“How do you keep doing what you do?” people ask me all the time.
It’s a good question.
Over the past two years alone, my work for NBC News has taken me to Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, Congo and the edge of Darfur. Why is it I feel driven to cover these stories of human suffering, including Hurricane Katrina and the Southeast Asian tsunami, when it means leaving my husband and two children behind at home
I don’t have to. Anchoring the news on Today and Dateline NBC keeps me busy enough.
To be honest, leaving my family for days—even weeks—at a time is painful. It also hurts to see the degree to which people suffer in parts of the world.
There are days when I wonder if I’m a bit traumatized by it all. But still, when these stories happen, I feel a call, an urgency, to report them because I know I can give voice to those who need to be heard. Not only do they deserve that, but you deserve it too.
Your knowing about what’s happening in the rest of the world gives you a chance to care, and it is that empathy that offers the greatest hope. You see, I believe journalism is an act of faith in the future. That might sound strange in this day and age when so much on TV seems scandalous or frivolous. But then, I am my parents’ child, living lessons that have guided me from the beginning.
My father, Bob Curry, was a career Navy man who enlisted right out of high school. My mother was the daughter of a Japanese rice farmer. Her name was Hiroe.
They met when Dad was stationed in Japan as part of the Allied occupation forces after World War II. The war left my mom’s family without seed to grow their crop, so at 18 she found a job in the city as a streetcar conductor. My dad happened to get on her streetcar one day, and knew he had to see her again. He took that streetcar every day until he worked up the nerve to ask her on a date. They went out for noodles and fell headlong in love.
Back then the Navy frowned on marriages between American servicemen and Japanese women, and shipped my father out before a ceremony could take place. It took two years, but he managed to get sent back to Japan. He told me of taking her into his arms again, only to realize she was extremely thin. It turned out she had tuberculosis and wasn’t expected to live.
He used her healthy sister’s lung X rays to get clearance from Navy doctors, and married her anyway. Now that she was a U.S. military wife, she was able to get the care she needed. She survived to become the mother of five, of which I’m the oldest.
Dad stayed in the Navy for nearly 30 years, and so our family moved often. We lived in Guam, Japan, Hawaii, Virginia, California, until he finally retired in Ashland, Oregon, where I finished high school.
An enlisted man’s salary didn’t go far when there were five kids to raise. My parents couldn’t give us much in the way of material possessions, but they made sure we knew the importance of family and honor, character and love.
Mom was the embodiment of perseverance in the face of adversity. She’d endured bombing raids and starvation during the war, TB during the occupation and racism when she came to the U.S. At that time it was hard for people to accept her.
“Gambaru,” she used to tell me, which is Japanese for “Never ever give up, even and especially when there’s no chance of winning.” She’d been raised Buddhist, but when she needed spiritual sustenance in America, she couldn’t find a temple. She finally found the Catholic church.
She didn’t know a word of Latin and her English wasn’t good either, but that didn’t stop her. She felt close to God in church, and that’s what mattered. Besides, she had me to tell her when to stand, kneel or sit during the service.
Life as a mixed-race child in a poor family wasn’t easy. “Ann, this is good for you,” Dad would say when I complained. “Trials and tribulations make you stronger.”
He got tired of hearing all five of his kids whine. One day he announced, “The next person who says, ‘That’s not fair’ is going to drop and do ten push-ups. I don’t care where we are.” Doing 10 on the sidewalk in front of a bunch of people? We did it, and learned quickly whining didn’t accomplish anything.
That might not have meant so much if it weren’t for one time we got on a bus. It was crowded and the five of us jumped into empty seats before Dad could get one. “That’s not fair,” he said. We looked at him. Without another word, he dropped down in the aisle and did 10 push-ups! To see our father be true to his word was a great lesson in character.
When I got older, Dad and I would have dinner-table debates about the Vietnam War. I was a teenager deeply affected by Walter Cronkite’s reports on the war and I questioned our country’s role. Sometimes our discussions got so heated, my siblings would pick up their plates and leave the table.
“I don’t always agree with you,” Dad would say at the end, “but I’d still vote for you for president.” I knew he was proud of me for caring about something bigger, something beyond my day-to-day high school life. It tied in to what he was always telling me, “Do something of service, Ann. So that at the end of your days, you’ll know your time here mattered.”
I decided the best way to do that was to be a journalist. He respected my choice, and a girl could not have asked for a greater cheerleader than I had in my dad.
My father and I were the first in our family to go to college, and we went at the same time. He was on the GI bill. I got a few small scholarships and did all kinds of work to pay my way through the University of Oregon—bookstore clerk, sandwich maker, hotel maid.
I got a job as an intern at KTVL, the local TV station, but when I applied to be a reporter, the producer told me there’d never been a woman reporter in the newsroom because women didn’t have news judgment. Do you think the daughter of Hiroe and Bob Curry would let that dissuade her? Of course not. I convinced him to give me a chance.
I became the station’s first woman reporter. When I left for a bigger city, that producer called me and said I should never let anything he told me stop me from my dreams.
Eventually I got to Los Angeles, where I covered big breaking stories, but the one I remember most was about a boy who was born with his thumb fused to his hand. He was miserable because kids made fun of him, but his parents were poor immigrants who couldn’t afford surgery.
A nurse caught the story on TV, talked to a surgeon and they arranged for the boy to have the operation free. His family invited me to the recovery room. The boy proudly held up his hand and said, “Thank you.” At that moment, I understood why my father pushed me to use my talents to serve others. I felt an incredible sense of fulfillment knowing one small thing I did helped make a difference in someone else’s life.
I joined NBC News in the 1990s, and found myself drawn to telling stories of people who might otherwise not be heard. Interestingly enough, what some might consider a big professional disappointment—not being named cohost of Today when Katie Couric left—has only clarified my mission. I would’ve loved that job, but not getting it made me think, What is it I need to be doing?
The answer was clear: humanitarian reporting—finding those who are suffering far from the eyes of the world and getting their stories out, making people care about them. That’s what brings me back to places like Congo. Most people don’t realize it is the site of the deadliest conflict since World War II. The fighting and war crimes against civilians challenge every definition of decency. Thousands die every month from malnutrition and disease.
Yet even in this place of suffering, it is possible to find hope. I’ll never forget Sifa, an 18-year-old Congolese woman I met in February 2008. I talked to her in the hospital. What she told me made me weep. Her parents were killed in front of her. She ran, but the killers caught her, chained her to a tree and raped her. She became pregnant; when the baby came, everything inside her broke. “Do you want revenge?” I asked.
She said, “No, all I want is to rise from this bed, thank the people who helped me and work for God.”
Almost without thinking, my fingers went to my necklace. It had a little gold charm, the Sanskrit symbol for peace. Peace was my prayer for her and her country. I took the necklace off and clasped it around her neck. For her dignity I walked out of the room without looking back. But my producer was watching. He said she raised her head in a little bow.
How do I keep doing what I do? I believe in people like Sifa, who can teach us all about resilience. And I believe in you. I know you special souls will care about people like her, who have no one to protect them.
I have faith that once you hear about someone’s suffering—even someone whose language you can’t speak, whose customs you don’t share—you will care enough to help.
Read more about Ann’s humanitarian reporting.
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