ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN – Safa Al Ahmad, a Saudi Arabian journalist and documentary filmmaker, received the 2019 Wallenberg Medal from the University of Michigan. She has produced documentaries for the BBC and PBS about uprisings in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Her 2014 BBC documentary, Saudi’s Secret Uprising, brought attention to government suppression of unreported popular demonstrations in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. At great personal risk, she has been one of the few journalists to report from the ground on the crisis and conflict between Houthi rebels, militant groups, and the Yemeni government and its Saudi allies. Her documentaries for PBS’s Frontline, including “The Fight for Yemen” (2015), “Yemen Under Siege” (2016), and “Targeting Yemen” (2019), reveal the human cost and the underlying contending interests that are engaged in a deadly and complex regional conflict. As an Arab woman, she has won precious access to communities and human beings suffering in this war. Her courageous reporting has provided essential and intimate perspectives that challenge assumptions that often shape conventional journalistic narratives.
The medal was awarded on November 19 at 7:30 p.m. in the Rackham Auditorium on the U-M campus, where Al Ahmad gave the Wallenberg Lecture.
The Wallenberg Medal and Lecture program honors the legacy of U-M graduate Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II.
“Safa Al Ahmad shows how journalism can give a voice to persons who are voiceless and give witness to events that escape the world’s notice,” said John Godfrey, chair of the Wallenberg Committee. “She embodies the courage and commitment to human rights and human dignity that the Wallenberg Medal recognizes.”
The Wallenberg Medal and Lecture program honors Raoul Wallenberg who graduated from U-M’s College of Architecture in 1935. In 1944, at the request of Jewish organizations and the American War Refugee Board, the Swedish Foreign Ministry sent Wallenberg on a rescue mission to Budapest. Over the course of six months, Wallenberg issued thousands of protective passports and placed many thousands of Jews in safe houses throughout the besieged city. He confronted Hungarian and German forces to secure the release of Jews, whom he claimed were under Swedish protection, and saved more than 80,000 lives.
U-M awards the Wallenberg Medal annually to those who, through actions and personal commitment, perpetuate Wallenberg’s own extraordinary accomplishments and human values, and demonstrate the capacity of the human spirit to stand up for the helpless, to defend the integrity of the powerless, and to speak out on behalf of the voiceless. Safa Al Ahmad, through her courageous and outspoken work as a journalist and documentarian, demonstrates that one person, individually or collectively, can make a difference in the struggle for a better world.
Last year was historic in that the Wallenberg Medal was awarded to two youth-led organizations committed to ending gun violence, March For Our Lives of Parkland, Florida and The B.RA.V.E. Youth Leaders of Chicago. Recent recipients of the Wallenberg Medal include Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative; Masha Gessen, Russian-American author and activist; and Maria Gunnoe, environmentalist and social justice activist from rural West Virginia. A complete list of the twenty-six past recipients, along with video or transcripts of their lectures, can be found at the Wallenberg website (wallenberg.umich.edu).
The November 19 medal presentation and lecture is open to the public at no charge and will not be ticketed.