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CHANGING THE NARRATIVE

‘I can tell the story of my own life’: The Greek magazine training refugees as journalists

Athens-based media organisation Solomon runs a training scheme for migrants and refugees that aims to give them the tools to tell their own stories themselves.

'I can tell the story of my own life': The Greek magazine training refugees as journalists
Solomon offers training in multimedia storytelling to refugees and others in Greece. Photo courtesy of Solomon

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

Iliana Papangeli, the managing director of the magazine Solomon, is sitting in her home in Greece. The national lockdown means that she has to text the government for permission whenever she needs to leave her house: “I have to write 2 if I want to go to the supermarket and 6 if I am going outside to exercise. It is really kind of absurd.” Yet the situation has not stopped her and the rest of Solomon from working hard these past months and developing their next cycle of workshops.

Solomon was originally created in 2016 by Fanis Kollias, a Greek national and social entrepreneur. It was created as a response to the ongoing crisis over refugees, and the lack of representation. Kollias’s original aim was to create an online media platform where refugees themselves could write about the topics that were important to them and their lives.

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For the past four years Solomon has reported from the ground about the living conditions of newcomers and on the issues that affect refugee and migrant communities in Greece. Reporters were mainly found through networking and word of mouth, and many members of the team had a refugee background themselves.

Back in the early days of the magazine Nasruddin Nazami and Nadir Noori, who are both originally from Afghanistan, joined the board of Solomon. And while Kollias might have thought his idea of a magazine for refugees was brilliant, Noori thought otherwise: “Nadir actually told Fanis that this was the stupidest idea,” Papangeli recalls.

What Noori meant by this was that the true struggle was to get people together, not to separate them. Hence the magazine should instead be focused on creating a platform where everyone, refugees, Greeks and everyone else, could come together and report on what was important for their common life.

“This was the first turning point for Solomon,” says Iliana Papangeli. However, this created a new need: “If we invite them to contribute, by writing an article or creating a photo series, why not give them the skills to do it right?” And thus Solomon LABs were created.

Solomon Media LABs teaches both refugees, migrants and local Greeks about basic media skills through a series of workshops. “There was and still is a huge gap with the representation of refugees and migrants in… I do not want to say all media, but we all know that it is all media. So we thought that it could be a first step in the right direction. To familiarize the people with how to represent themselves and their community, to be able to take part in the public discourse, and to have the opportunity to tell the story from their own perspective,” Papangeli explains.

When I spoke to her, Solomon Media LABs had run three cycles of workshops and had just finished the interview process for the fourth cycle which started on November 19th and will end in February 2021. While this cycle will be held through online webinars due to Covid-19 restrictions and the safety of participants, the previous cycles have been in-person workshops split equally between three different topics: photography, storytelling and videography, amounting to 30 workshops in total. The participants finish their cycle by creating a media product of their own choosing over a period of four months.

The previous cycles have been funded by the European Journalism Centre, and a cycle costs around €30,000 to run. At the beginning each workshop cycle had 20 participants, but Solomon LABs found that a lower number of participants meant that fewer dropped out; they therefore decreased the number of participants to 12 and as a result the last workshop cycle did not see a single dropout. However, as Solomon's board – consisting of Papangeli, Kollias, Noor and Nizami – discovered, the project still had room for development.


Solomon found that small groups were key to maintaining engagement. Photo courtesy of Solomon

When it comes to the selection processes for participants it is very specific: an open call is put out on Solomon’s social media channels and website along with a set of requirements. Then the team behind Solomon decides on a shortlist of people who are invited for an interview, leading to the final selection of participants.

In the early stages of selection Solomon makes sure to have certain diversity criteria to secure diversity in gender, skills, educational background, expertise, and nationalities in the selected participants. “Yet we do not actually need these criteria, because the diversity comes so easily and naturally,” says Papangeli. “It makes us feel like people are truly recognizing what we are doing here, and that they realise anyone can be part of what we are trying to do.”

The current cycle is a little bit different. During the pandemic Papangeli and her team have not only secured funding for a new cycle, they have also slightly changed the concept for the next round of workshops. This is because they have learned some valuable lessons that they have taken to heart from the previous rounds: the interest in the workshops were not necessarily determined by the topic, but just as much by it being a chance to learn new skills and spend time productively.

“There are very few and very limited opportunities for these people to see themselves in a different way than just being refugees. So I do really believe – and we have seen this a lot – that giving them something productive to do is an essential thing,” Papangeli explains. However, this also has precautions for the workshops and their outcome: “They might find it interesting to join a workshop, but it does not matter if this is a workshop about journalism, fixing a bike or how to cook. It just matters that it is a workshop.” 

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Instead of getting frustrated with the lack of engagement towards the specific topic of journalism, Solomon used it as an inspiration to further develop their project. “This is something we have discussed a lot. And we have now learned that the question is not if refugees can be a journalist or if a refugee can take the position of a journalist. The question is how they can collaborate, the refugee and the journalist, each one coming from their own side and creating something together,” says Papangeli.

Hence the new cycle of workshops will be for established journalists while refugees and migrants will be guest lecturers, along with experienced international journalists, filmmakers and others. The dream for Solomon LAB is to be able to run both kinds of workshops, ones for refugees and migrants and ones for established journalists alongside each other, but that of course all depends on the funding.

These insights have in turn affected the way that Solomon and Papangeli measure success: “It is not a matter of being able to say 'oh look, I managed to train 20 refugees and now they are going to be journalists', because, well, that is a lie. They are not going to be journalists in most cases. However, this does not reduce the fact that it is really important for themselves and also for their community to be engaged in social life in Greece or wherever they are.”


Solomon's workshops now focus on collaboration between refugees and journalists. Photo courtesy of Solomon

This has also turned out to be one of the areas where Solomon receives a lot of good feedback from their participants, both from the surveys after the workshops but also from group discussions in general: the interaction between refugees and Greeks is just as important as the workshops themselves, because it creates a sense of a community and being part of something meaningful.

One of the previous students, Nouralhuda Omran, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman now living in Germany with her family, confirms this: “I did not join the workshops because I wanted to be a journalist myself, but it gave me a way to become a better storyteller.”

While Omran is not seeking a career in journalism, she still values the experience of the LABs, and according to her the ability to tell her own story has been an important takeaway: “It gave me the tools, the power and confidence to tell my own story. I think it is the same for others in the same situation. I know now that if I need to I can speak up and tell the story of my own life. For example, I created a video about being in Covid lockdown in Germany earlier this year that I shared with the people from Solomon.”

Marialena Yannoulatou, a Greek national who is also a former student of the LABs, suggests: “For me what Solomon does better than any other media outlet within Greece is that it is voices from within the community who speak. I am always a bit cautious when it comes to matters that have to do with refugees because I feel that we should identify our privilege and not try to overreport. What I really enjoyed and what made me at ease was the fact that it was an inclusive group, where people could tell their own stories.”

She observed an interesting difference between how Greeks and refugees approached the workshops: “The most striking experience was seeing how people approached journalism as a tool. As a tool for integration. As a tool for speaking their minds. For me it was rather about networking and trying to establish myself as a journalist, which was something that was a natural continuation from my bachelor’s studies in journalism. But for many of the other participants it was more personal. It was more about putting themselves out there.” 

Even with this difference in approach, Yannoulatou and Omran both agree that the sense of community that was created during the workshops was extraordinary. “I was the youngest participant and I felt so honoured to be learning from such competent people. But it never felt like being in class, it felt more like being with family and friends, we were really close,” Omran remembers.

Yannoulatou says that the whole atmosphere was special: “The combination of not being lectured by the people that were offering the workshop, but rather creating the content of the lesson somehow on the spot – of course classes were pre-planned, but on the spot things would always come up that somehow nourished and furthered the communication. We became really good friends, all of us.”


Participants in a group session. Photo courtesy of Solomon

Both Yannoulatou and Omran have stayed in touch with people from their workshops and from Solomon. Omran excitedly explains: “I talk to Iliana Papangeli often, they also still send good opportunities my way, latest I was able to take a class with a university professor. That was really cool!”

So are there no areas where either of them was disappointed in the workshops? Seemingly not: “There was not really anything that I wanted to change about the workshops. Maybe just to have more time. I was not disappointed by a lot of things to put it that way, which is strange for me,” Yannoulatou laughs.

In fact she ended up choosing her master’s degree in International Studies on Media, Power, and Difference based on her experiences with the Solomon LAB: “I had known of this master’s degree before, but did not really think much of it. After Solomon I saw it through a different perspective. With Solomon I saw that inclusion can happen, and that even if inclusion does not succeed in happening we have the opportunity to report in a positive way and that is what urged me to choose this master’s.”

Even if Omran and Yannoulatou do not have any complaints about the workshops, Solomon is still experiencing certain limitations. It is clear that one of the biggest worries for Papangeli and the rest of the team at Solomon is in regards to money. Solomon has so far mainly gotten their funding through grants and foundations, among others, Open Society Foundations and Engage Journalism Accelerator.

Recently Solomon has struggled with getting the needed funding. “At the moment we have managed to secure money to pay the instructors and guest speakers and to pay the participants for their final project so that we can publish it on Solomon. But we have not found the funding to secure my position, for example,” Papangeli explains.

Therefore the current cycle of workshops only consists of ten sessions to keep the quality up and the price down, meaning that the total price of this cycle will be around €10,000, money that Solomon has secured through international development NGO ActionAid. In order to raise extra funding Solomon furthermore launched a membership model through Kickstarter, where they managed to raise €12,085 through 174 backers.

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When it comes to the workshops, Papangeli also recognises that commitment can be a challenge, not because people are not driven, but because their circumstances can make it hard to consistently deliver and stay focused. So much of their life is focused on surviving and staying safe, there is not always enough energy left for the LABs: “When you are struggling every hour of the day it is hard to commit to any kind of project,” she says.

By now Solomon is aware that deadlines may need to change. Furthermore, they know that the last big project can be difficult to manage, so Solomon tries to stay in touch and keep supporting the participants after the workshops are done when they work individually on their own projects.

The one thing that continuously stands out about Solomon is their willingness to adjust and adapt their initiative to the needs and circumstances of their participants and readers. In other words, it is clear that these kinds of initiatives have to be open for development. While something might start out as a great idea, it is important to be able to recognise when the initial idea is not 100 percent fitted to the circumstances or that other approaches might be better suited.

The challenge is then to not be discouraged but to take the insights into account and tweak the solution: “I do not think that there are specific ways that you can work on this, you have to adapt, you have to find new ways to engage people in the process,” Papangeli explains.

Nanna Vedel-Hertz is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Denmark. 

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CHANGING THE NARRATIVE

A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’

The people from Western Sahara have been fighting for their independence for decades. Under the control of Spain for over a century until 1974, Western Sahrawis were able to have a Spanish National ID and passport, to serve as public servants and in the army, with the western Sahara declared by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as the 53rd province of Spain.

A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’
Some of the children participating in the programme experience health conditions caused by the tough life in the refugee camps. Photo: Sonia Clemente
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 1974, after pressure from the UN, Spain agreed to a referendum to accept the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. But when Morocco, supported by France and the U.S., invaded the country, Spain abandoned the Sahrawis. Nowadays, 80 percent of their country is occupied by Morocco, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens are stranded in refugee camps in Algeria. The result is that people living in this region are denied the same rights given to other former colonies, such as the ability to claim Spanish citizenship.

Today, the fifth of the country that is not controlled by Morocco is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and it is governed by the Polisario Front, recognised by 46 governments around the world, although none in the EU. In Spain, some local organisations and public figures campaign for their government to support the Sahrawi people.

“Spanish citizens have stood next to the Sahrawi people for 45 years because they understand that Spain has a political and legal responsibility with the Sahrawi people, but they see their political leaders incapable of amending this error. It is the great divorce in Spain,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Front Delegate in Spain said, “Spaniards are holding a responsibility that belongs to their government.”

At the time of the interview with the Sahrawi Delegate, Abdulah Arabi expressed concern that they were closer than ever to a break of the truce. Two weeks later the truce broke. “We have generations that have been born in refugee camps waiting for the UN to apply their peace plan so their parents and grandparents can decide what they want to be.”


Photo: Sonia Clemente

Holidays in Peace

One of the most successful programmes trying to both improve the conditions of the Sahrawis in refugee camps and to bring awareness to the conflict is Holidays in Peace. It allows Sahrawi children living in Algerian refugee camps, in one of the roughest deserts in the world, to live in Spain for the summers with host families.

This programme allows kids to avoid the desert heat, and access medical treatment and check-ups. It also helps them to learn Spanish, the second official language of the SADR. 

The programme began in 1976 with just a handful of children, and only three years later, 100 children spent their summers in Spain. In the 1980s the initiative gathered institutional support from the SADR government and several Spanish civil associations under the umbrella of “Friends of the Saharawi People.”

By the early 2000s, thousands of kids would travel every summer.

“In the good year before the 2008 crisis when the [Spanish] government donations were larger, we were able to bring up to 10,000 children every summer,” Arabi said.

Many of these children come back for several summers and stay with the same families again. When the children return to the camps, the host families often visit and send care packages. The associations also send vans full of supplies a few times a year to the camps.


Raúl Bedrina, who joined one of the associations in Madrid, and later helped to create the Gdeim Izik association in the south of the Spanish capital, hosted a child for the first time eight years ago.

“It is not charity, it is solidarity. These children are the best ambassadors of the Sahrawi people, who share a common history with us,” he said.

Western Sahara is the only Arab country with Spanish as a co-official language. However, the language barrier is still a challenge for the children, as they only began studying Spanish around the same time that they travel for the first time.

“At that age, kids are like sponges, in two months they are fluent,” Bedrina said, “but we put in the effort, too. Every day for one or two hours before going out or to the pool, we would sit with a picture dictionary and helped him.”

Bedrina talks about the cultural shock the children suffer when they arrive. The first thing they want to do is call home.

“Our kid went to bed crying for days because he missed his family. It’s also very odd for them to see things like a refrigerator, and they keep checking to see if things are still cold,” he said. They are also used to much more independence, to just go out a run around without supervision “but if only because of traffic, that is not possible here.”

“The ties you, as a host family, establish with the family are very strong. They are sending their children to a house they don’t know, so they want to know you.” Many of the host families visit the camps to meet the Sahrawi family, and the families want to send their other children to the same host family. “Our kid was the one who sold us the idea to host his younger sister. He took us for a ride,” Bedrina remembers, laughing.

Each host family is assigned a Sahrawi family, and they get to know each other as part of the process.

These children are not orphans, they have families who love and care for them, and it has to be made clear to the host families that the children will come back to their families after the summer. There are other programmes for teenagers who come to study in high schools during the school year and who go back home for the summer, but it is a much smaller programme.

The 2008 economic crash affected the programme a lot. Local governments cut the funding given to each association and they found it harder to fundraise money during the year. Many families who had hosted kids in the past couldn’t host those years because they were suffering from unemployment or financial troubles.

Most host families are middle class and the weight of an added member in the household was too much for many of them. “Kids come with nothing,” Bedrina said, “you have to give them clothes, food, et cetera…”

Because of this, the number of years the children would travel was reduced from five to three, so more children could continue to travel. However, it still cut the number of children able to travel by more than half for some years. Things had started to improve in this respect, but then Covid-19 hit.
 

An outdoor prison

The conditions in the desert are very dire. “There is no vegetation, no water, and temperatures go higher than 50 degrees,” Arabi said.

Before Covid-19, there were two times a year where host families could travel to the camps, around Easter around Christmas. For Bedrina, and many families, although hosting a child has been quite an experience, nothing compares to visiting the camps, and seeing the conditions.

“All Westerners should go and see a refugee camp to open their minds about what is going on in the world. I have seen colleagues go there and feel completely overtaken by the injustice and the world would fall on them. It was too much for them,” he said. Bedrina has been three times to the camps, not only meeting the families but also interviewing women about their vision on the conflict for a documentary and bringing humanitarian aid collected in Spain.


Photo: Sonia Clemente

Bedrina described the camps where Sahrawis have been living for 45 years as “a giant outdoor prison. It is difficult to describe with words.”

“The first days there I thought I had a cold because I was having trouble breathing, but then I realized it was the sand dust I had been swallowing all day,” he said

David Pobes, another volunteer in an association also travelled by car to the camps to take donations gathered in Madrid. He lived with the family he had been in contact with. “You live with them, and you can see they have nothing. The homes usually have two rooms. Not two bedrooms, two rooms. There is no furniture and they sleep on the floor. While you are there you eat with them, cook with them, and clean with them,” Pobes said.

'Saved many lives'

While the main objectives of Holidays in Peace are building awareness of the Sahrawis’ situation, and to take the children away from the camps during the hot summers, one of the key aspects that have helped save lives is the access to better medical care and nutrition during the summer.

Healthcare is a scarce resource in the camps. “We have a Ministry of Health that guarantees health in all the towns in the camps. But the dispensaries are indeed basic,” Arabi said. When David Pobes visited one of the clinics in the camps, he was surprised by it: “in one room, they had an old gas refrigerator for insulin. That was the best technology I saw.”

The clinics are meant mostly for first aid. If it is more serious, the patient must go to the province hospital or the national hospital. If it is even more serious, they must be transported abroad. However, access to specialized medicine is rare.

During the summers in Spain, the children get a full check-up with a blood test and access to specialists. “Thanks to these check-ups we have been able to save many lives of children who are now living a normal life, thanks to this programme,” Arabi said.

Spain has universal healthcare, meaning that the children can access the Spanish healthcare system upon arrival. Children in the camps suffer from hearing and sight problems because of the sandstorms. “You wouldn’t believe the stones that I have seen taken out of these children’s ears. Stones!” Pobes said.

When it comes to sight problems, the associations run fundraisers the entire year not only to cover the €600 flight but also glasses these kids might need. Some optometrists provide the glasses for free for these kids, but unfortunately, there are not enough.
 

Adapting to the pandemic

Due to Covid-19, the programme was cancelled for the first time since it began decades ago.

To alleviate the effects of not running the programme, the Polisario Front came up with an alternative list of events in the camps. During July and the first half of August children in the refugee camps have taken part in cultural and sports activities.

“We have done practically everything they would do here, such as medical check-ups, but, of course, conditions are not the same, as structures are fragile there.” Arabi said.

They took part in poetry and music workshops, football, cross country, and a programme of exchanges with older people who told them their life stories. They have been able to offer this version of the programme to all the children in the camps, around 9,000.

In August a group was taken to the liberated territories. It was the first time they could see them. Arabi said the programme was a bit rush, as they couldn’t be sure what the Covid conditions were going to be or if they would be able to do it at all, “but the results have been good.”

The plans for next summer remain uncertain, but the hope is that it will be able to return to its usual format, providing many children with a connection to a Spanish host family, language lessons, medical care and a break from life in the camps.

Thess Mostoles is a Spanish journalist currently living in the UK and reporting on international politics, war and conflict. 

 

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