How has your experience at Ryerson benefited your career?

The most valuable thing was getting to hang out at the Eyeopener. A lot of my friends at the paper are still my friends. Some of them are Headliners, like Kenny Yum.

Learning how to put together a newspaper by doing it was valuable. Having a venue to make my mistakes was valuable. It was also a lesson on how to work hard. I don’t think I ever worked as hard in my life before I got [to Ryerson]. I probably haven’t worked as hard since then. I was doing shifts part time at the Toronto Star in the radio room. I was trying to keep up with school. I was putting 40-50 hours a week at the paper — you know, sleeping on the couch and not really showering properly. It was a grinding experience but well worth it.

You worked at the Globe and Mail as a foreign correspondent. Did you always have an interest in foreign news?

Yes, I think I always knew I wanted to work on international issues [but] I wasn’t entirely sure how to get there. The Globe sent me to Moscow when I was 25 years old – unfortunately, it was during a period when foreign bureaus were closing. I was the last Moscow bureau chief. I opened the Kandahar bureau that later closed. I opened and closed the Istanbul bureau. It was a different time. It’s funny to say that because I’m not that old, but I definitely snuck in at the last possible moment.

What advice would you give to current students? Or people interested in covering foreign news?

That’s hard. I’m no longer really qualified. Things have changed so much since the days I was hired. I remember when we used to claw our way through the internship games. Moving from tougher internships at small places to better and better internships. The rules were straightforward. You had to get six clips, and you lived and died by those clips. You used those strong stories to get the next internship and those were in your portfolio so you can get a job.

The stories I hear these days, it seems that sort of ladder I climbed doesn’t exist anymore. You can’t start off doing overnight shifts at the Star like I did then work your way up to general assignments, then get hired full-time. Then soon afterwards find yourself in intensive Russian classes and find yourself overlooking a bureau in downtown Russia.

That doesn’t exist anymore.

My girlfriend, who’s younger than me, the way she works her way is more common than me. You end up graduating from school without a job and you buy a plane ticket and go somewhere, and you live in humble circumstances and learn the local language, and you end writing for whoever will take your copy. At first it might be a blog and if you’re successful, you end up writing for bigger and bigger publications.

There are people who end up breaking through that way. It’s a scary path if you are interested in being a foreign correspondent. I see people who are doing it, but don’t have any risk insurance, don’t have any kidnap ransom insurance. If their leg gets blown off, nobody is going pay for a medical evacuation. If they are kidnapped, it will either impoverish their families or they won’t be able to pay it.

Speaking of the risk, how have the recent beheadings influenced your work or outlook of working over there?

I did a lot of stupid stuff in my twenties. A lot of it, I was lucky to survive and won’t repeat. I’m trying to still do meaningful work in dangerous places, but do it in a more cautious way. I will keep my time in the field short. I won’t be living in the front lines like I was in Kandahar. Everyone has their own threshold. I’m saying this while sitting in a lightly guarded compound in downtown Kabul. I just walked out my door today to go grocery shopping, which is not something a lot of foreigners can do. A lot of foreigners don’t have the ability because they need to move around with armoured vehicle and bodyguards. Everyone has their own threshold.

What do you do in your role for the International Crisis Group?

What I do is actually pretty similar to what I did as a foreign correspondent, except that instead of having deadlines twice or three times a day, I have deadlines twice or three times a year. It allows me more time for in-depth research and careful writing. I live in Kabul with a Dari-speaking translator and we travel around the country together and we do research on security and political situations. We produce long reports that are publicly available, which is really important because the trends happening at the Star and the Globe [shuttering foreign bureaus] are happening around the world. So there is a real need for good serious research on important issues. There are a lot of secret reports, you know intelligence agencies and private consultants that are churning out in-depth research, but for the public to know what is going on you need the International Crisis Group to fill that gap. ICG is a charity that accepts donations. Most of those donations come from governments like Canada. They send guys like me to war zones to produce reports that come with a set of recommendations for countries.

How is living overseas for a long period? Ever feel like coming back?

We’ll see. For the moment this is where my curiosity takes me. I feel like this is where I can continue learning about the world in a hands-on sort of way. But who knows, if something interests me in Canada, I’ll come back.

This advice I would give to young people: You really can’t limit yourself in terms of where you want to live. There are so many interesting things you can do in bizarre places. There tends to be an excessive level of concern in the rich world about venturing out into the poor world. Today I walked out my house and there was a pile of entrails outside my door. It’s Eid, the biggest holiday on the Muslim calendar, so feasting is a tradition. Admittedly you don’t see that every day here, and you don’t see it in Toronto, but when you do venture out to different parts of the world you hold your breath. There is a lot of interesting things you can see if you don’t confine yourself.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Feryn

Graeme Smith

Graeme Smith
Senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan