges and difficulties that a journalist in Occupied Palestine faced. For me, she was simply my aunt who also happened to be a recognized journalist.
My curiosity about the world of journalism grew over the years and I would ask Shireen questions about her work and what it takes to be a reporter. She was always willing to share insights, experiences, and challenges that she faced as a field journalist. After a long day at work, she would come home and share with me the intricacies of the stories she had reported on earlier in the day.
From Shireen, I learned the importance of hard work and dedication. For any story or event she covered, she would spend hours researching, reading reports and books, and talking to experts, officials, and people impacted by the Israeli Occupation.
Two weeks before she was killed, I remember us sitting in the living room while my aunt browsed her Twitter feed when she came across a tweet from her friend, Dalia Hatuqa, who had posted about a story that Shireen was interested in covering. She told me: “I should reach out to her and get more information, this is important.” Each person’s story was important for Shireen.
Shireen was the epitome of grace, empathy, and compassion, which made her stand out not just as a journalist, but as a person. She was my idol and the role model of many young Palestinian and Arab girls, especially since she was the very definition of a successful, independent Palestinian woman. She was one of Al Jazeera’s first field correspondents, and an inspiration to many aspiring female journalists.
Many years ago, I accompanied Shireen to a workshop in Ramallah, where she was invited to give a lecture on her role as journalist. She discussed the 2006 Israeli evacuation from Gaza, which she had covered. My aunt recalled how unforgettable that moment was for her. Everyone was eager to learn from her and ask questions. To my surprise, however, one of the questions from the audience was directed at me: “What does Shireen mean to you?” I replied that I am always filled with a sense of pride when I call her my aunt.
In June, I attended an event in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, honoring Shireen’s legacy. During the event, a university student, who was among the awardees for Journalistic Excellence in Development Media, approached me and said, with tears in her eyes: “Shireen was the reason for this award, she was the reason I chose to study journalism.” I was immediately filled with mixed emotions: happiness that Shireen was an inspiration for this young woman, but also sadness that Shireen was not there to witness moments like these.
I am proud to see that my aunt was able to empower a generation of young women from all over the Arab world. They looked up to her: her bravery, composure, calmness, and, most of all, her honesty. At that moment, all I wanted to do was talk to her. And that’s what hurt the most. Shireen was not there.
Shireen enriched my life and the lives of those around her with valuable information. She was constantly looking forward to learning new things — she was always reading books about politics, economics, literature, as well as novels. I, along with her friends, always asked Shireen questions pertaining to topics on Palestine and the Arab world. Oftentimes, I would hear her and my brother discussing topics related to virtual reality and the metaverse; she was always curious and asking questions about technological developments. That’s why she decided to enroll in the Birzeit Digital Diploma Program — to keep up with new digital tools that could convey her messages to the world.
Her unconditional support and love for me and my siblings was unmatched. She was not only dedicated to her job, but to our family as well, always ready to support us in any way possible. During school days, Shireen was the one we reached out to for help in our Arabic classes, as she was exceptionally proficient. A few years ago, she encouraged me to start messaging her in Arabic and to read Arabic books. I remember that, whenever my siblings and I would be sitting with Shireen, we would compete on who has better Arabic skills. She would say: “Habibti, Lanoosheh, her Arabic has improved! You all should text me in Arabic!” Whenever we needed help in drafting a letter or a speech in Arabic, Shireen would be our reference. When I was in Rabat, I had to give a speech in Arabic, it was at that moment that I realized that Shireen is no longer here to help me. These things remind me of how insurmountable her loss is.
Shireen’s work and achievements were the reason why I chose to pursue my bachelor’s in political studies and media communications. After graduating, she encouraged me to apply for graduate school. For my master’s thesis, I was inspired by one of her reports on the issue of water in the city of Bardala in the Jordan Valley. I recall her telling me how important this topic is and that I should consider writing about it. I did, and she guided me through the entire process. It was from her that I learned the skill of interviewing. Regardless of how busy she was with her work, she was constantly following up with me and always interested in learning more about my research.
The relationships she had forged throughout her career with the Palestinian people were evident when I was conducting my field work. The moment people found out that Shireen was my aunt, they would begin praising her work, spend hours talking about her, and tell me how lucky I am to have her as an aunt. Shireen’s reputation preceded her.
Shireen wasn’t only my mentor: she was also my best friend and a second mother. I worried about her safety, but never did I imagine that I would lose her in this cruel way. Shireen was my confidante and the one I enjoyed traveling with the most. She would always provide me with realistic solutions to any problems I was facing. Her friends used to call her the “diplomatic friend.” Good news or bad, Shireen would always be the first one I’d share it with.
The most important lesson I learned from Shireen was to enjoy life. She would always tell me: “You are still young, don’t worry about anything. If you need something you can always count on me.” The moment that I needed her the most was the day she was killed. I needed her comfort and sound advice on how to handle this loss. I have yet to process this tragedy that has changed our lives forever.