A Dream Realized: From Iraqi Refugee to CNN AP

8 May 2018 - This post originally appeared on the Turner Blog.

Ammar Al Badran’s story is the true American dream. Born in Basra, Iraq, Al Badran always dreamed of coming to U.S. – and not just anywhere in America – he knew exactly where he wanted to call home: Atlanta, Ga., the headquarters of CNN.

“CNN was always on my mind, he says. “When I look back, it was just a straight line that led me here.”

Al Badran’s journey to the land of opportunity was one of dauntless courage, tremendous perseverance – and a small touch of fate – all rolled together. As we follow his journey from Iraq to the U.S., we’ll meet the chain of people who led him down the path to where he is today.

The journey begins…

Al Badran, the cameraman, working for Al Mirbad.

In Iraq, Al Badran was a freelancer for the BBC World Service Trust, which established the TV and radio station, Al Mirbad. There he was a jack of all trades, working as a cameraman and video editor then later as a producer and director. He also worked with U.S.-led coalition forces in a social advisor role, training military members on Iraqi culture and customs.

He moved with his family to Jordan in 2008 and applied for a refugee visa to the U.S. from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which works for the U.N. resettlement system. It took him five long years of waiting, but he was eventually granted the golden ticket to pursue his dreams in America. And, since he had a choice in where he would be relocated, he requested to live in – you guessed it – Atlanta, Ga.

After arriving at Atlanta’s airport in February 2013, he hopped on a bus downtown to the place he knew was his true calling: the CNN Center.

“Oh my God, that's my dream,” Al Badran remembers saying as he posed for a photo with his son in front of the iconic, red CNN Center letters. “I told my wife, ‘This is my goal. I’m going to be here one day, I know it.’”

Al Badran posing in front of the CNN Center letters with his son for the first time after arriving in the U.S.

To make ends meet in the meantime, Al Badran took a job as a doorman at the Omni Hotel, right next door to CNN. Anytime he spotted someone with a CNN badge, he asked them what they did at the network and if they could lend any advice about how he could get his foot in the door.

Then he met the person who would change his life forever: Johnita Due, vice president and assistant general counsel at CNN.

Al Badran in his Omni Hotel uniform in front of CNN Center.

“I felt comfortable introducing him to people at CNN because I saw the potential he had,” says Due. “He always had his eyes on the prize. His focus was on his family and achieving his dream of one day working at CNN. If people just gave him the chance, he would be able to prove himself.”

And that chance came a few months later when Due connected him with a freelancing opportunity on the CNN International Desk.

Eyeing those red CNN letters…

The true American dream achieved. Story over, right? Not quite.

The CNN International Desk job was a demanding, fast-paced editorial position. With his computer science degree from Shat Alarab University, Al Badran’s experience was mostly on the technical side of communications – camera operator, audio tech, video editing – slightly different than the job description. On top of that, his English wasn’t quite on par with the expectations of the role.

“The nuts and bolts of journalism he knew very well but coordinating between show teams and field teams… his savvy was there, but his language was not,” says Paul Ferguson, operations manager for CNN International Newsource, who worked closely with Al Badran. “He spoke survival English, but he didn’t speak the subtle, nuanced English that was required for that job.”

After four days of training, Al Badran knew it wasn’t the right fit and reluctantly said goodbye to CNN – and potentially – his lifelong dream.

“It was the biggest disappointment of my whole life,” he says.

Not one to let setbacks stop him, Al Badran looked inward to figure out his next move, not afraid to step backward in order to move forward.

Onward and upward…

Al Badran knew he needed to beef up his oral and written English language skills to help him land a job more in line with his degree and experience level, so he decided to enroll in an English as a Second Language (ESL) course at Georgia Perimeter College, now Georgia State University, along with U.S. history and American government classes.

While a student, he found a new job with the college as a digital media assistant and worked side gigs at Uber and even as a movie extra – all while he kept applying for jobs at CNN.

Al Badran at CNN.

Over the years, he stayed in touch with his contact on the Desk, Paul Ferguson, and in 2017, Al Badran finally felt like he was ready to give CNN another shot.

“I knew he was the one who would go the extra mile to make special things happen. He has the gift of being both naturally creative and extremely dogged,” says Ferguson.

Ferguson recommended him for a summer internship on the CNN International News Desk – the same department Al Badran had struggled in just four years ago.

“My English was much better than the first time. I was much more confident. I was able to handle everything, even though it was still difficult,” he recalls.

While working on the Desk, Al Badran started applying for internal positions. One in particular caught his eye: CNN Airport Network associate producer, under the Turner Private Networks division.

His hiring manager, Mariana Hoysa, remembers getting his resume and thinking he was a great fit, even if he was a bit overqualified for the position.

“There was just something different about him,” says Hoysa. “He wanted to learn as much as he could. From the moment I met him, I knew he was going to do the AP job and much more.”

Hoysa recognized the same ambition in him as her own grandparents, Cuban exiles who came to the U.S. after the Castro regime took power in 1959. For her, the decision was simple.

“Mariana said to me, ‘Ammar, we want you on this team. You have the job.’ And I just started screaming,” says Al Badran. “Still, there are many times when I’m driving here that I look at my badge and pinch myself. I did it. I work at CNN!”

A hiring success story

Today, Al Badran combs through CNN’s networks and helps select evergreen pieces to air on the CNN Airport Network and Gas Station TV, something you might see at the airport, while pumping gas, or at a car dealership.

Hoysa says she’s glad she went with her gut and took Turner’s “bold hiring” approach with Ammar, otherwise she may have overlooked him – a candidate who seemed overqualified on paper but was actually a great fit for the team. With Ammar, she says the results have been far greater than she ever could have imagined. Already this year, he’s earned the first spot bonus of his department after finding a better video captioning solution and saving his team thousands of dollars.

Al Badran still pinches himself every day and says he couldn’t be more thankful for the people who helped him get here.

Al Badran with his wife and children.

“I saw signs all along my journey. ‘Turn left. Turn right. Stop.’ That’s how I thought about it,” says Al Badran. “If you want something, if you focus on something – people will direct you and show you the way.”

So, what’s next for the now father of three? He’s currently working to become a U.S. citizen, and his new dream is to be a CNN field producer. Knowing him, he probably won’t have any trouble making that dream a reality.