Denise Rocha, moved to Old Town almost a month ago. She spent Fourth of July at the National Mall in D.C. and felt especially patriotic. After living in the Middle East for six months, she understands the importance of having a voice.
When Rocha’s friend, Michael Miller, an independent security consultant, received a scholarship to study in the Middle East last year, she decided to tag along.
At the time, she worked as a broadcast journalist in Wisconsin and welcomed the opportunity to travel. Rocha told her editor she wanted to freelance report in Israel. "They gave me a camera, a tripod and said go."
She found Tel Aviv surprisingly modern and hip. "It’s a mixture between New York, Paris and L.A.," she said, "The diversity of New York, the fashion of Paris and the heat of L.A.."
While exploring the city, Rocha worked with UNHRC, The UN refuge agency. Each day she sorted through dozens and dozens of case files. "Each and every file is someone’s life."
The job could be draining. "After eight hours of reading files, it would just be [emotionally] heavy," she said. Sometimes Rocha was forced to tell individuals they could not be granted refugee status even though they might have risked their lives to reach Israel.
After reading hundreds of files, Rocha decided she wanted to experience life through the eyes of a refugee. Since many refugees travel through the Sinai Desert to reach Israel, Rocha went to Dahab, Egypt, a city near the desert, for two weeks.
Rocha’s jaw dropped when she drove through the Sinai Desert. The weather was over 100 degrees. The city of Dahab, however, was beautiful. Still, something was missing. "One of the things I said was, ‘where are the women?’"
Many women in Dahab remain hidden indoors. Rocha’s guide, Yassar, invited her to his house for dinner where she met his sister Shimaa. "We just really hit it off," Rocha said about Shimaa.
AFTER DINNER, Shimaa invited Rocha to her room along with the other women of the house. "It was really special, I got to be included in an all-woman’s world," she said. With no men around, Shimaa removed her head covering and had fun teaching Rocha how to belly dance.
Rocha said the people in Dahab were overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable. However, she often thinks about the women and wonders, "What if that person had a choice?"
The stories Rocha covered were as diverse as Israel itself. She interviewed the mayor of Jerusalem about the Israeli-Arab conflict. "I always wanted to go deeper, beyond the surface stories," she said.
Living in Israel gave Rocha insight into the political climate. "Things are a lot more complex than the news paints it," she said. Rocha said many individuals have mental lists of the personal wrongs against them.
However she was struck by the mindset of young people in Israel. "They are just so sick and tired of the conflict," she said. "People want peace, but they don’t know how to get there."
ROCHA WAS BORN in Campina Grande, Brazil. She moved to the U.S. when she was three and traveled back and forth from the two countries.
Rocha and her two sisters lived a happy childhood in Brazil and spent most of their time outdoors. Her grandma had horses, large turtles and a parrot that liked to dance. "I had a lot of freedom," she said.
Though her family was middle class, Rocha said, "I saw a lot of poverty and I always wondered why do some people do well and others don’t?"
Moving to the U.S. was difficult. "Just adjusting to a whole new world and realizing the other world was so far away," she said. Yet Rocha worked hard. She read as much as she could and taught herself what she didn’t understand.
In 2008 Rocha began her own TV show with Wisconsin Eye Public Affairs Network. She covered stories about civic issue in Wisconsin. "She is exemplary of the great opportunities America offers," Miller said.
Rocha is happy with her move to the D.C. area. "I think that D.C. really attracts people who are really into making a difference," she said. Rocha wants to raise awareness on issues such as women’s rights in foreign countries.
When it’s all over, Rocha said she might like to own a llama farm some day. "I’m just quirky like that," she laughed.