Sheherazad Jaafari’s ambition knows no limits. The 22-year-old daughter of the Syrian envoy to the U.N. served as a media adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the height of an uprising that claimed the lives of 19,000 people since it erupted 17 months ago. But her work for the Syrian regime has put a heavy strain on her young life.
Based on a large number of new leaked emails obtained via one of its sources, Al Arabiya English is publishing a series detailing how recent events changed Jaafari’s life from the glamorous Ambassador’s daughter to a close aide to President Assad at tumultuous times, helping him use the Western media to burnish the damaged image of his regime. The trove of emails contains over two years-worth of professional and personal correspondence, including many photos of Jaafari and the people around her.
Jaafari, better known in the U.S. as Sherry, was working as an intern at international public relations firm Brown Lloyd James (BLJ) in New York when the firm, hired by Syria’s first lady Asma al-Assad, arranged for an interview with Vogue magazine that was published in March 2011, shortly after the uprising began and the regime started killing its own people.
Shortly afterwards, Sherry Jaafari left BLJ to work at the presidential palace, where she handled Western media for President Bashar al-Assad. Many news organizations requested interviews with Assad, but not many were granted. Of the few interviews Assad granted for Western media, the interview with ABC News’ Barbara Walters in December 2011, which received attention the most.
Previously leaked emails showed that Sherry also helped prepare Assad for this particular interview. In emails to Luna Chebel, a former Al Jazeera journalist and one of Assad’s media advisors, Jaafari recommends Assad plays up the role of armed anti-government groups, and acknowledge some mistakes have been made but stress that his government is part of the solution. “American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are ‘mistakes' done and now we are ‘fixing it,’” she wrote.
After several delays, Walters gets the nod to visit Damascus in the first week of December, where Jaafari would be waiting for her. Walters was happy with the outcome of her visit, and in emails following the interview she showered Jaafari with glowing praise.
After the interview was recorded and before it was aired, Jaafari seemed happy too.
One of the emails obtained by Al Arabiya English shows that Jaafari wrote to her boyfriend on December 5, 2011 saying: “i just came back from the palace.. u have no idea how stressful it was.. but it went well.. i think it has been the most honest interview of him since the crises..” CNN’s Christiane Amanpour was next, she wrote.
The Syrian government, however, was not too happy. They accused ABC News of distorting the interview with Assad when they ran an edited version of it. The full interview was only available online.
After returning to New York, Walters sent several emails thanking Jaafari for her help and saying the interview would not have been possible without her. Jaafari was not sure if she should reply to all that praise from Walters considering the anger of the palace over how the interview portrayed Assad.
“I wanted to reply but then she wasn’t too nice when she broad casted the interview” like that, Jaafari wrote to her boyfriend on December 14. (More details about the email exchange between Walters and Sherry will be revealed in an upcoming follow up to this story).
The experience seemed to have left a bitter taste in Jaafar’s mouth, who decided to stop working at the presidential palace and return to the U.S. In an email dated February 3, 2012, she expressed extreme frustrations at Luna Chebel; clearly, the two media advisors weren’t getting along. “Damn her God, this Luna,” Jaafari wrote, adding that she would celebrate her death by giving away free meat to everyone in Damascus. “They made me hate Syria.”
Jaafari was hoping to find employment or join a graduate school in the States. She has previously attempted to get into master’s programs at New York University (NYU) and Long Island University in Brooklyn.
In an email sent on March 8, 2012, she wrote to someone: “I would really appreciate it if you can keep me in your mind if [you] know anyone or any corporation that can sponsor me and change my diplomatic visa to a work visa.” The confidence that shone from her eyes in party photos all but disappeared, and a tone of desperation can be felt in that email. “You are just like a father to me and I have nobody else to go to,” she wrote.
Eventually, Barbara Walters came through for her. The two met for coffee in early January in New York, where Jaafari presumably told her that she is applying to Columbia University and that she is also looking for work. Walters promised to help.
She wrote to CNN host Piers Morgan asking him to help Sherry get a job. She also wrote to Columbia Journalism School professor Richard Wald, a former ABC News colleague, to see if he can help her get accepted to the school. “She is brilliant, beautiful, speaks five languages. Anything you can do to help?” she wrote to Wald, according to an email published by the Daily Telegraph last month.
Wald replied that Jaafari was applying to Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and not the Journalism School where he works, but he promised to help through the Admission Office network. “I will get them to give her special attention. I am sure they will take her,” he wrote Walters.
Walters later apologized for helping Jaafari. “I did offer to mention her to contacts at another media organization and in academia, though she didn’t get a job or into school,” Walters said in a statement. “In retrospect, I realize that this created a conflict and I regret that.”
The Syrian Expatriates Organization (SEO), a non-profit organization registered in the U.S. which supports the Syrian people’s “struggle for freedom,” released a statement saying: “the prestige of Columbia University is at stake, and must be preserved from being tainted by allowing the admission of a well-known aide to Bashar Assad,” according to the Telegraph.
However, two days later Columbia University announced that they have accepted Jaafari to the prestigious graduate program at SIPA, which usually rejects four out of five applicants. SIPA’s associate dean Jesse Gale told the New York Times Jaafari was accepted in accordance with the school’s procedures. “Ms. Jaafari was admitted to SIPA for the 2012 semester based solely on the submitted application materials,” he said.
The Iranian boyfriend who opposed Assad’s violence
In addition to work-related messages, the leaked emails include a large amount of personal correspondence between Jaafari and her boyfriend, a man who lists the Iranian city of Tabriz as his hometown on Facebook. In one email sent on December 14, 2011, Sherry congratulated him on getting U.S. citizenship. “This is ur first day waking up as an official American citizen,” she wrote. “Woho!! I’m loving this.”
Attached with the emails were many photos of the happy couple, hanging out with friends and partying in nightclubs; as well as some steamy conversations and images which Al Arabiya will refrain from publishing.
But her work for the Syrian regime, as well as the fact that she is the Ambassador’s daughter, was causing some conflict in the happy couple’s relationship.
When he posted graphic pictures from Syria’s uprising on his Facebook wall, she asked him to stop doing that out of respect for her and her family. He apologized and said he “should have not posted several pics back to back,” but he did not think it was disrespectful. In that email, sent on February 6, he said he cannot watch regime’s violence in silence.
“I don’t think what I do ( and I have been doing it only for last month or two since the crises started in Syria) is disrespectful to [you] or your family...what I see in Syria is barbarism done by the regime and my silence as your boyfriend means that I advocate what is happening.”
Few months earlier, on November 28, 2011, he sent her links to videos uploaded by anti-regime activists. He did not want to disturb her by sending such videos, he said. “i just want you to see the other side of the story.”
As Jaafari was in Damascus arranging for Walters’ interview with Assad, the stress clearly started getting to her. Her boyfriend, despite the thousands of miles separating them physically, felt the stress. He told her it’s time to get out of politics.
“[Y]our pure and fine soul is not made to face hypocrisy and two faced people in politics....and that is what you exactly are doing now that is why you get hurt and tired,” he wrote via email on December 5, 2011.
She listened to him and decided to leave Syria. “I think I am ok with my decision of coming back” to the U.S., Sherry wrote him on January 29, 2012.
“[I]t’s a little bit weird to just change paths in life and when [you are] in the situation it’s a bit different. It’s harder.” (AA)
*Al Arabiya English’s series of leaked Sherry Jaafari emails continues on Wednesday, July 25.