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.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo attacks:
Peace reporting should shun "us vs. them", embrace context

The aftermath of the reprehensible murders of Charlie Hebdo journalists gives media an opportunity to use the principles of peace journalism to turn down the heat while shedding light on what happened and why.

First, responsible peace journalists would give a full report about what happened in Paris without ignoring any of the violent reality. (A mistaken notion about peace journalists is that they sugarcoat the truth). However, responsible journalists  would avoid sensationalism, stereotyping, and any other depiction that would make this bad situation even worse. Peace journalists would publish images that capture the event without highlighting or exploiting the blood and gore.

One key tenet of peace journalism is rejecting the traditional media notion of “us vs. them,” which is an oversimplified, inaccurate lens through which to view the world. In the aftermath of the attack, don’t be surprised to see this East vs. West or Muslim vs. Christian narrative splashed all over the media.  Yet, this traditional approach is polarizing, and can possibly fuel more violence.

Writing in a column in today’s Guardian newspaper (UK) , Nesrine Malik says, “The way to honour the dead and find a way out of what seems like a depressingly inevitable downward spiral would be to resist the polar narrative (us vs. them, good vs. bad) altogether. It will not only heal painful rifts, it might even save lives.”

Peace journalists would explore the legitimate grievances behind those who oppose the newspaper, without giving justification to the violence perpetrated against Charlie Hebdo. We should explain the violence and its context without excusing it.  Therefore, the most important underlying issue explaining the attacks, the nature of blasphemy, must be explored in depth by responsible journalists.

Several online comments I have read from Muslim friends/followers on Facebook and Twitter offer a tiny slice of opinion about blasphemy and its role in the Paris attack.  A number of these comments I saw were similar to this one:  “I'm against terrorism, I'm against what happened in Paris today and against all what happens in the world under the name of Islam, but I'm also against the freedom of expression that hurts or limits other people’s freedom of religious practice or any freedom in general! I'm sorry, I can never be a “JeSuisCharlie” and am against this slogan to support regression (sic) of Muslims or any other group! Both parts are responsible (for) this event, war or terrorism is not just with guns and bloods. Sometimes words kill more than a bullet or a bomb and every single day!”

Another Muslim friend, an academic writing on Facebook, vehemently disagreed. “Words or images may hurt, especially when they touch what is “sacred” for people. But words must be countered with words and not with guns. I don’t agree with the idea that both sides are equally responsible for this atrocity. Ridiculing of any religious belief can be criticized, but it does not legitimize any murderous act.”

While there is no survey data yet regarding worldwide Muslim opinion on the Paris attack and its causes, I would be willing to predict that Muslim opinions are as diverse as the two statements above. Traditional media have, unfortunately, successfully created an inaccurate, one-dimensional narrative that depicts Muslims as a single minded, monolithic entity.

The Charlie Hebdo incident, tragic though it may be, offers Western media an opportunity to broaden and enhance the media portrayal of Islam while simultaneously leading a discussion about the chilling effect the murders may have legitimate public discourse about religion.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Year in Review, Part II

Media lessons from Ferguson; PJ blossoms in Bronx, Kenya

The media were dominated by news from and about the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in the last half of 2014. From a peace journalist’s perspective, coverage of Ferguson, while often sub-par, did provide a valuable learning opportunity for reporters and students of media.

In August, immediately after Michael Brown was killed, in an op-ed piece in the Kansas City Star, I wrote that “much of the Ferguson coverage has been superficial, sensational and lacking context, while feeding well-worn stereotypes and narratives.” I pointed out the irony that the August Ferguson coverage was “ reminiscent of traditional war coverage that centers on the ‘action,’ who bombed whom, while marginalizing the underlying causes of the conflict and the search for peace…Given the tone and volume of the reporting, it’s hard to conclude that media coverage hasn’t exacerbated the crisis in Ferguson.”

I went on to offer a guide to reporting civic unrest. This guide included providing analysis and context, not just play-by-play; giving a voice to the voiceless; avoiding ‘us-vs-them’ characterizations (black vs. white, Christian vs. Muslim, etc.); using non inflammatory, non-sensational language; reporting counter-narratives that offer non-traditional perspectives on all the players involved; and giving peacemakers a voice.

These suggestions were largely ignored in November, when violence reignited in Ferguson.
First, I analyzed the cable TV coverage from Monday, Nov. 24, the day of the worst unrest. I wrote that the reporting about Ferguson was “a mixed bag, occasionally offering sober commentary and context, but all too often devolving into “play by play” coverage of the unrest…CNN’s correspondents were plunked down in the middle of the action (so that they could be tear gassed?), while one Fox cameraman who was filming the looting had his camera destroyed. The strategy of such coverage is obviously to add to the drama of the event, to make the journalists participants in the chaos, and, ultimately, to keep viewers tuned in. How much these shenanigans really contributed to the viewers’ understanding of the situation, or to a more nuanced discussion of the issues at hand, is subject to debate.”

I also analyzed newspaper coverage from Nov. 25. “…A surprising number of front pages are serving up less inflammatory images and rhetoric. It was encouraging to see front pages from Oakland, Tampa Bay, LA, Kansas City, Cleveland, and elsewhere shun the low hanging fruit—pictures of the burning cop car, or of shattered glass, or of armored vehicles. Instead, these newspapers took a more thoughtful approach, one that captured the sadness and disappointment of many without highlighting the anger.”

As a demonstration, I posted my version of what a peace journalism-style front page of the unrest might look like. (pictured-right)

My November column on Ferguson concluded, “Readers and viewers in St. Louis, New York, and everywhere else deserve thoughtful coverage that doesn’t exacerbate an already volatile situation and that gives peacemakers a more prominent voice.” 

Before the Ferguson situation, I had the opportunity to teach my third peace journalism seminar in the Bronx, NY. This time, the focus was on stereotype-laced media coverage of immigrants in New York City. 

“I presented research that confirmed what the participants already knew—that immigrants are stereotyped in the media, that most of these stereotypes are negative, and that negative stereotypes in particular infect audiences. We specifically examined a study by Latino Decisions that discussed the corrosive stereotypes of Latinos and immigrants. 

“Then, we discussed using a peace journalism model as a way for media to break out of these stale, distorted narratives about immigrants. While peace journalism was conceived as a way to model war and peace reporting, I’ve found it useful in many other arenas—crime coverage, development issues, politics, etc. Certainly, the peace journalism principles of accuracy, balance, giving a voice to the voiceless (immigrants), being proactive instead of reactive, eschewing us vs. them reporting, and humanizing all sides are useful as we seek to give a more three-dimensional quality to our reporting about immigrants and immigrant issues.”

In October, I was privileged to be invited to teach PJ to a group of students and journalists at Rongo University in southwestern Kenya.

The key focus of the Rongo seminar, one I hadn’t really explored in my 100 or so previous peace journalism workshops and seminars around the world, was reconciliation. I wrote, “The radio journalists agreed that there is certainly a need for reconciliation here in Kenya between ethnic groups, regional interests, political parties, etc. We also agreed on the vital role of media in helping to tell stories and foster dialogues that encourage reconciliation. Toward that end, the journalists split into three groups, and produced peace and reconciliation-themed radio stories. One group’s story was about efforts to reduce tensions between tax collectors and businesses, while the other two spotlighted how one local radio station is giving a voice to those advocating reconciliation and the role of the university in bringing together those with different ethnicities. Each story demonstrated the journalists’ mastery of the principles of peace journalism.

“ …I encouraged them to take what they had learned, and spread the word to their colleagues throughout the region.”

Looking ahead, 2015 will begin with a series of seminars in Turkey on reporting Syrian refugees. These seminars begin Jan. 16. This project will conclude with a peace journalism summit in Istanbul in May. Other possible project locations in 2015 include Kuwait, Lebanon, and Rongo, Kenya.