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The intrepid reporter and host of Our America with Lisa Ling, premiering January 30 on OWN, viewed journalism as an escape from her suburban upbringing, until an assignment in Afghanistan made her realize the real power of media.
My sister, Laura, and I grew up in a middle-class community outside Sacramento, California. There weren't many other Asian families around, and as kids, we never felt like we fit in. I dreamed that a television career would be a way out of my suburban town. So at 18, I got a job as a correspondent for Channel One, a news network for teens. During my third year there, I covered the civil war in Afghanistan.
I arrived in Jalalabad on a summer day in 1994. As I descended the steps of the airplane, throngs of boys surrounded me. They were carrying AK-47s and rocket launchers. When I asked my escort how old the children were, he said, "They probably don't know themselves. But if you ask them how to operate a bazooka, they could tell you that."
Violence had forced thousands of citizens from their homes into tent cities, and the Red Cross had arranged for my producer and me to tour one of those refugee camps. I saw children and young people my age living in squalor. There was no sanitation or running water, and food was scarce.
As we talked with the people living there, many of them brought up the same question: "The Americans armed us to fight their enemy, the Soviets, and then they abandoned us. How could they do that?" After two days in Afghanistan, I left, thinking, I can't just go home and pretend this doesn't exist.
When I got back to the United States, I told my family and friends about the war, but no one could even find Afghanistan on a map. I realized how insulated America can be, and decided then that I wanted to change that. I went from using journalism as my escape to feeling a passionate desire to share the world's stories with an American audience.
In the years since then, I have reported from dozens of countries. Then in 2009, Laura was detained in North Korea while reporting a story for Current TV, and I appreciated the power of journalism even more—both as a way to secure her release and to expose injustice in that country. Today I just hope my work encourages Americans to be more curious about our world. I believe the more we know, the more we can contribute to a global dialogue.
—As told to Crystal G. Martin
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From the January 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!