Rabia Chaudry grew up with Adnan Syed as her younger brother’s friend. They lived in the same subdivision in Baltimore. He hung out at their house. “He was like my little brother,” she says.
When she was away at law school, Syed was arrested for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend. “It was surreal, unbelievable. …” she says. “Nobody could make sense of it.”
She thought he had a competent criminal defense lawyer and that he would be found not guilty, but that didn’t happen.
“After his conviction, I realized how much it would go wrong,” she says, and began helping him with his appeal.
Years passed and Chaudry decided to email journalists about Syed’s case to see if a journalists could get answers when a lawyer couldn’t.
“I’d seen shows where investigation by the media has really made a difference,” she says.
She shot Sarah Koenig an email and she got an answer back. That email turned into the global phenomenon podcast “Serial” from the producers of NPR’s “This American Life.” The first season debuted in October 2014. The next season is supposed to begin late this year and a TV show is in the works.
Chaudry launched her own podcast about the case, “Undisclosed,” this year.
Chaudry, who has two daughters ages 7 and 18, will talk about her time as a single mother at the upcoming MomCom conference on Saturday. The conference from the mom networking website MomCom Life allows women to connect and to learn from fellow mothers. This year, in addition to Chaudry, the conference features former State Sen. Wendy Davis, and Betty Lochner from the College Savings Plan Network.
Chaudry, 41, remembers the four years in which she was a single parent as one of the hardest times in her life but also among the best.
“I felt like I can do anything if I could do that,” she says.
Single parents face challenges that parents with a partner don’t. “If you’re sick, there’s nobody there to help you,” she says.
Work places often aren’t friendly environments for single parents, she says. She struggled to get after school care she could afford, so she would wake up her daughter at 5 a.m. and have someone watch her in the morning while she went to work early to be able to be home after school.
“I took the Bar three times because I couldn’t take off work to study and I couldn’t afford to take the prep class with one income,” she says. “Income challenges become compounded.”
Being a single parent was particularly difficult in her South Asian Muslim community. “Divorce in a Muslim community … no one wants to talk about it,” she says.
For two years after her divorce, her mother was still telling people that Chaudry was married and fine, even though she had moved back in with her parents because she couldn’ afford to live on her own at first.
“It was embarrassing to her,” Chaudry says about her mother.
Before the success of “Serial,” Chaudry worked on issues of immigration and is the International Security Fellow at the New America Foundation. She heads its countering violent extremism and community engagement project in partnership with Google and Facebook.
She is now at a point in her career where she can make her own hours and work from home, which she says often translates to working 20 hours a day instead of eight hours, because you’re always working when you work from home. She’s learned a lot since she became a mother, especially about prioritizing. “Sometimes the laundry doesn’t get done,” she says. Or there are times with the podcast is a day late. “Everybody survives.”
She wants her daughters to know that they can do whatever they want in their life but that family is always important. She wants them to “love what they do and use what gifts God gave them,” she says. “I hope they pursue work that makes them happy.”
Right now, Chaudry has taken a six-month break from her paid work to focus on “Undisclosed” as well as Syed’s case. He’s trying to get a new trial with the new evidence that “Serial” and “Undisclosed” have found.
Syed has no way to really understand that the world knows about his case, she says, though some of the prison officers and officials do listen to “Serial” and mention it to him.
Chaudry is also managing parts of the fundraising for him. Her work on “Undisclosed” won’t end if Syed’s conviction is overturned. She and producers Colin Miller and Susan Simpson have plans to look at other cases.
MomCom 2015: The Power of Motherhood
When: 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7
Where: Westin Austin Downtown, 310 E. Fifth St.
Read a profile of MomComLife founder Trish Morrison, on austin360.com/raisingaustin.