Syrian siren's Ivy League dream could be undone by Assad boasts

If Syrian beauty Sherry Jaafari boasted about her clout with dictator Bashar al-Assad to Columbia University admissions officers like she did in leaked emails, her new bid to downplay her past role could get her booted before she ever cracks a book.

The 22-year-old daughter of Syria's UN ambassador helped arrange an exclusive ABC News interview with Assad, and in emails portrayed herself as a confidante of the embattled strongman. That description jibes with Syrian-American leaders, who say she was a key media adviser to Assad, making her "complicit in daily massacres committed by the regime." But lately, Jaafari has been downplaying the relationship, saying she was merely a low-level intern trying to learn about international politics when she worked under Assad in 2011.


"Unfounded reports published recently have wrongfully claimed that I was the aide of the president of Syria," Jaafari, whose Syrian name is Sheherezad, said in an email to "My duties were limited to fulfill instructions related to communicating with some English-speaking media reporters under the supervision of the media advisers."

“I volunteered as an intern in the Syrian media and communication circles for approximately three months,” she said. “During these three months I was never on payroll.”

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But that claim may be at odds with Jaafari’s portrayal of herself on her application to Columbia’s prestigious School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) -- to which she’s been accepted for the fall 2012 semester. Like applicants for any competitive academic program, prospective students typically put their best spin on any relevant experience to move their application toward the top of the pile. If her new effort to distance herself from the beleaguered dictator she once called "The Dude" in flirty emails is at odds with her application, filed before international opposition to Assad reached a fever pitch, the school could reconsider letting her in.

Haya Dweidary, a Syrian-born recent graduate of SIPA, told that she was casually approached by a school "administrator" who she claims asked her, "'This girl is 22 years old and is claiming to be a media adviser to the president. Is that true? What's the story with her?'"

The university’s SIPA application asks prospective students to list their professional experience, including the “position type,” as well as submit a resume detailing any volunteer, public service or political work they may have done. But the application also clearly states that “Violation of the school's expectation of professional and ethical conduct, including honesty, accuracy and integrity in academic and professional activities may carry with it grave consequences, possibly leading to dismissal... Misrepresentation or falsification will be grounds for the rescinding of an offer of admissions and/or dismissal from the University."

Columbia University had no comment when asked whether it was considering rescinding Jaafari’s acceptance. Associate Dean Jesse Gale said “Admissions at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) are subject to confidentiality and privacy restrictions.” Gale told on Monday that Jaafari was accepted to the school "based solely on the submitted application materials."

In emails purportedly leaked by Syria opposition to the UK Daily Telegraph, Jaafari presented herself as an adviser to Assad, and reportedly told the dicatator directly that  “the American psyche can be easily manipulated.” In one email to a BBC News producer, Jaafari identified herself as the “Public Relations and Communication freelancer that is holding the presidential account” and said all interview requests must go through her, according to the newspaper.

The Telegraph reported that Jaafari sent a total of 118 emails to Assad between August 2011 and January of this year. The language, at times, was also strikingly informal, with Jaafari writing to Assad “ur amazing and u look like ur a 25 years old super star in the interview,” according to the newspaper.

ABC News' Barbara Walters, who landed an interview with Assad that aired in December, reportedly claimed in a leaked e-mail that Jaafari "helped arrange" her exclusive sitdown with the dictator. So close was Walters' and Jaafari's relationship that Walters reportedly addressed her as "dear girl," while Jaafari asked for her assistance in getting into Columbia University, according to the leaked emails.

"If there is any way you can give my application a push, I would really, really appreciate it," Jaafari wrote in one e-mail obtained by the Telegraph. "You did mention you knew a professor there. I will buy you some jewelry from Syria."

Jaafari also reportedly asked for a job at ABC News, which Walters said she refused to offer because it was a conflict of interest. She instead used her Rolodex to assist her in other ways, like contacting CNN producer Jonathan Wald and his father, a Columbia University journalism professor and former ABC News chief, according to the emails.

"This young woman, whose resume is attached, is the [daughter] of the Syrian ambassador to the UN. She helped arrange my interview with Assad," reportedly wrote Walters, who mistakenly thought Jaafari wanted acceptance into Columbia's journalism school. "She is brilliant, beautiful, speaks five languages. Anything you can do to help?"

Walters has since expressed regret over having tried to help Jaafari. In a statement released to the Telegraph, she said, "In the aftermath [of the Assad interview], Ms. Jaafari returned to the U.S. and contacted me looking for a job. I told her that was a serious conflict of interest and that we would not hire her. I did offer to mention her to contacts at another media organization and in academia, though she didn't get a job or into school. In retrospect, I realize that this created a conflict and I regret that."

Syrian rights groups are calling on the university to rescind Jaafari’s acceptance, claiming she worked for a brutal dictator responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians.

"I think everyone is just generally outraged at the fact that somebody who was a close media adviser to President Assad and somebody who helped spin the massacres that are being conducted by the regime is being accepted to such a prestigious and dignified university," Sarab al-Jijakli, a spokesman for the National Alliance for Syria, told

The Illinois-based Syrian-American Council was so outraged about Jaafari's admission to the Ivy League school that it sent a letter to Columbia President Lee Bollinger calling for the school to rescind her acceptance.

"We are writing to you regarding the acceptance of Ms. Sheherazad Jaafari, a direct aide to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, to Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs," said the letter, which was signed by the group's president, Talal Sunbulli, and its chairman, Mahmoud Khattab. "As you may know, Ms. Jaafari serves as a media adviser to Assad, a post that makes her complicit in daily massacres committed by the regime."

Jaafari, meanwhile, claims she is “nothing but a victim for some personal agendas.” She told she is "deeply concerned" by the "misleading media attention" about her relationship with the Syrian regime, saying, "There seems to be a campaign orchestrated by some international parties to manipulate the facts … What’s going on in Syria and to my people saddens me and breaks my heart. It is in my prayers that peace and stability will prevail."

She also said she got into Columbia on her own merits and by no help of Walters. "I applied to Columbia like any ambitious student and I got accepted based on my resume that I worked hard for," Jaafari said. "I didn't even apply to [Columbia's school of journalism]. How can she help me with something that I didn't even apply for?"