In his native Afghanistan, Aziz Rahman had a thriving career as a journalist. An experienced, well-known and popular part of the crew at Afghan Live TV, he had also worked with an international children’s charity. As a reporter, his success on the job stemmed from deep knowledge of his country, friends and family, and a strong network of politicians, businesspeople, experts and editors.
But that was then. Reporting in Afghanistan can be lethal, and journalists are soft targets for armed groups or offended business interests. Rahman received death threats on more than one occasion and was arrested and released by the Taliban during one reporting trip.
In 2013, Rahman had seen enough and reluctantly left Afghanistan. He was able to go to Britain, as his wife had already secured refugee status and could act as his sponsor.
His life was no longer in danger, but his career was.
“When I arrived at first, everything was new,” says the 29-year-old. “Everywhere I applied, they asked: Do you have experience? I said yes, showed them all my experience. But they said: You need experience here in Britain – not in Afghanistan.”
Every day Rahman would apply for jobs, a struggle that dragged on for a year with no success. Eventually, he took a role working behind the counter in a liquor store. The contrast between his senior position back home made it tough; working in a role so far removed from the career he had before was equally discouraging.
Now, however, things are changing for Rahman. He’s one of 36 participants in the Refugee Journalism Project, an initiative from the London College of Communication and the Migrants Resource Centre that helps journalists with refugee status rebuild their careers in the U.K. Journalists from countries including Syria, Bangladesh, Somalia and Cuba get training in the mechanics of journalism in the U.K. – from Freedom of Information requests to ethics – as well as a mentor, who can help them network with editors.
Working with Rob Sharp, a London-based journalist, feature writer and reporter with several national titles, has been a huge boost, says Rahman. They are working together on projects focused on child health and women’s rights in Afghanistan and, like other participants, have been able to share expertise and contacts. The project has only been running for a few months, but Rahman says goals like getting a job seem far more achievable than they once did.
Many refugees are highly skilled workers. Participants in the London project include executive television producers and senior correspondents, but high-level professional skills don’t always transfer easily across borders, particularly when they’re based on contacts and bylines. Worse, journalists may have spent years out of work, both fleeing grave danger and negotiating a deadening system of bureaucracy by the time they achieve refugee status. That leaves them out of touch, often with their confidence shattered.
“Just gaining the things that they’re entitled to is the biggest challenge,” says Tessa Hughes, a coordinator at the project. First the asylum process, then dealing with basics like housing and healthcare, is an uphill struggle, along with the fact that refugees are often housed far from where there are opportunities for journalistic work. “They can’t focus on their careers – they’re just looking for somewhere to live,” she continues.
The statistics on unemployment among refugees in Europe give cause for concern. Between 2003 and 2007, a British government report indicated higher than average levels of unemployment among refugees – the majority of whom were men between 18 and 35 – and showed that half of refugees felt they were overqualified for their jobs. The factors cited by the report included facility with English and past education and employment, but also health problems and the lack of a solid network of friends and family – issues common among newer refugees.
Refugees with a professional background can be an asset to their host communities, says Vivienne Francis, a founder of the Refugee Journalism Project. Francis says the program is a means of addressing bigger questions such as the lack of diverse voices in complex stories.
“We hope that, through their journalism, some of our participants can offer a different perspective,” Francis explains, “not just on refugee issues, because they shouldn’t be pigeonholed.”
Sharp agrees. He says he came to the project in part because he saw refugee stories in the British media that were written predominantly by people who weren’t refugees.
“It’s really important that the media with the broadest reach encompasses the widest array of perspectives. Certain narratives, such as portraying refugees as victims, or from a particular sociological or economic background, get a lot of play,” he says. “Anything that challenges that has to be encouraged,”
It’s clear that Rahman is bringing something to the industry that other journalists might not be able to offer. His contacts in Afghanistan are extensive, and he’s worked in challenging environments where journalists can come under physical attack for doing their job. Now in Britain, he’s a presenter and producer on Afghan Voice, a community radio station for the Afghan diaspora.
Rahman, though, wants to be much more than a voice for refugees; he wants to be seen primarily as a journalist once more. “As a journalist you can report all over the world – journalists from here go to report in Syria, all over the world. I want to do that too. It’s a new start for me.”