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‘They’ve never experienced being a refugee’

Mohammad Subat is pictured with the rest of the Baynana team. Credit: Baynana.

Egyptian journalist Osama Gaweesh found it difficult to find work when he first arrived in the UK. But then he spent a year training with the Refugee Journalism Project in London, and everything changed.

‘We met with experts from the BBC, Bloomberg, and The Guardian,’ said Ganesh, who is now a producer of Untold Stories and a TV presenter with Mekameleen. ‘And they introduced us to the industry as qualified, professional journalists who want another chance. This was amazing because they started to teach us how to pitch ideas, how to do freelance work.’

A key part of this process is mentorship by more established journalists in the UK, and Ian Dunt, the presenter of the ‘OH GOD WHAT NOW?’ podcast, became Gaweesh’s mentor. ‘He helped me to publish my first ever freelance work with The Guardian in 2021,’ Ganesh said.’ And it was amazing for me – it's opened many opportunities as a freelancer with Middle East Monitor and Middle East Eye, and I'm now doing this freelancing regularly. So it was great to just put us on the right start.’

He also received support from former RJP participants, including Abudulwahab Tahhan who produces his own podcast series, Integrate That. ‘I used to listen to podcasts in Arabic and English, but I had no idea how to create my own one. I'm now presenting my own podcast,’ he said. ‘And thanks to the Refugee Journalism Project, I attended three or four intensive workshops with people who are podcasters in the BBC, and other platforms, who teach us how to do your podcast, how to use equipment, how to do the script and everything…to guide us how and where to start.’

In Spain, journalists face similar challenges to Gaweesh in the UK. Mohammad Subat was a student when the war began in Syria and felt compelled to report on what was happening after he was expelled from his university for protesting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

‘We did short documentaries, we did reports with features. And so it was like experience with practice. We never heard about the academic study of journalism. However, we did a lot of stuff. And this helped us in Spain, in our new experience in Spain, to benefit from this practical experience in journalism on the ground in Syria to launch this initiative in Spain.’

When he arrived seeking asylum in Spain, he and his colleagues set up Baynana (Arabic for between us), the first magazine set up by refugees in the country. It publishes in Spanish and Arabic and covers local and international stories, with a clear intention to offset much of the bias Subat sees in the Spanish media.

‘Bring the people in who are affected,Subat said.Refugees from Syria, who are talking about other refugees in Syria. So they feel the suffering, how it's hard to be a refugee, what's the meaning of fleeing your country  or the meaning of leaving everything behind, and starting from scratch in a new country with a new language with a new people, with everything. Baynana, or between us, was the first initiative in Europe launched by refugees themselves to talk about refugees. So it's a unique initiative.’

Nasruddin Nizrami in Athens is the co-founder of Solomon  an independent online magazine in Greek and English. ‘We started with a very small group of migrant refugees in Greece and also with locals,’ Nizrami said.

The publication puts the emphasis on ‘slow news’. ‘Now it’s the Ukrainian topics on the front page. It will be one or two months and then we'll be finished. Okay, Afghanistan was a topic in August, just two weeks, on the front of TV channels and newspapers.’ Solomon magazine plans to continue to cover stories concerning Afghanistan and Afghan refugees in Greece.

Originally from Afghanistan, hes been granted asylum in Greece and recently co-authored an article about the Msafarhana (the houses many refugees are living in). ‘This exists in other European countries…and that was the reason that we thought that it's a good idea to write about this  how the people are in this situation. It took a long time to do this research,’ Nizrami said. ‘We should write the truth. What's happening, what's going on. About the situation of the people.’

Mohammad Subat was a student when the war began in Syria and felt compelled to report on what was happening after he was expelled from his university for protesting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime

A study in 2020 by the European Journalism Observatory about US and European migration reporting between 2015-18 found that while 26.6 per cent of articles do feature migrants and refugees as main actors, 18 per cent cover them only as large, anonymous groups. A mere 8 per cent of the articles feature migrants and refugees as individuals or families, while citizens and civil society actors in destination countries are the main actors in 18 per cent of the articles. Very few migrants and refugees featured in the articles are actually quoted: the media quoted 411 migrant speakers, compared to 4,267 non-migrant speakers.

Another examination of French media headlines between 2015-18 by Guiti News (the first mainstream online media offering a dual Franco-refugee perspective) found the word refugee has appeared more than 35,000 times, but only 10 per cent of these stories used refugees as a source of information.

‘Every time Spanish media tried to discuss the immigration or refugee crisis they host the guest, a Western guest who talks about a problem they've never known about,’ Subat said. ‘They've never lived it. They've never experienced the meaning of [being] a refugee or asylum seeker.’

It’s not just for the benefit of individual journalists from a refugee background  news outlets gain enormously, and the quality of reporting improves when those with direct knowledge and experience are part of the media.

‘I think that diversity is very important in a newsroom,’ Gaweesh said. ‘Because people here in Europe, in the United Kingdom, they only knew about the Middle East and other countries, superficial things, they don't have the capacity to dig in these communities. But we came from these communities. We know about the cultures, we know about the problems, we know about everything, about economy, about politics, about traditions. So I think it's important to have these voices in the newsroom.’

‘We can talk about the tourism sector in Egypt from an Egyptian voice. We can talk about Captagon trade in Syria from a Syrian refugee[’s perspective]. We can talk about the problem between Shia and Sunnah in Iraq from [the viewpoint of] an Iraqi refugee. We can talk about the horrible things in Afghanistan, and the declining situation for women in Afghanistan, from [the perspective of] a woman refugee from Afghanistan.’

The greater the diversity  and greater inclusion of refugee journalists in production roles such as editing and commissioning – the better the quality of the stories. Unbias The News, Hostwriter and The Refugee Journalism Project are just some of the projects which recognize this.

Subat has some advice for aspiring journalists. ‘The first thing is keep your spirits up. And there is always hope in the new country. And rebuild your self-confidence, you can do it, you can be a journalist again in your new country.

‘Don't listen to the negative messages like you will not be able to do this  [such as being told] there is a language barrier. The language is not a barrier. You can learn, you can study, you can speak the new language, it’s not a big deal.

‘It's very important to know about the culture and know about how they are working. So it will facilitate your mission to work as a journalist in the new country. And the last thing, just keep working on your mother country.’

Gaweesh also is keen to give hope to those who are working in this field. ‘Yes, you can. This is the first thing,’ he said. ‘You have added value, you can do it, you can be a professional journalist here.’

A new Pulitzer Center-funded podcast series on openDemocracy, created with artists, activists and journalists with experience of forced migration spoke to journalists who are producing their own media coverage of refugee stories. Listen to the Media episode with Osama Gaweesh, Nasruddin Nizrami and Mohamad Subat.


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