Former MU Student and ABC Reporter Opened Door for Diversity
Tuesday, March 8, 2011 | 9:17 p.m. CST; updated 7:29 a.m. CST, Wednesday, March 9, 2011
BY Lindsay Roseman
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Joanna Jennings’ name.
COLUMBIA – Rehab El-Buri aspired to become a journalist to demonstrate that a person of any faith could make an impact on the profession.
Friends and family say she did far more than that. She broadened their world.
El-Buri, a radio-television graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, died of cancer Sunday, March 6, 2011. She was 26.
Her success, openness and positive attitude at the Journalism School and at ABC News, where she was an investigative reporter, helped many understand her Islamic faith.
Jennifer Reeves, a faculty mentor and friend at the journalism school, said she admired El-Buri’s strength. She went through the entire broadcast program wearing her hijab, Reeves said.
Whether it was on TV doing live shots, or hanging out in the newsroom, she never downplayed her identity. Reeves said she particularly remembers El-Buri fitting her hands-free cell phone into her hijab.
“She was incredibly brave and so open to people asking her questions about her lifestyle, her religion and her family,” Reeves said. “I think she taught so many people so many things that we would never have the opportunity to learn.”
El-Buri’s family lived in Columbia, and she was a graduate of Rock Bridge High School. She graduated from MU in December 2006 and began working the next summer at ABC News in New York.
She worked as a desk assistant with Bradley Blackburn, now an ABC production assistant at “World News.” Although they worked together for just two years, he remembered her fondly.
“When you’re a desk assistant, you’re just starting in the company, and it can be a very competitive job,” Blackburn said.
“But the thing about Rehab was that she was always a kind person, always willing to share advice and her experiences, and she smiled — which people don’t always do in newsrooms.”
After a short period of time, she began working in the investigative unit with chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross.
“She was wise beyond her years,” Ross said. “She was a quiet yet strong force in our newsroom who took an entry-level job and turned it into a pivotal role. It is tragic she did not live to see the day when, I am sure, she would have been a senior management person at ABC News.”
Ross said that El-Buri played a crucial role in helping to shape ABC’s coverage of the Arab world.
“I relied on her heavily to guide me through some of the thorny issues raised during our coverage of al-Qaeda terrorism-connected stories,” Ross said. “She was no friend of the extremists but fought valiantly to make sure we did not paint the Arab world with too broad a brush.”
In addition to her journalistic success, friends say her open, friendly demeanor helped teach others about the Islamic community.
“I think what she taught me was about a community I would have never ever been able to feel like I was a part of without her openness,” Reeves said. “I’m honored that I can say that she was my friend.”
Asa Eslocker, associate producer in the investigative unit with Brian Ross, also worked closely with El-Buri.
“What she taught me was this incredibly beautiful lesson about the way a devout Muslim lives her life in a stressful, past-faced environment like breaking investigative news,” Eslocker said. “She was an incredibly beautiful and professional and graceful human being I’m going to miss so much.”
Joanna* Jennings, another coworker and friend of El-Buri, said they became close while working together. Jennings called herself a strong member of the Christian faith but added that it did not stand in the way of their friendship.
“We were in two jobs that were very stressful, and it’s difficult,” Jennings said. “We both relied on our faith, and we would share that with one another. It didn’t bring out the differences; it really brought out the similarities.”
El-Buri had a prayer rug in the office, and regardless of what was going on in the background, Jennings said she always made time to pray.
Zaied Abbassi, El-Buri’s husband, posted a Facebook note at 7:04 a.m. Monday with words he shared at her service the previous night.
He recalled his memory of a friend who needed a $16,000 operation. She was unable to come up with the funds on her own, so El-Buri stepped in and planned a bake sale to raise money after Friday prayers.
It raised more than $20,000.
“You see there was a strange barakah (blessing) in her deeds near the end of her life,” Abbassi said. “Things would just work for her.”
Even near the end of her life, she never lost the commitment to her faith and always remained positive.
“I miss her so much, but take comfort in the fact that she left an important and enduring legacy at ABC News,” Ross said. “It will help shape our reporting for millions of Americans who may never have heard of Rehab but will benefit from her time here nevertheless.”