March 7, 2011— -- A former ABC News staffer who helped shape the network's coverage of the Arab world, Rehab El-Buri, died Sunday at the age of 26. A trusted colleague in the ABC News Investigative Unit and cherished friend, Rehab left her position last year to devote her energies to fighting a courageous battle against cancer.
"Rehab was wise beyond her years and brought important insights to all of ABC News," said Brian Ross, chief investigative correspondent.
"She was a fighter," recalled Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC World News with Diane Sawyer.
Beginning as a desk assistant and working her way to the Investigative Unit, Rehab was committed to reporting on the plight of those who could not speak out on their own. Her work was defined by giving a voice to the voiceless, steadfastly working behind the scenes to tell their stories.
In 2008, Rehab was instrumental in developing a 20/20 report that investigated how some high-ranking international diplomats in the U.S. would abuse and exploit the domestic workers brought with them from their home countries. The most challenging aspect of this report was finding workers from poor and underprivileged backgrounds who were willing to speak out against their powerful employers.
"Rehab combined a strong drive to uncover the facts with a calm and reassuring presence," said producer Joseph Rhee. "This proved invaluable in finding a way to crack this difficult story."
Rehab was able to contact a young Indonesian woman named Siti Aisah who worked for the then-ambassador to the United Nations from Qatar. Rehab gained Aisah's trust, meeting her on weekends and gaining permission to shoot footage of Aisah on her own with a small video camera. When Aisah finally spoke on-camera to ABC News, she told a powerful and heart-wrenching account of being treated harshly by the extremely wealthy and privileged family of the ambassador.
"I feel like what is that called, less than human. I feel like I'm like a dog or something. I don't know I feel so small in front of them, almost invisible," Aisah told ABC News. Rehab's efforts helped bring this serious international issue to light, and helped lead to strong action against the abuses by the U.S. State Department.
Rehab was determined to become a journalist after her family was interviewed so often as devout Muslims living in Missouri. She decided she wanted to be the one to ask the questions, and graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 2007 as a radio-television journalism major.
Outside of her career, Rehab was an active community leader who continually put others before herself. Just a few months ago, despite her own illness, she raised over $20,000 through a bake sale for a friend who needed an operation. And when she learned from a chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital, where she was treated, that a program for pediatric patients was short on funding, she snapped into action.
"Rehab, completely exhausted, with tubes coming out of her chest and IVs running into every possible vein, looked up at him and promised she would get him the money," her husband, Zaied Abbassi, said. "Less than three weeks later, she handed him a check for $1500." The money ensured the program would be funded for not only one year, but two.
"She said she would do something, and she did it," Abbassi said.
Along with her husband, Rehab was survived by her parents, both of whom were champions of human rights and free speech and fled repressive regimes to raise their family of daughters in the U.S., and her sisters.
She will be forever missed by the ABC News team, whose work was made better because of Rehab's passion and integrity as a colleague and friend.
"Rehab was a special young woman who not only profoundly influenced our journalism but warmly touched our lives," said Rhonda Schwartz, chief of investigative projects. "We'll carry her memory with us."