Alumni tales: Journalist Sally Hayden on migration, grit and staying humble

Lisa Jean O’Reilly talks to Sally Hayden about her established career as a humanitarian-focused freelance journalist

A world away from the glossy masonry of the Trinity College campus, an alumni of our very own, Sally Hayden, writes to us from Uganda, Africa. Hayden and I discuss matters of strangeness, of normality, and of the grey matter that lies between. We discuss how Hayden has been exploring the humanitarian crisis in Africa for a number of  years, and how, during this time, she has come to discover some both heart-breaking and strange stories that are worth writing home about. Hayden tells me about her life as a freelance journalist, and how the reality she sees is sometimes far stranger than fiction. 

We began our virtual conversation by chatting about where it all began for Hayden, and how the heart of Africa has become her home. She says, “Ever since a young age, I have wanted to be an explorer. And write novels, of course.” It seems Hayden has achieved her dream of exploring the world, with the added success of capturing her experiences in writing. Her journalism career has been nothing less than admirable. Beginning at the tender age of nine, Hayden created her own magazine for her class in Goatstown, Co. Dublin. It is clear that Hayden’s drive has been with her since the very beginning. However, her life was on a different trajectory during her undergraduate years at college, as she studied law. During her four years in university, Hayden developed a keen interest in humanitarian law and justice. She flourished during these formative years at college, until she was denied law internships. She was told that she had a distinct passion for journalism, although she could not see that herself clearly yet. This fact, that has become funny with hindsight, is one of the motivators that Hayden used to find her true passion. 

And if she couldn’t see her own path clearly then, she began to see the end-game when she began her masters degree in Trinity. During this time studying International Politics, Hayden began developing her unique journalistic voice, which enabled her views to shine through her writing poignantly. 

Shortly after completing her masters in 2012, Hayden moved to a world away from her familiar Ireland, to Africa. Beginning in Rwanda, Malawi, and Burkina Faso, Hayden reported on emigration stories from the country. She began sending her findings to VICE news in London for a period of time, using first-hand experiences to curate accurate articles for those who could not directly see the truth behind these issues of emigration for themselves. Hayden’s articles held far more weight for us, who are foreign to Africa, than the fast-spoken and filtered sentences shared on the evening news. 

When the migration crisis came to a head in 2015, Hayden was moved to Calais, France, where she had the unique experience of getting to know fleeing refugees from a number of places- Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan to name but a few- as they paused in France their life-threatening (and often life-ending) journey to the United Kingdom. 

“In 2014, in Rwanda, Africa, Hayden met a real hero: Zula Karuhimbi”

Hayden sees, through her role in writing on topics such as these, that migration, whether one is forced to migrate or not, is a fundamental part of the human experience. It is the same concept as what most of us consider here to be a life-long journey to Australia or Asia. Where it would most likely be a choice for you or me, it is not for the people that Hayden writes about. These people must move to places as foreign as the estranged planet of Mars, because it is a matter of their own life or death. Hayden notes that “there are still so many aspects of migration that need to be investigated, (as) they aren’t properly understood.”

During her travels, Hayden has met some truly astonishing people. She was kind enough to share with me the story of her favourite such encounter. In 2014, in Rwanda, Africa, Hayden met a real hero: Zula Karuhimbi. Karuhimbi had acted heroically in the 1994 genocide that took place against Rwandan natives (called Tutsis), an event not dissimilar in scale to the Holocaust in Germany. During this treacherous time, Karuhimbi hid dozens of Tutsi people in her home. She risked her life, using herself as a distraction for the Hutus who came searching for any Tutsi people. Karuhimbi scared them away by pretending to be a witch, an act which saved dozens of lives. When Hayden visited Karuhimbi in 2014, in the same house where she had hid dozens of Tutsi twenty years previously, Karuhimbi had aged, but her story had not. She gave it to Hayden, as freshly as she remembered it in 1994, leaving a lasting effect on Hayden. “She still claimed to be a witch, offering us powders to make us better looking and more successful in life,” Hayden recalls. Sadly, Karuhimbi passed away in 2018, leaving behind a legacy of heroic bravery. 

“Hayden has been a pioneer in exposing the torture and murder that is currently being carried out in Syria”

 Hayden has unearthed many important stories such as Karuhimbi’s, and has quickly become a catalyst for change and awareness in this fast-paced and media driven world. One of the most notable stories that Hayden has uncovered, has been the truth behind what happens to refugees who return from fleeing their country. It is widely believed that returning refugees are accepted back home warmly, and placed into safe regimes that are run formally by the country. “We kept hearing that people were going back to regime-held areas because they missed family or were unhappy in Europe, but once they got there they always lost contact, so it was hard to know what had happened to them,” Hayden explains. However, upon partnering with Syrian journalist Ziad Ghandour back in 2017, Hayden discovered something rather haunting; that ‘safe’ is not an apt word for these regimes in Syria. Together, Hayden and Ghandour tracked down a Syrian man who had recently returned back to his home from Germany. He risked his life to meet Hayden and Ghandour, telling them that the prison cell that he had just come from was full of other returnees to Syria. He disclosed the truth about the way they were being treated- punished and tortured. Hayden noted that the biggest misconception that the western world has about Syria is that the war is the largest posing threat to people’s lives, whereas, in reality, it is the regime. As I read what Hayden had written to me, I couldn’t escape the idea that the devastating Holocaust during World War II was taking form again, silently. 

Hayden has been a pioneer in exposing the torture and murder that is currently being carried out in Syria. The finished investigation was published by both the Irish Times in Ireland, and in a publication in Germany. It received a notable reaction around the world, winning first prize in the European Migration Media Awards, and getting shortlisted for Amnesty International, and One World Media Awards. More importantly, the article was used as a form of critical evidence in the stopping of the deportation of refugees from the USA, as well as evidence in a major legal dispute with the German government over the protection of Syrian men. 

Hayden expressed her delight in writing for the Irish Times, as they hold a very high value on her works and findings. She said that the newspaper is very aware of issues around the world and of publishing foreign news. It is a great link between Ireland and the topical news in other countries around the world. 

“Hayden also stressed the importance of being a good listener as a journalist, of staying humble, and of placing one’s ego aside whilst at work”

As a freelance journalist, one works for themselves until a piece of work gets published by a body like the Irish Times. This brought us back to the topic of Ireland, more specifically to Trinity College, where we began speaking about aspiring journalists on campus. Hayden parts with some wonderful advice for them: “Get fact-checking experience.” Hayden noted that the most important aspect of journalism is that an article is 100% correct. If an article or a piece is not factual, it will mean the life or the death of a journalist’s career. Hayden gained her fact-checking experience in the Financial Times during her college years. Hayden also stressed the importance of being a good listener as a journalist, of staying humble, and of placing one’s ego aside whilst at work. She says that the stories that journalists write about have next to nothing to do with themselves- and that they are often times quite honest, and sometimes harrowing topics. One must stay objective, factually correct, and level-headed. Hayden says that she does not have strong opinions on topics, which helps her greatly in her professional career at staying neutral. 

Finally, Hayden highlights that the life of a journalist can be tough. She says that it requires self-discipline; as one predominantly works for themselves. Financial sacrifice; as it doesn’t always guarantee the big bucks- “most journalists aren’t in it for the money,” she comments. And it requires grit; to see an article through to the finish. Hayden leaves with the gentle reminder of the importance of empathy and strength within a journalist; empathy being what makes an article good, but strength is what protects the author from any hardship that comes with that. A journalist must take very good care of oneself, and mind themselves well, because the tribulations that they encounter can take a toll, and at the end of the day, the only person who is exposed to all of these hardships in one lifetime is the journalist. 

Lisa Jean O’Reilly

Lisa Jean O'Reilly is an English Literature and Philosophy graduate and a former Online Editor of Trinity News.