Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Loose ends: Syrian refugee project in Adana, Turkey
A few loose ends/leftovers from Phase I of our “Reporting Syrian Refugees” project in Turkey earlier this month:

Jets , Assad, ISIS

As you’re interviewing refugees in camps or tent cities in the Adana, Turkey area, one of the first things you notice are the military aircraft overhead. These are from a U.S. air base about 20 miles from Adana. The jets, fighters, and attack aircraft were all flying southeast—towards Syria and Iraq.
The roar of these jets is unnerving, particularly when the human impact of war is right in front of you. As I was interviewing a former Syrian Free Army fighter who is now a refugee, one of these planes soared overhead. We both looked at the jet. I saw an opportunity to ask about U.S. military involvement in the Syrian conflict. The former combatant told me the jets do not scare him—they are “just like birds.” He approves of the sorties, saying through a translator that he wants the US to “save us from ISIS and Assad.” Another former fighter standing nearby nodded his agreement. He said that Syria is “confused—like hell.” He added that the U.S. should “be in charge.”
While these responses are predictable, they’re interesting nonetheless. I wish I had more time, and a translator dedicated to my interview, to sit down with these soldiers and hear more about their experiences and about their impressions of the effectiveness of the U.S. bombing campaign in the region.

Frenetic games of  soccer are standard fare at the Adana Camp, home to about 10,000 refugees. On each of my two visits, there was a main game on the camp’s regulation-sized pitch, but also several auxiliary games on the side—games without a goal, as nearly as I could tell. The players were men in their late teens and 20’s, many of whom looked very skilled.

For younger kids lucky enough to have a ball, there are rolling games of soccer that move organically from one area to another of the camp. Outside of the camp store, I briefly played in one such game, more or less holding my own with several 8-10 year olds. We seemed to have a good time, and there was much laughing—undoubtedly at my lack of skill. 

We wrapped up our seminars last Friday with a visit to a tent city of about 650 refugees. The seminar participants photographed and interviewed refugees about the difficult living conditions in the camp. Earlier, I had encouraged them to find counter-narrative stories that debunk the myths and stereotypes perpetuated by the Turkish media.

In all, Phase I of the “Reporting Syrian Refugees” project, sponsored by the US Embassy in Ankara, included two four day seminars. Two days of each seminar were devoted to reporting from the field. The participants, journalists and students, were receptive to the peace journalism message, and eager to employ their new skills. Phase II of the project will be a Peace Journalism Summit in May in Istanbul.

--ALSO SEE: Photo album #2--Of visits to refugee camp and tent city in Adana.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Reporting Syrian Refugees in Turkey
Rediscovering humanity in a Syrian refugee camp
(NEAR ADANA, TURKEY)--As we took off our shoes off to enter Sevsan’s living room, it would have been easy to think  we were in an average home somewhere in the Arab world.

Sevsan and kids
Sevsan, a pretty, 30ish housewife adored with a colorful scarf covering her hair, smiled and offered us a comfortable seat on one of the cushions lining the walls. Her house is small—about 12’ by 18’—and spotlessly clean. Artwork by three of her children is stuck randomly on the walls. Her fourth child, a beautiful, radiantly-grinning four month old girl, was passed to one of the visitors who beamed almost as brightly as the child.

In the background, on low, is a regional TV channel, captured by Sevsan and most of her neighbors using a satellite dish. Sevsan invited us to take pictures of her home. As we chatted, three neighborhood toddlers quietly slipped into the room, sitting close but not too close to the visitors. Games of peek-a-boo ensued, as did multiple rounds of “make a silly face, get your picture taken, get shown your picture, and snicker uncontrollably.” Of course, I did my fair s
hare of the snickering.

The conversational topic favored by host and guests was one that avoided the elephant in the room—war, violence, lost loved ones, displacement, and homesickness. Instead, we talked about children. I noted that Sevsan’s  four month old seems especially alert and aware of her surroundings, and that the girl is undoubtedly very intelligent. Sevsan, through a translator, agreed, adding that all her children are very smart. She then asked me about my son, and I told her about his kind spirit. Sevsan grinned broadly, and in a lower and very  earnest tone of voice, said she hopes God blesses my son.

I was stricken almost breathless by Sevsan’s comment. Her she is, living with 10,000 others in a “guest accommodation” (what the Turks euphemistically call a refugee camp), having endured God-knows what to get here—here she is worried about my son.

I thanked her, and, stumbling to find the right words, offered the same blessings for her children.
Sevsan’s tent is one of 2,142 in this enormous, 437,000 square kilometer, two-year-old  complex about 10km from Adana. The camp includes schools for all ages, all housed in Quonset huts. Primary students attend co-ed classes, while older students are segregated by gender . There are 3,268 total students learning in both Turkish and Arabic. 

Amanisaouf in her preschool/kindergarten
One of my favorite stops at the camp was the preschool/kindergarten, where about two dozen four and five year olds greeted our arrival with enthusiastic, deafening glee. Teacher Amanisatouf, turning occasionally to cast some stern glares to her charges, said that when she first came to the camp two years ago, the students were constantly afraid, angry, and nervous. Now, s  This healing was illustrated in a story I heard twice. When kids first arrive in the camp, they cry, cower, and sometime hide when they see an airplane, which, coming from Syria, they associate with bombs, fire, and death. However, after they’ve been here in Turkey for a few months, they don’t even notice the airplanes. She said, the kids are “too happy.” Even though these youngsters seem to be resilient and well-adjusted, Amanisatouf said they  still long to return home to Syria.

Aside from dozens of education-related tents, this sprawling facility also includes a clinic, fire station, and a modern grocery store. We walked to the store by veering around a noisy soccer match (on a regulation-sized field). The store was well stocked with canned food, produce, and dry goods—indistinguishable from a grocery store in Adana, we were told. “Guests” make purchases here using a monthly allowance from the Turkish government  or by using money from odd, low-paying jobs many of the men work outside of camp.
The camp director said this facility, Adana Saricam Konaklami, is a “small and peaceful city” run by the Turkish government. UN representatives come at least once a week to check up on things, the director noted as he passed out sheets of statistics about this place. One compelling statistic—Sevsan’s genius baby daughter is one of 2,280 infants born in this place.

Down the street from Sevsan’s tent, we encountered a group of a half-dozen Syrians lounging in green plastic chairs. They waved us over, and offered up their seats. They also offered tea, but we politely declined. The matriarch of the group, wearing a colorful head scarf similar to Sevsan’s, told us that they had lived in the camp almost two years, and that her family, including her seven children, originally came from Hama, Syria. She said her two daughters live in another Turkish camp, and added that reuniting the family, while wonderful, would be problematic at best. She said that they try to stay in touch with relatives in Syria by phone after midnight when the rates are lower. The woman went on to describe their hopeless economic situation. Her smile was big, she was quick to laugh, but the sadness in her voice belied her happy fa├žade.

I never asked her name or sought permission to take pictures, either. I realize that this isn’t exactly standard journalistic practice. However, asking these things in this instance just seemed unnatural and intrusive. 

About a dozen of us toured Adana’s “guest accommodation” as part of a peace journalism workshop here that was sponsored by the US State Department, Istanbul University, and the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University. The workshop centered on responsible reporting about refugees. I encouraged my seminar participants, journalists and students, to look for “counter-narrative” stories that debunk the largely negative stereotypes of refugees in the media.  I was pleased with what the participants came up with—stories, for example, about the difficulty of daily life here, about having a baby in the camp, about young adults who learn Turkish and thus are able to go on to a university, and about the psychological trauma of children.

As good as these ideas are, for me the best story is still about Sevsan, who was able to look past the tragedies in her own life and offer up this lesson about humanity: that no matter one’s own circumstances, we can always find a little kindness and concern for the well-being of another. 

--For a complete photo album from the camp, click here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Turkey Peace Journalism Project
Tent cities pose challenges for
Syrian residents, Turkish hosts

NARRATED SLIDESHOW: 250 Syrian refugees live in an unofficial refugee camp in Adana, Turkey. I went there, and found out a bit about how they live, and why they left. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwlNYd6KxDs&feature=youtu.be .

We're holding a second seminar this week, also sponsored by the US Embassy, that applies peace journalism principles to reporting about refugees. Stay tuned for more details.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Turkey Seminar, Day Two
Reporters, students produce counternarrative story ideas
According to the dominant media narrative in Turkey, Syrian refugees are thieves, freeloaders, dirty, and steal jobs from local residents. Today in our seminar sponsored by the US Embassy, participants came up with story topic ideas that debunk these media-fueled stereotypes while promoting reconciliation between refugees and their host communities.

These story ideas, including topics like highlighting Syrian culture, focusing on common Syrian-Turkish heritage, and telling the stories of successful Syrians, will be explored tomorrow in the field. We'll  be spending the day in a refugee camp (either a formal one, or perhaps a make-shift one) collecting information for our counternarrative stories.

Mosque impresses
Meanwhile last night, we explored the impressive, beautiful Grand Mosque of Adana.With what looks like an acre of floor space, the mosque is said to hold up to 50,000 worshippers. Interestingly, there's an underground parking garage underneath the mosque.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Turkey notebook:
Obstacles hinder responsible refugee reporting
Adana, Turkey—As the first of two peace journalism seminars got underway here today, the operative question was this: What are the obstacles to professionally reporting about the 2.3 million Syrian refugees here in Turkey?

The first major obstacle is access to the refugee camps. There are two such camps within a two hour drive of Adana here in southern Turkey. My project partner, Dr. Nilufer Pembecioglu from the University of Istanbul, shared with the attendees the difficulties of getting multiple permissions from both national and local level officials. Apparently, running down the mayor for his signature is often the most difficult of these many steps. 

The participants, a mixed group of journalists, students, and a journalism professor, also noted that many obstacles come from the refugees themselves. These include interviewee fatigue (being tired of telling the same story to multiple reporters), fear of revealing their identity, and the common issue of asking to be paid for an interview. I wasn’t much help in this regard, since I have paid poor interviewees and felt guilty, and I’ve stuck to my journalistic principles and not paid, and also felt guilty.

The day closed with a discussion about my proposed guidelines for reporting about refugees and other displaced persons. We’ll discuss these guidelines, including considering the consequences of reporting, respecting refugees’ privacy, and not reinforcing stale stereotypes, during the second day of our seminar tomorrow. 

This seminar, and the one that follows next week, is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey.