Alia Malek was born in Baltimore to parents who emigrated from Damascus, Syria under the same liberalization of U.S. immigrations laws in 1965 that serve as the starting point for A Country Called Amreeka.
She was raised in the suburbs of Charm City, where she also attended college, graduating from the Johns Hopkins University. During her junior year, she obtained a Graduate Diploma from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Bologna Center. Upon graduation from Baltimore the following year, she returned to work in Milan, Italy at Fondazione Mattei, where she focused on matters of international environmental politics.
She returned to the U.S. and obtained a Juris Doctorate from the Georgetown University Law Center. At Georgetown, she had the opportunity to advocate for the rights of diverse groups, from indigent juvenile defendants in Washington, D.C. to Palestinian farmers on the West Bank. In her last year of law school, Alia was offered a position as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division through its prestigious Honors Program.
In the months after taking the bar and before beginning at Justice, she volunteered with a British government-funded unit that advised the Palestinian negotiators on matters of law. While Alia was living in the West Bank that summer, the Second Intifada began. After watching the Peace Process disintegrate, she returned, as planned, to begin working in Washington, D.C. She reported for work at Justice in late October of 2000, on the eve of the pivotal election that ushered in a president and attorney general with views on civil rights substantially different from their predecessors.
After 9/11, in addition to her regular duties at Justice, which focused on Americans’ civil rights in educational contexts, Alia’s responsibilities came to also include reaching out to and serving the needs of vulnerable groups targeted by the backlash discrimination and hate crimes.
Then, just as the US prepared to invade Iraq, Alia resigned her post and moved to Beirut, Lebanon where she worked with a Lebanese NGO in establishing a free legal aid service for asylum-seeking refugees. The office worked on behalf of refugees from Sudan, Iraq, Sierra Leone, and Somalia. In addition, she developed and taught an introductory course to human rights at the Lebanese American University, as well as contributed regularly to the Daily Star, the English language daily that was published in conjunction with the International Herald Tribune.
She returned to the U.S. in the summer of 2004, and ran Election Protection efforts in Georgia and Florida (excluding Miami-Dade County), through Lawyers Committee for the Protection of Civil Rights. After the U.S. Presidential Election, she relocated to the West Bank as part of the Carter Center’s lead up to its monitoring of the Palestinian Legislative elections.
Deciding to pursue a writing career, Alia came home again and earned her M.S. at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2006, winning the Sander Award for Social Justice Writing, the Wechsler Award for National Reporting, and the Lynton Award for Book Writing. After graduation, she accepted a fellowship with the Columbia Journalism Review and developed A Country Called Amreeka.
Her reportage has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Christian Science Monitor, Salon, The Columbia Journalism Review, WashingtonPost.com, Foreign Policy, and Granta. She continues to work with Lawyers Committee on Election Protection, running efforts in Memphis, Tennessee (November 2006), Columbus, Ohio (November 2008), New York City, NY (November 2010), and Washington, DC (November 2012).
A Country Called Amreeka was her first book.
In 2010, she contributed a chapter to Midnight on the Mavi Marmara:The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How it Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict. That same year, Dave Eggers recruited her to serve as the editor of an upcoming volume in the Voice of Witness series, which uses oral histories to illuminate human rights crises. McSweeney’s published the resulting book Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9/11 Injustice in 2011.
With the beginning of the events in the Middle East in the spring of 2011, she moved to Damascus, Syria.