For one day in March 2022, an unimposing container at the Ušivak refugee camp for migrants, about 14 miles from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was transformed into a newsroom. Almost a dozen migrants sat in a circle, with no tools other than their notebooks and pens, taking notes on how to use the photo features on their phones to improve the quality of the images they produced.
Danyal Hozhabry, a 34-year-old migrant from Iran, was excited to practice his photography skills. “I used to work as a photographer assistant in a dark room when I was a child,” he told me as he unfolded a chair and set up a white board to prepare the classroom. “For the past year, the spark of photography lit up my heart again.”
Hozhabry is a member of Dispatches in Exile, an editorial project giving migrants and asylum-seekers transiting through Bosnia and Herzegovina on their way to the European Union a platform to tell their own stories. The project, which began in 2021, was launched as the Covid-19 pandemic was worsening an already dire situation for migrants in Bosnia. Headed by the VII Foundation, a nonprofit media education group, Dispatches has shed a light on refugees’ everyday lives inside Bosnian camps, from what they’ve been eating to the entrepreneurial initiatives they’ve launched to engage with the outside world.
As more people are displaced from their home countries due to conflicts, persecution, poverty, and the climate crisis, media outlets have covered the news mainly through numbers and facts reported by journalists who visit refugee camps but have little personal connection to the issue itself. To bridge that gap, some newsrooms have attempted to include more reporters with immigrant backgrounds to report on refugees. Dispatches is one example of a newsroom established inside a refugee camp — where the news is produced by migrants, for migrants.
“Refugees being able to tell their own stories will help break down stereotypes, clichés, and prejudices in the media, and consequently in people’s minds” — Katrin Schatz, project manager at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom
“Representation is very important in the media sector. [Western] journalists reporting on refugee camps will not approach and reflect on the situation on the ground in the same way as reporters who are, or were, refugees themselves,” says Katrin Schatz, project manager at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, which works with journalists in exile in Europe. “Refugees being able to tell their own stories will help break down stereotypes, clichés, and prejudices in the media, and consequently in people’s minds.”
Some European countries, especially those ringing the Mediterranean Sea, have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees since 2015 due to their proximity to Africa and the Middle East. This has sometimes resulted in hostilities from locals, which have at times escalated into clashes, and a rise in nationalist politics across the continent. In 2018, the far-right, xenophobic League party, headed by Matteo Salvini, came to power in Italy and introduced anti-migrant measures. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has called migrants “a public security and terror risk” and is openly anti-immigrant, warning in July that Hungary must not become a “mixed-race” country. In 2021, Greece expanded a wall that was built a decade ago with the aim of stopping the wave of migrants attempting to cross into Europe.
More than a million people have transited through Greece and Italy since late 2014. Many of them have gone through the national asylum systems, which often entail long periods of waiting until an asylum application is approved. In the meantime, they are required to live with other asylum-seekers in the same reception centers where they will also attend school and language classes — sometimes amid local anti-migrant sentiments. In 2020, for example, violence erupted on Lesbos, a Greek island hosting thousands of asylum-seekers, where far-right vigilantes attacked humanitarian workers helping migrants.
In Greece, where refugee camps are located near big cities like Athens, it often seems difficult to reach Greek audiences and educate them about what happens a few meters from their houses. Over the past five years, Migratory Birds — a refugee-run newspaper — has tried to do just that.
Migratory Birds was founded as a language improvement workshop led by the Network for Children’s Rights youth center, one of the many local NGOs working inside the Ritsona refugee camp, just outside the Greek capital. But it quickly turned into an opportunity to tackle misinformation about refugees in Greece. A group of 15 Afghan girls — fed up with the way asylum-seekers were depicted in the mainstream European media — decided to turn the journalism workshop into an actual newspaper. Aside from writing about camp events, “the goal was to turn it into an outlet to communicate their fears and frustrations, but also their hopes and dreams,” explains Ioanna Papaioannou, a professional journalist and media trainer who used to work in documentary filmmaking.
The first issue was published in April 2017 and included stories on the situation in the camp, book reviews, and stories about staffers’ journeys to Europe. Today, the team includes two dozen reporters between the ages of 13 and 25 and publishes in five languages. Articles in each issue vary from reported features on Athens’ best places to eat to essays about love, pieces about food and traditions in writers’ home countries, and poetry. In 2020, Migratory Birds also launched a website to act as an archive of the print editions.
Mahdia Hossaini, an Afghan refugee born and raised in Iran and living in Athens since 2016, has been with the Migratory Birds team since its inception. “The newspaper initially helped me to familiarize myself with the small community of the camp because, as a woman, it was very difficult to integrate into that specific [space],” Hossaini says. Many of the men in the camp did not support the idea of women being in charge of a news outlet because they felt it would distract them from more suitable activities for women. However, “we slowly left behind the closed space of the camp,” Hossaini explains. “This project was a way to enter the local community. We were even invited [to speak at] many different schools and universities.”
The first issue of Migratory Birds was integrated into a Greek newspaper — Efimerida ton Sintakton — as an 8-page insert. In total, around 13,000 copies are distributed bi-monthly across the country. “It’s a unique experience for us Greeks,” Papaioannou says. “Even people in small villages are exposed to the sight of foreign alphabets next to the Greek one and to images from migrants’ lenses that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”
Despite the anti-migrant rhetoric from some in the country, the reception has so far mainly been positive, she adds. Readers have sent letters of support to Migratory Birds, thanking the writers for contributing a different perspective to news about the camps and migrants. Migratory Birds hopes one day this will lead to political change, at least on the local level, as more people see the human stories behind the international crisis.
The team receives training from journalists from outlets like Reporters United, an organization that promotes investigative journalism in Greece, and Efimerida. They chip in with help with headline writing and digital publishing as well as audio editing for the occasional podcast episodes. Funding comes from groups like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. In September, Hossaini begins an internship at Greek newspaper. Her hope for the future: a news outlet run solely by refugees, with no Greek intermediaries.
Dispatches in Exile
Ziyah Gafić, a Bosnian photojournalist and regional director of the VII Academy, the educational branch of the VII Foundation, was motivated to find a way to give refugees the opportunity to tell their stories from their own points of view. As a former refugee of the Yugoslavian war in the 1990s himself, he felt this was necessary. The result is Dispatches in Exile, which gives voice to refugees along the Balkan Route for asylum-seekers trying to reach the E.U.
“All our knowledge [about refugees] is acquired through third persons — be it journalists, activists, or humanitarian workers. We almost never hear the voice of the direct subjects,” Gafić says. He believes that, whereas other movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo were able to finally bring forward the voices of the victims, space for refugees in the media has not been made. “It’s not just a matter of journalism,” he adds. “Being able to tell your own story is a basic human right.”
Since Dispatches was founded, VII Academy has trained about 70 people scattered across reception centers around Bosnia and Herzegovina and has organized at least 10 professional workshops in its offices in Sarajevo to train participants on technical photography skills and narrative storytelling. Their work is financially supported by journalism grants provided by philanthropic entities, such as TED.
As a photographer, Gafić decided to focus on telling visual stories. “Photos and visuals are the most universal language,” he says. “Since people on the move come from way too many different places and often don’t speak English well enough to write, we thought photography was a more immediate tool to let them express themselves, and for their audience to understand them.” Since the majority of asylum seekers own a smartphone, Gafić had a good starting point to develop a newsroom.
“Our newsroom is very low-cost, and the professional training focuses on refining their skills to produce photos and videos, accompanied by a catchy text, to post on social media,” Gafić explains. “Even if the majority of participants in these projects will not become a professional journalist, the skill of knowing how to tell your own story has a significant psychological effect on [their] lives.”
As a social media-focused outlet (although stories are also shared on Dispatch’s website), one of the first assignments is to publish on Instagram about their daily meals. They write something about themselves as well as any personal story connected to the specific meal pictured in the post. Some documented the daily food they received from the United Nations agencies administering the transit camps to raise awareness of nutritional problems migrants face; others preferred to show how they cook for themselves and each other, to replicate the flavors of home.
From there, participants like Iranian photographer Hozhabry work on improving technical skills with a focus on creating a storytelling narrative to engage audiences. Ayanle, who is from Somalia and declined to give his last name for security reasons, traveled without family to Bosnia and decided to open up about the traumas he experienced along the way through a short video showing his current living conditions in the camp. Twenty-year-old Afghan twins Roseena and Melina Hafizi documented the clothes they designed during their three-month stay in the Ušivak transit camp to show how migrants are eager to add contribute their professional and artistic skills to local communities.
When a fashion brand run by asylum-seekers in Ušivak was launched and had a runway show in Sarajevo, Hozhabry reported the story. He documented the whole process, from the brand’s inception to the sewing and design sessions to the gala night itself.
Hozhabry’s photos were picked up by local Bosnian newspapers. “But they misspelled my name, when giving me credits in the print edition,” Hozhabry says. “It made me feel without an identity. I think this would not have happened, there would have been more attention to this detail, if a migrant were in the newsroom. It might seem like an irrelevant detail to anyone else, but it made me realize how much we still need to achieve representation.”
To develop yet another perspective on migration, Gafić is hoping to bring Dispatches to the migrants’ countries of origin, particularly Ukraine and Afghanistan, to document the beginnings of migrants’ journeys. “It’s fundamental to keep these projects alive, and reproduce them elsewhere, specifically in the places they come from,” Gafić says. “It empowers them even before they start making their way to Western countries.”
In some cases, already established news outlets are setting aside spaces for migrant voices. In Sicily, Salvo Cona, managing director of the online newspaper Il Solidale, launched in 2016 a section in his local newspaper called “Migrantes 2.0” aimed at giving a platform to those seeking asylum in Italy. “The goal was to let them tell stories about their own lives and their experiences in the new community,” Cona explains. “We wanted to be setting an example of a multi-ethnic newsroom that had the unique feature of having part of its staff speaking from inside the Italian asylum system.”
“It’s fundamental to keep these projects alive, and reproduce them elsewhere, specifically in the places they come from. It empowers them even before they start making their way to Western countries.” — Ziyah Gafić, Bosnian photojournalist and regional director of the VII Academy
Participants were scouted through a summer workshop to improve their Italian language skills. Some like 17-year-old Tanin from Bangladesh prefer to talk about their new life in Sicily and their plans to fully integrate once they receive their paperwork; others prefer to engage readers with stories about their home countries, such as 18-year-old Saher Bellil, who wrote an essay about the white beaches of his native Hammamet in Tunisia, or 20-year-old Dalia Ilunga, who described in detail a typical wedding ceremony in her native Congo. Cona provides journalism training, which includes interviewing and multimedia skills, as well as press freedom education. Italian teachers from the language school in the refugee centers provide the writing and editing support.
Abdollah Abdulrahman, a 20-year-old Libyan living in Italy since 2018, recently published a story for Migrantes 2.0 about Marcelin Oumarou, a man from Cameroon living in the Tusa camp in Messina who was in a play organized by the local community. Abdulrahman says publishing this story gave him the motivation to keep writing about the struggles and successes of migrant journeys to Europe: “Being a journalist is my real dream. I don’t like being a journalist because I like to write or because I want to be on TV. I like it because I want to help those who want to get their message out in the world.”
Although migrant newsrooms are just starting to emerge in Europe, in Africa — a continent that hosts an estimated 30 million refugees — a similar initiative that has been running for decades has evolved into a prominent media outlet. Kanere began in 2008 as a school club inside the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, which accommodates around 200,000 people from countries like South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The outlet quickly turned into a watchdog platform to protect the rights of the residents.
Staffed only by refugees in Kakuma, Kanere covers every aspect of life in this city-like camp. With its six print editions per year and a digital platform launched in 2016, its goal is to hold aid agencies working inside the camp accountable and challenge the narrative they present to international journalists during press visits. The outlet also provides residents crucial information they might need to move around and be safe during their daily lives.
“Humanitarian workers have been telling stories on our behalf, but from their own perspective, targeting donors’ money and giving a completely disconnected image of our everyday reality,” says Tolossa Asrat, lead editor of Kanere, who’s been living in Kakuma for the past 10 years. “We felt a moral obligation to tell the story of what is going on inside the camp, from our own perspective.”
Asrat had been a radio reporter at a local station in Ethiopia before migrating to Kenya. This background led him to volunteer as a trainer around six years ago. During that time, he has been able to break stories that had an impact on his fellow refugees.
Recently, his reporting shed light on the increasing suicide rates in Kakuma and the U.N.’s response to the camp’s social health issues. “We report for our own security and protection, as refugees and journalists,” Asrat says. “But we also hope to target policymakers as an audience. If they read us, it can help them make informed decisions that will lead to positive changes in our life.”
The outlet is expanding its scope and reporting more regularly from outside the camp. After living in Kakuma for four years, Qaabata Boru resettled in Canada but continues to report for Kanere to give those living in the camp an outside perspective. One of his recent stories — which detailed how authorities in other countries handled the pandemic compared to Kakuma — helped residents realize how aid agencies didn’t implement basic public health measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, which motivated residents to peacefully demand more attention from humanitarian workers.
Kanere was among the first outlets to report on Kenya’s decision in March to close Kakuma, and their work helped raise awareness of the future of the asylum-seekers living there. Despite the announcement of the closure, several of Kanere’s former journalists living in Nairobi plan to keep Kanere going by reporting on the aftermath of its closure, namely through stories about asylum-seekers forced to upend their lives and international reporting by former colleagues now living as refugees in the West.
With Europe facing yet another refugee crisis with millions of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion and with millions of people expected to be forced to flee their homes due to the climate crisis, efforts to understand the lives of people displaced by unstable regimes, famine, and natural disasters are increasingly essential. “If we neglect refugee voices in the media, there’ll be no room for improvement of mainstream coverage of migration,” Gafić says.