In 2019, Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow Arianne Henry spent 14 days on the ground in Ethiopia reporting on women who had returned home after years living as domestic workers in the Middle East. They had left their country and their families in search of better opportunities, but many suffered abuse and trafficking while abroad. Often, these women struggled with their mental health, as well as the associated stigma.
Henry’s reporting focused on the story of Zebiba al-Hussein, a mother of three who had returned to Ethiopia after working in Yemen and Saudi Arabia for two years. Recalling her years-old traumatic experiences—trafficking, physical and verbal abuse, starvation, thoughts of suicide—was still a challenge nearly a decade later.
“Arianne is an excellent reporter—and writer. She’s thorough, caring, and detail-oriented. She also has a lot of gumption and stick-to-itiveness,” said Kem Knapp Sawyer, director of the Pulitzer Center’s reporting fellowship program.
Pulitzer Center Outreach and Communications Intern Naomi Andu spoke to Henry about her project, The Invisible Women of Ethiopia, reporting on trauma survivors sensitively, and press freedom in Ethiopia.
The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Naomi Andu: In your first story, “Ethiopian Domestic Workers: Longing for Home,” you wrote that you learned about the hundreds of thousands of women “compelled by poverty and climate change to find domestic work in the Gulf'' while you were studying for a master’s in public health at Boston University. As someone who didn’t have a journalism background, what made you decide to take on the challenge of reporting on the crisis yourself?
Arianne Henry: I was taking a global mental health class with my academic adviser, Jen Beard, and she invited a guest speaker, Dr. Christina Borba. She is essentially the head of global psychiatric research at Boston Medical Center and does a lot of work in Ethiopia. She originally came to our class to talk to us about schizophrenia in Ethiopia and the research at that time. The conversation evolved to talking about mental health treatment in general, and she shared with us that there were reports of a lot of women returning from the Middle East to the Addis Ababa airport who were in different states of distress, and that the Ethiopian government at that time had asked [researchers] to assist and look into what was happening for these women. We had to write a reflection at the end of class whenever we would have a guest speaker. I remembered I had titled it “The Disappearing Women of Ethiopia,” and I was very taken by hearing what was happening to them. I think I even wrote in the reflection that hearing Dr. Borba's story was life changing for me, and that that was the kind of work I wanted to pursue.
The main driver for me is that I myself am a trauma survivor, as I know so many people are in this world, and a lot of times I'm drawn to hearing about others who have experienced trauma. I thought these women who are coming back to Ethiopia are dealing with stigma and not very accessible mental health care. That's really what was motivating me to do this trip, and to talk about Zebiba.
NA: While reporting for this project, you were an outsider in an unfamiliar country where you didn’t speak the language, and you were covering a vulnerable community—Ethiopian migrant survivors of trafficking and abuse—and asking women who had experienced trauma to share their stories with you. How did you make sure you were reporting the story sensitively and not causing more harm?
AH: Prior to even traveling there, I had spoken with everyone I could think of who had either worked directly with these women or had some connection to what was happening [to them], between Dr. Christina Borba and all of the work that she had undertaken and a lot of her colleagues she had referred to me, some working at Addis Ababa University. It was just this constantly evolving group of people who were so passionate working on this.
It was also really important for me to make sure that people who live every day in Ethiopia were really front and center and working with me and helping on this project. [Local journalist] Hadra Ahmed had connected me with Hirut [D. Gebretsadik, an Ethiopian media professional]. Hirut has done so much work in this area, you know, empowering women. She was really also just plugged in and connected to Setaweet, which is a grassroots feminist movement. She worked closely with me, as not just as an interpreter or translator during these interviews, but really giving that insight of really what was happening for women in Ethiopia, these women that were being trafficked. And also, she had great compassion for the women too, so that was important to me when we were speaking with them: someone who was going to be very sensitive and kind because these were really, really hard stories for them to share.
NA: What was the level of press freedom like in Ethiopia? Did you run into any problems while reporting?
AH: It is exceptionally difficult even dangerous for Ethiopian journalists. Many had been detained and prevented from reporting different stories. I went during this tiny window of time when [Ethiopia] seemed to be opening things back up. People were surprised even that I did get my journalism visa. When I went, there was definitely fear among a lot of the people that we would talk to, and there was a lot of bureaucracy. I had to keep asking if the Pulitzer Center could send additional emails with the Pulitzer Center stamp, and these letters had to go to all different people for me to have permission to report the story. Every organization we went to, every person we spoke with, they would want to see that we had these letters of approval from the Ethiopian government. I have been in touch with people hearing that journalists are again being detained.
I was also asked to report to one of the ministries while I was there. I actually got very nervous at that point. They wanted to speak with me, but I had talked with others who said that, you know, if we went, they would most likely take my phone or computer. Given the nature of the project and wanting to protect the different individuals we were talking with, we decided not to go to that particular office at that time.
NA: In 2020, before your stories were published, the pandemic and the conflict that erupted in the Tigray region of Ethiopia both hit the country hard. How did you approach updating your stories to account for that?
AH: I had been in touch with Hirut [through the conflict] and was worried and, you know, saying, “I'm praying for your family members,” and she was keeping me updated. I was also put in touch with [Mihret Hiruy, the psychologist in the story] because she was also working with the quarantine centers and COVID. So I was just asking if she could tell me how things had changed because these women were coming back already traumatized, the ones who had been trafficked and deported from Saudi Arabia. She was just talking about the unbelievable difficulties of them then being in these quarantine centers. You know, some were confused and wondering why they couldn't see their families or return back home. Many of them had been imprisoned, and then going to these quarantine centers compounded the trauma.
NA: What was the biggest challenge you faced in reporting and writing this story?
AH: I honestly was just so afraid to not get it right, to cause any harm whatsoever. These women were so brave and willing to share their story. I really struggled with, you know, there were so many differences between myself and the team, and then even Hirut, she had grown up in Addis Ababa, which is the capital city, very urban, and then Zebiba who had grown up in this rural area. So there were just so many differences and translating this empathy across all those differences, that I was just worried. I was worried to mess it up or cause harm. And then also, there was this huge concern for and drive to just be like “I want something good to come of this.” Good for Zebiba and good for the other women. So I was really pushing hard to get it published and get it out there.
It was incredibly, incredibly challenging in so many ways. Kem was amazing every step of the way, all the support she provided. Every obstacle, every hurdle that came up, I kept thinking, “Oh gosh, this is it, the project isn't going to move forward.” And she was always right there, as well as Jina [Moore, a Pulitzer Center grantee and Henry’s mentor during the project]. I mean, really everyone was incredible. It was a huge team effort in so many ways.