How to tell the refugee story? | Guest post from Veronique Mistiaen

The complexities of ‘the refugee story’ have formed the basis for a number of interactive and immersive projects over the past few years. Standout examples include Submarine Channel’s online interactive Refugee Republic, Aardman and BBC collaboration We Wait and more recently, Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Alternate Realities commission Future Aleppo.

Journalist Veronique Mistiaen has looked at a number of creative approaches to the issue and provides some guidance on how to tell the refugee story.

Original text written by Veronique Mistiaen on The Right Human and republished with permission.

Migration and the refugee story are one of the most important issues of our age and will be there for a long time. Migration, the movement of people, has always existed. “The current crisis isn’t about people being refugees and migrants, the crisis is that we think of such movement of people as a crisis,” said Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist in this issue (June 2017) of New Internationalist. He is right.

The way the media reports on migration and the refugee story has a huge impact on how people react to them and on public policies. So, as a journalist, I keep asking myself how to best report migration. How to produce fair and balanced pieces that counter the stereotypes and misinformation, but also how to keep telling these stories in ways that are engaging and innovative.

These are so many stories about refugees and migrants out there that people become numb and turn away from them. Yet, it is our job as journalists to keep telling those stories again and again, and to keep telling them in ways that cut through the compassion fatigue and reach our readers.

Over the past months, I’ve been looking at examples of various creative ways to do that – some are journalism, others not.

Here are just a few, illustrating or responding to three different issues in reporting migration:

Most refugee stories have been told in Europe in two ways: one that instills fear with unfactual or biased reporting; the other that shakes the public awake through sorrow and shock. But there is a middle ground: stories that put a face on the numbers, that humanise the immigration statistics, that show that refugees are just people like us, thrown into exceptional circumstances.

– My favourite is “A Perilous Journey: Stories of Migration” an exhibition of literary comics based on testimonies from refugees. They were created by PositiveNegatives, a wonderful non-profit, which produces literary comics, animations and podcasts about contemporary social and human rights issues, including conflict, racism, migration, trafficking and asylum.  Concentrating on contemporary real-life stories from Syria and Iraq, we follow two men and two women on their long difficult journeys fleeing conflict and persecution.  Nadia’s Story, for example, tells of a pregnant Yazidi mother, fleeing ISIS controlled Iraq with her two young children. The last panel of each story is a real photograph of the refugee, reminding us that these are real people and real stories. It is very effective and moving.  The exhibition was on at SOAS’ Brunei Gallery Room.

Hasko’s story: PositiveNegatives

“Sometimes it is really hard to put yourselves in the shoes of these people because it seems so distant but when I read the note it really made it sink in that this girl was not any different from me,”

– Last summer, short hand-written messages were left in public places – inside coffee shops, in between the pages of books in libraries, on benches in parks and tied to lampposts and railings – or written on white boards in tube stations. They were messages of hope for a better life, written by refugees from Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries – part of a campaign by humanitarian aid agency Mercy Corps, aimed at changing the attitudes and perspectives of people around Syrian refugees and the migrant crisis in general. The campaign was particularly effective with young people, who shared the messages on Instagram and Twitter.

“Sometimes it is really hard to put yourselves in the shoes of these people because it seems so distant but when I read the note it really made it sink in that this girl was not any different from me,” said Rebecca Alexander, a 21-year-old student, who saw the note of a 15-year-old Syrian refugee, hanging from a tree in London’s Regent’s Park.

Messages in London’s Regent Park

– Then there is the series of short radio episodes produced by BBC Radio 4’s The World at One, following a Syrian family from the Jordan refugee camp where they had lived for two years to Greece, then across Europe to Germany. Reporter Manveen Rana documented the twists and turns of their journey in a series of short reports – showing the good and the bad, the hopes and the challenges.  Her reports are honest, fascinating, moving, though provoking and surprising.

People are tired of refugee stories because stories of suffering are exhausting. Stories of empathy are empowering. As are those who show refugees not just as “victims”.

– For example, millions of people shared the image of Syrian refugee Alex Assali feeding homeless people on the streets of Berlin, but very few might have read his story in a newspaper.

When Assali, 38, woke up in his small Berlin flat one autumn morning two years ago, and checked his email, 1,000 messages waiting for him. The day before, a friend had uploaded a photograph to Facebook of Assali feeding homeless people on the streets of Berlin. The caption below read: “Acts of kindness: A Syrian refugee mans a food stand for the homeless, to ‘give something back to the German people’.”   The image went viral – it was shared more than 3,000 times on Facebook and nearly three million times on Imgur. Al Jazeera produced this interactive story, giving Assali’s backstory, and that story got no trolls, according to Yasir Khan, senior editor of digital video at Al Jazeera English.

– Then there was the “I am a refugee” campaign, launched last summer to celebrate the contribution refugees have made, and continue to make, to life in the UK. Plaques, inspired by the English Heritage blue plaques, were placed on buildings across the UK, where selected refugees have worked or studied. The idea was to show the diversity of the refugee population and the experiences they have had, as well as the creativity, skills and knowledge that they bring to the UK.

Stories on refugees should try to portray a range of backgrounds and experiences, even contradictory, to help the audience get a fuller picture. And it’s a good idea to let refugees tell their own stories.

‘Voices – Different Pasts, Shared Future’

For this year’s Refugee Week 2017, the Higgins Bedford Art Gallery and Museum launched ‘Voices – Different Pasts, Shared Future’, an exhibition featuring oral histories from refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants from Syria, Iraq, Rwanda and Palestine. Some of the stories are from women who are detained at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. The exhibition also includes a wonderful tapestry of objects which people have brought from their countries of origin. The objects are printed, then partly stitched by volunteers from the community and women from Yarl’s Wood. “These Voices transform personal memories into collective memories impossible to ignore,” says Josepa Munoz, the artist behind the project.

There are too many interesting and innovative projects and ways to report on the refugee story to feature here, but please add any other examples in the comments!

About the author

Veronique is an award-winning journalist writing about social issues, development, the environment and human rights for leading publications in the UK and internationally, including the Guardian, Economist, Newsweek, Telegraph, Times and Positive News. Check out her blog here.