Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Refugee Exhibition: "Claiming a New Place on Earth"




If you are in London this week, please come and see our exhibition “Claiming a New Place on Earth” at Protein Studios in Shoreditch, London.  Through photographs and interviews, photographer Caroline Irby and I have recorded the journey of 10 refugees or asylum seekers aged 18-24, who arrived in the UK as minors and are now coming of age in this country. 

How is it to grow up in an Afghan village with no water and no electricity, then to find yourself alone in London at 18, not speaking a word of English?

How does it feel when life is passing you by, when you cannot get your driving license, go to university or get a job because you are waiting for your papers?


Thousands of teenagers arrive in the UK every year seeking asylum. Many have missed out on education and have been scarred by war and by having to leave their home countries.  In the UK, they have to navigate complex systems to get the support they need. Yet, they are also young people with talent, pride, aspirations and dreams.


The young refugees are from Syria, Ivory Coast, Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ukraine and Uganda. They talk about the life they have left behind and their new experiences in this country - the hurdles and challenges they are facing, especially around the asylum and education systems - as well as their dreams and aspirations for the future.  They were photographed in the context of their dream job. 


The portraits and interviews are part of the exhibition “Claiming a New Place on Earth” at Protein Studios in London, Oct. 10-15 (the title is from Lesbos 2015  by poet Ruth Padel). The exhibition was commissioned and curated by Breaking Barriers (BB), a wonderful charity helping refugees to find meaningful employment.

Caroline and I have worked together on a number of humanitarian stories overseas – particularly in Africa and Asia - and in the UK.   We have a keen interest in refugee issues because we have seen some of the causes that trigger people to flee their homes. We wanted to meet some of the young refugees who have settled here to learn what propelled them to move so far, and to hear about their experiences of trying to make a new life here.  And, at a time when Brexit negotiations are pressing on and immigration is such a loaded topic, we wanted to let some young refugees tell their own stories in their own words.

This is our second collaboration with Breaking Barriers. Last year, Breaking Barriers’ exhibition portrayed refugees at the place where they first felt free or safe in the UK.

You can see some of the portraits and interviews in this Guardian article



Friday, 22 September 2017

#LivingIsWinning – Olympics inspire refugee awareness campaign




 
No matter the distance, the height or the fight

For them, living is already winning

#LivingIsWinning



Athletes perform amazing physical feats to win; men, women and children fleeing war, poverty and violence also surpass themselves. But they do it simply to survive.



This parallel struck two young French creatives, who wanted to counter the negative portraits of refugees in the media. They took the opportunity of the official announcement of Paris 2024 Olympics to talk about the dangerous journey many refugees have to take – crossing lands, deserts and seas and facing countless obstacles - in order to win their right to live.



The result is  “Living is Winning”, a refugee awareness campaign launched on September 14, the day after Paris was officially set to host the 2024 Olympics.



The campaign, which features a series of posters, three films and a campaign website, was created and directed by Valentin Guiod (Josiane Paris) and Min-Hyung Choi (AdamandeveDDB London), with the support of Josiane and OTSO Paris, and led by La Cimade, an independent humanitarian organisation protecting refugees’ rights.



“In France, some people started to see migrants as hobos whereas they are just humans who are forced to leave everything, surpassing themselves to flee conflict and persecution,” explains Min-Hyung Choi. “This idea of surpassing yourself rang a bell.  They are doing it not to win golds, but just their right to live with dignity. Then there was this debate on Paris 2024 in the French media, which we saw as the perfect opportunity to bring back another debate on the table.”



Their initiative has received lots of support, including from the award-winning photographer Espen Rasmussen, who lent his images to the campaign - and was extensively covered in the French media and on social media with more than 140k views and 2900 shares on Facebook.  



Now, they want to spread their message to an international audience. So please, do share it.



#LivingIsWinning




Friday, 25 August 2017

Prafulla Samantara: indigenous land rights' champion

Samantara with the Dongria Kondh/ Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize  


Prafulla Samantara has been threatened, kidnapped and jailed trying to stop a huge mining project on sacred tribal land in Odisha, India.  But he is not afraid and, at 65, not ready to retire. ‘I will keep on fighting until my last breath. I cannot betray the people, the cause,’ he told me when I met him in London in late Spring.

The Indian social justice activist won the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize  for Asia for his 12-year campaign to block the mine and for securing indigenous communities’ voting rights on such projects.

From a young age, he witnessed the impact of mining and industrial development on small farming communities and the growing inequalities between rich and poor. ‘I’ve seen working people and those at the bottom of society being exploited and suffering. Equality and justice became my guiding principles.’

Yet he recognizes that development is necessary, but not at all costs. ‘In India, 60 million people have been displaced over the last 60 years because of big projects such as mining and dams. Indigenous people are not consulted. They are marginalized, even though they are the owners and guardians of natural resources.’

Odisha, the eastern Indian state on the Bay of Bengal where he grew up, is known for its pristine forests, high mountain peaks and numerous rivers; but also for its vast reserve of minerals – almost a third of the state is under mining concessions.

The Odisha Mining Company had agreed a deal with London-based Vedanta Resources to gouge a $2 billion open-pit bauxite mine on the Dongria Kondh’s land without consulting them. 

‘The Dongria Kondh don’t believe in religion, but in nature. The Niyamgiri Hills are their gods. They get everything from them: their entire livelihood and their social and cultural identity. They believe it’s their duty to protect them at all cost.’ The mine would not only have destroyed their homeland, but also polluted water for millions downstream as far as the Bay of Bengal, and destroyed large areas of protected forests which are home to rare wildlife including elephants and the Bengal tiger. In anticipation of receiving the mining licences, Vedanta illegally annexed 148 acres of forest and bulldozed 12 villages.

You can read my article on Samantara for New Internationalist here.


Saturday, 17 June 2017

How to tell the refugee story?

Khalid's story/PositiveNegatives


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 humanize the immigration statistics, that show that refugees are just people like us, thrown into exceptional circumstances. And the best stories are those told by refugees themselves.
- 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 is at SOAS’ Brunei Gallery Room: 1st Floor Gallery until June 24. Really worth a visit!

Hasko'story/PositiveNegatives

- 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.
- 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.






• 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 “Iam 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.

For this year’s Refugee Week 2017, the Higgins Bedford Art Gallery and Museum is launching ‘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 feel free to add those you like…






















Monday, 22 May 2017

Imprisoning the victims – Jordan places abused women in “protective custody”


Credit: Equal Rights Trust


In Jordan, a country with a reputation of being progressive, women and girls who go to the police to report abuse or honour crimes, often end up being the ones thrown in jail.  Instead of prosecuting their abusers, the police place them in “protective custody” – a common practice in the country, seemingly to protect women from gender-based violence.

The practice not only fails to protect women, but further exacerbates the harm they experience and allows perpetrators to act with impunity, according to a damning new report by the Equal Rights Trust, which urges civil society and the Jordanian authorities to end the practice.

The report, Shouting Through the Walls, documents instances where women were detained for up to 10 years and only released with the support of a male relative or husband, an extremely dangerous practice in domestic violence cases.  Indeed, the report cites cases of women being killed upon release by male relatives, despite guarantees of their safety. And women who don’t have a husband are kept until they can find one. “The Governor is insisting I need to have a husband [to be released], but where am I supposed to find a one when I am locked up?” one women in protective custody said.

The practice is also used to detain foreign women who have been trafficked or who have left their employer’s home because the employer abused them.

Women in “protective" custody's situation is grim: they are detained without having committed any crime, often following significant violence or threats of violence. They have no prospect of release nor any real ability to influence their release. Not surprisingly, they are more likely to experience psychological problems than women in judicial detention. According to a 2014 Penal Reform International survey undertaken at Jordan’s Juweida prison, 62% of women in “protective custody” suffered form depression and a quarter have self harmed and had suicidal thoughts.

The report also paints a bleak picture of the conditions in jail, including overcrowding, a lack of access to healthcare, poor hygiene and few opportunities for work.

There are very little data about this practice, which exists also in other countries, but figures from the National Centre for Human Rights (2015) showed that nearly half of women prisoners in Jordan are administrative detainees.  Despite its reputation as a progressive state, Jordan ranks low on gender equality and women’s rights amongst world’s countries. 


 

Friday, 5 May 2017

Rodrigue Katembo - the Congo's park ranger who risks his life to protect wildlife


Rodrigue Katembo/Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize


The best part of my job as a journalist is to spend time with amazing people whom I would never have a chance to meet otherwise.

One of them is Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, a former child soldier who has become one of the most passionate defenders of Congo’s natural heritage, first as head ranger at Virunga National Park and now as the director of Upemba National Park, one of Congo’s most spectacular, but also most pillaged, neglected and dangerous parks. 


I’ve met Katembo on one of his rare forays away from Upemba. He spoke in French, in a measured way, sounding more like the civil servant he always wanted to be than the brave ranger who has risked his life many times to protect Congo’s iconic parks. He wants to fight corruption and illegality – a dangerous mission in a country like the Congo.

Katembo was in London last month on his was to San Francisco to receive the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa (a sort of Nobel for environmental activists), for exposing illegal oil exploration in Virunga - a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. 

He paid a heavy price: during his investigation, he has been kidnapped, tortured and faced mock executions. You might have seen “Virunga,” the 2014 Netflix documentary which recalls that story. 

A year later, he was transferred to Upemba for his own safety. There he is trying to slowly stabilise wildlife. The elephants, which were emblematic of the park, had been poached on a massive scale by the rangers themselves, the military, the police, the locals and the brutal Mai Mai militia- and those who escaped the slaughter had left the protected area.

He has already reintroduced one population of 68 elephants and another larger one is approaching the park’s borders.  Under his watch, no elephants have been poached in Upemba since 2016.  But it’s no easy job.

Since starting work at Upemba, Katembo has fought off armed militia, faced death threats and refused to accept multiple bribes to gain access to the park for illegal mining. He now lives apart from his wife and children for their safety.

“I am not special, ” Katembo simply said. “Yes, I was imprisoned and tortured, but many guards have died doing their jobs.”   Protecting Congo’s national parks is widely recognized as one of the most dangerous jobs in conservation. Over the past 20 years, more than 160 of Katembo’s park ranger colleagues have been killed - and they still continue to get killed today.

“We need to respect their work. We need to be willing to defend what they have died to protect. By protecting the park, we are protecting unique wildlife, local populations’ livelihood and Congo’s natural heritage – which is also the heritage of the whole world.”

Here is my full story on Katembo for Positive News. There are some great photos too! 



Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Do It Yourself Online Safety for Women




Does someone have pictures of you and you don’t know how? Do they keep showing up unexpectedly to places where you are?  Do they know things about your life that you haven’t told many people? 

Modern technology makes it very easy for people to stalk, intimidate and threaten their targets both online and offline. The good news is that there are lots of measures we can take to protect ourselves.  The DIY Online Security Guide for Every Woman, an easy-to-understand guide about online security launched earlier this month, shows some of most important ones.

The Security Guide was designed with women dealing with domestic abuse or stalking in mind, but its principles can be used irrespective of gender, location or situation. It is written in simple language and teach us everything we need to know about how we can be tracked – and how to hide our tracks on email, browsers, Facebook and other platforms.  

The guide, available in English, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto and French, was developed over two years by CHAYN, an open-source volunteer-led project using technology to address problems women face today. 

CHAYN volunteers got the idea, while listening and speaking to women on Facebook groups for survivors of abuse. They noted that women didn’t know basic security measures they could take to stop the most common forms of online stalking or abuse. 

 “We started showing how their partners were keeping tabs on them by doing simple things like monitoring the check-ins of their best friends whose privacy settings were lax or looking at their Amazon account or browsing history,” says Hera Hussein, a CHAYN volunteer who worked on the guide.  “When we answered their questions, women were so relieved and kept asking why there wasn’t a resource like this.”

For somebody experiencing abuse from a controlling partner, their online activities are often a vital way to reach out for support and guidance. Yet, according to CHAYN research, almost half of women in abusive relationships surveyed in the UK reported that their online activities were monitored in some way by an abusive partner. “This seriously hinders their abilities to communicate freely without having to censor or conceal themselves. In many cases, this has a direct effect on their physical safety and ultimately puts them at risk,” says Aliya Bakheit, another CHAYN volunteer.  “It is important to know what information you may be inadvertently making available to harassers or abusers,” adds CHAYN’s Lee Ball. 
  
When the first draft was completed, CHAYN volunteers asked organizations working with survivors of abuse and stalking, as well as security experts, activists and members of the general public from all over the world to review the guide. 

This guide is not a bullet-proof solution as it cannot include all of the ways abusers can track someone, but it is a collection of useful steps, tips and instructions for women to protect themselves whilst staying connected. The group aims to update the guide regularly so women can receive the latest information on apps and privacy options on social media sites.
The guide has been published on Gitbooks under a Creative Commons Share Alike license, so everyone can remix, share and redistribute contents honouring the same license.

So, go ahead and share it!