July 9, 2020

Event Coverage Highlight

OPC Hosts Discussion About Bob Considine Award Winning Stories


by Chad Bouchard

When the Islamic State collapsed last year, it left in its wake a massive and thorny refugee crisis, with thousands of family members and children of the former caliphate displaced, living in refugee camps, and their former home countries wary of repatriating members of the terror group.

A series of Wall Street Journal articles last year followed the story of Patricio Galvez, a Chilean immigrant living in Sweden, as he travels to Northeast Syria from Iraq following the death of his daughter, Amanda González, a Swedish convert to Islam, who died in Syria in the waning days of ISIS, leaving behind seven children.

That series, “Children of No Nation,” won this year’s Bob Considine Award for best newspaper, news service or digital interpretation of international affairs from the OPC. On June 3, the OPC hosted a discussion via Zoom with the journalists who worked on the series, including reporter Isabel Coles and photojournalist Rena Effendi. Peter Spiegel, US managing editor of the Financial Times and the head judge for the Bob Considine Award, moderated.

Effendi won the OPC’s Best Feature Photography Award for her work on the story in Syria. She will speak on a panel that will cover all three OPC photography awards on June 10.

Spiegel said the series stood out among other submissions about Syria because of the way it depicted the crisis and the plight of one family, finding “someone to tell the story through.”

González had married a Norwegian convert to Islam who was born and raised in Sweden, and the two moved to Syria to join ISIS in 2014. They had seven children together. González and her husband were killed in Syria in January 2019, leaving Patricio’s seven grandchildren in the aftermath of the collapse of ISIS.

“Not only did Isabel find him and connect with him, but then got to go to Syria with him, found the grandchildren, and then [Galvez] brought them back to Sweden,” Spiegel said. “Just an incredibly moving work of journalism that brought the story home to readers in ways that other stories about Syria, and even stories about this issue, really didn’t.”

Coles said she first heard about the search for Galvez’s grandchildren via a message from someone on Twitter involved in his search. She had been reporting on ISIS since 2014, most recently on children displaced by military operations and the group’s collapse. Coles and Effendi met up with Galvez in Erbil, and embarked from there to Syria.

Effendi said when her editor emailed to describe the assignment to her, “I read that a grandfather was going to rescue his seven orphaned children from Syria, and my heart sank. I felt like this is one of the most important stories that I’ll ever get a chance to work on.”

They tracked the children down to the al-Hol refugee camp in northeast Syria, where they were kept along with thousands of others from the fallen caliphate.

The group faced several logistical challenges getting to the camp, including the complicated and fickle bureaucracy of the autonomous government in that region, and seasonal floods that barred them from crossing a key river.

“Patricio was getting increasingly frustrated and desperate because he was so close, and yet so far,” Coles said. “Eventually we made it across, and then these access challenges began.”

They eventually cleared administrative hurdles, and found one of the grandchildren in a hospital serving the camp. Effendi photographed the emotionally charged moment when Galvez first found his one-year-old grandson, Mohammed, who he had never met.

“He identified him by his whiff of blond hair, [using a cellphone] picture, and he picks him up,” she said. “And it became very difficult for me to photograph because everyone became very emotional. Patricio began to cry and speak to Mohammed in Swedish, he was cradling the baby, and it was really such an emotional moment – I was crying, the nurses were crying, everyone around – it was very intense.”

The series of three stories follows Patricio back to Sweden in December 2019, where the seven children are separated from him and from each other, in part to protect them from intense media coverage because the family’s case was already very well known and covered in Swedish tabloids.

In that context, the story explores some of the larger issues linked to repatriation of ISIS fighters and families to Europe and other parts of the world.

The final story describes Patricio being in a state of ambivalence about the outcome, and wondering if the children might be angry with him for causing the disruption.

Coles said she spoke with Galvez in late April for an update. The children had been staying in an institution, but recently placed with foster families.

“There have been moments that have been very difficult for him dealing with the consequences and dealing with social services,” Coles said. “But I think increasingly he’s been kind of reconciling himself to the situation.”