Born in Delhi, Prerna Suri is a self-professed ‘third culture’ kid.
“My parents came to Dubai in the early 80’s when the petrol boom began and it was still hard to explain to anyone back home where Dubai was,” she says. “I used to hang out with my friends from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and of course, India so that gave both me and my older brother an appreciation for different cultures and places from a very young age.”
Although a well-known journalist now, Prerna wasn’t always clear on what she wanted to do when she was a child.
“Growing up, I was interested in many things – I had dabbled in writing, liked science and at another point, I honestly thought I would be an ice skater!”
But it was one day, when she and her father, Brij, tried out their new video camera for a bit of fun, that her true passion for broadcasting came out.
“I was 6-years old, my dad was the videographer and he kept urging me to describe what we’re seeing. So, inspired by him, I started talking about our apartment block, the police station in front of our house and general things that, honestly, no one would be interested in,” she says laughingly. When the family came together and watched the video, the compliments came.
“They knew that I liked talking and writing and somehow I had to make those two passions come together! That’s how my love for journalism began,” says Prerna.
After doing her undergraduate studies from India’s prestigious Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Prerna’s first job was covering the diplomatic beat at Khaleej Times, a Dubai-based newspaper, which covered the Middle East and the subcontinent.
Recounting those days, she remembers, “Some of the cool things I got to do as a 21-year-old was traveling to Alexandria and covering what was happening in Egypt at that time. My colleagues on that trip were all in their 30’s and I felt like a true grown up, talking politics and business over coffees and shishas.”
It was on that trip that Prerna realized, covering politics as a foreign correspondent was what she wanted to specialize in, a no easy feat. ” My career choice was really unconventional but my parents and brother supported me one hundred percent through it.”
After two years of working at Khaleej Times, Prerna felt she needed a bit more of academic vigor and with her family’s encouragement, applied to the London School of Economics and Political Science. ” London was an amazing experience,” she says. ” My horizons- both academic and personal -just expanded exponentially. It was fascinating to immerse yourself in studies for over 10 hours a day and then party with your friends without thinking twice. By far, the best decision my family and I took!”
Prerna then went on to work, first at NDTV, and then at Al Jazeera English, where she gained global recognition as a foreign correspondent and an in-studio presenter.
“My professional years in India were very fulfilling,” she says. ” I made great friends, traveled to places that were extremely hostile and challenging but each night, I felt I had achieved something.”
An award-winning journalist, Prerna is now an Editor with Channel NewsAsia in Singapore.
As a journalist, one is always expected to be objective and not take sides. But on some occasions, even Prerna had moments where she had to check herself before getting too involved in a story.
“While making our film on the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016, we traveled to Greece, Macedonia, and Germany over 10 days. We followed three families who had escaped the war and persecution in Syria and Khalood’s family was one of them. She was 6 months pregnant when she spoke with me and there were this sadness and emptiness in her eyes which could only come from someone who’s seen intense suffering,” she remembers. It was at this refugee camp in Macedonia that her tipping point happened.
“I just started crying inconsolably,” she says. ” Throughout the trip, I had put on a brave face but Khalood’s story just opened a floodgate of emotions.”
Another time was when she was covering the deaths of several children in a West Bengal hospital. “When the hospital commissioner came in and I confronted him on the unhygienic conditions of his hospital, he shrugged it off. I suddenly started arguing with him without realizing that our camera was switched on and we essentially captured the entire argument on video,” she remembers.
When asked about her biggest achievement, Prerna hesitates. “I don’t believe that I’ve done anything out of the ordinary, to be honest. But, professionally, it has to be the privilege to have spoken to people I would never get access to – whether it was Mohammed in Kashmir who struggled to get an education; Jharna in Bhubhaneshwar who lost everything in seasonal floods; Abdul in Darfur whose leg was cut off because he belonged to the ‘wrong ‘ tribe or Alvin in Singapore who makes a living through his vegetable farms.Meeting such inspiring people makes my work worthwhile.”
“Another occasion which I’m particularly proud of is when I was asked to train Raghuram Rajan, the former Indian central banker, and a person I deeply admire for his knowledge and astuteness, on media training. He was a symbol of humility despite being one of the sharpest economic minds in the world and training him and his team on key messages and media interviews was an absolute pleasure,” says Prerna.
Prerna feels that a lot of us are too hard on ourselves, especially women. “I think a lot of times we’re too hard on ourselves. I’m learning as I’m growing older that life is not so much about the destination but it’s really the journey that matters. Be kind to yourself and to others is the greatest gift you can give. My biggest failure was not recognizing this early enough.”
She feels that girls are naturally more driven because they have to work that much harder. “My advice is kind to yourself, have the confidence in what you’re doing but to be driven enough to chase after whatever makes you happy.”
“If you never ask, you’ll never get. I credit my father with this quote and his can-do spirit!”