2020 Great Immigrants Recipient

Rukmini Callimachi
Foreign Correspondent, The New York Times
Born in:
Romania

Rukmini Callimachi was born in Bucharest, Romania, when it was still under the rule of communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. In 1979, five-year-old Callimachi fled the country with her mother and grandmother by boarding a train to Germany. Her father, a pediatric surgeon, stayed behind to trick the authorities into thinking that they were returning. In retaliation, the regime relocated Callimachi’s father from the capital to a rural clinic. He later joined the rest of the family in Switzerland, where they were granted asylum.

Callimachi’s family immigrated to the United States in the 1980s when she was 10, and settled in Ojai, California. After experiencing discrimination in Switzerland, Callimachi felt embraced by her American classmates’ acceptance of, and curiosity about, her Romanian background. She went on to earn her BA in English literature from Dartmouth College and an MPhil in linguistics from the University of Oxford.

Callimachi began her journalism career as a reporter at the Daily Herald, a newspaper covering suburban Chicago, and got her big break as a freelance journalist in 2001 when she covered the catastrophic earthquake in Gujarat, India. Callimachi would later serve as a reporter and bureau chief covering a 20-country beat in Africa for the Associated Press. During her seven years with the Associated Press, she was highly acclaimed for her in-depth reporting, such as her 2008 coverage of the exploitation of impoverished children in West and Central Africa, and child trafficking to the United States. In 2013, after French forces pushed back the al-Qaeda fighters in Timbuktu, Mali, Callimachi found herself in the rare position of having access to the building used by the jihadists as their administrative office. She started gathering every single loose paper in sight in trash bags. “People were calling me the trash lady of Timbuktu,” she recalled. Callimachi’s painstaking analysis of these documents, which included detailed expense reports fighters were expected to submit, shattered the widely accepted portrayal of al-Qaeda as an unsophisticated organization that would dissipate without its top leadership.

Callimachi joined the New York Times in 2014 as a foreign correspondent, covering al-Qaeda and ISIS. Described as “arguably the best reporter on the most important beat in the world,” by Wired magazine, Callimachi has continued her groundbreaking coverage. In 2014, she exposed how al-Qaeda was bankrolling its operations through ransoms paid by European governments to free their hostages. In 2015 and 2016, she documented how ISIS was using religion to justify sex slavery of women belonging to Iraq’s Yazidi minority while at the same using birth control to maintain its system of exploitation. In 2018, Callimachi released Caliphate, a 10-episode podcast, in which she interviews a Canadian member of ISIS who confesses to the murders he says he carried out on behalf of the group. In 2020, she fulfilled a promise to readers by making more than 15,000 pages of internal ISIS records accessible online through a partnership with George Washington University.

Callimachi is a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, the winner of the George Polk Award for International Reporting, multiple Overseas Press Club Awards, and the Michael Kelly Award. In 2016, as part of the inaugural ceremony of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, she received the International Center for Journalists’ Integrity in Journalism Award, for her "exceptional contribution to exposing crimes against humanity.”

Callimachi is “grateful” to all those who made her new life in the United States possible. Having lived and worked around the world has reaffirmed her belief that “America is unique.” As she tweeted: “It truly is the only place where anyone from anywhere can arrive and can belong/thrive.”