There is no shortage of stories being told about refugees and asylum seekers. Just this week, journalists reported on actress Angelina Jolie’s visit to Syrian refugees in Iraq, asylum seekers being separated from their children at the U.S. border and how hardening American rhetoric on immigration may drive more refugees to Canada’s borders.
Even so, refugees’ and asylum seekers’ perspectives on things that impact them aren’t always heard. The media tends to swoop in during a crisis, take information and leave.
“We see the same picture of refugees, who are people who are in hell and begging for something,” said Tareq Shammout, a Syrian who works in a bakery in Langley, B.C. and came to Canada as a government-assisted refugee one and a half years ago. “We may pass this situation for a time. For myself, I passed that. I slept in the streets and whatever. … [But] also, we face a different kind of difficulties.”
With so much discussion about refugees in the media, we wanted to talk to refugees about what they think. That’s why Vancouver-based journalism company The Discourse partnered with the Pacific Immigrant Resources Society and Options Community Services to run workshops on refugees and the media in metro Vancouver in June. Over two sessions, the workshops brought together a small group of people to discuss what is missing when the media covers refugee stories. What do refugees and asylum seekers need to share their perspectives? What does it mean to speak to a journalist?
Shammout and other participants – including government-assisted refugees, privately sponsored refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Myanmar, Peru, Syria and Yemen – said they would like to see more stories about the diverse circumstances refugees and asylum seekers come from, the range of challenges they face in Canada and their aspirations.
For World Refugee Day, we have taken what they shared and put together a toolkit for refugees and journalists. It includes information to help refugees preparing to share their perspectives with the media, and best practices for journalists who report on refugee issues.
1. Refugees’ daily interactions are shaped by media coverage.
Huda Alanny, a humanitarian worker and refugee claimant from Yemen who aspires to do social work in Canada, says she came to the workshop because she wanted to encourage the media to raise awareness of who refugees are and the social supports they need. She was shocked when she met Canadians who didn’t know the definition of the term “refugee,” which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.”
“When I just asked [some Canadians] what is the first word that comes into your mind when you hear the word ‘refugee,’ some of them told me ‘war,’ ‘homelessness,’ ‘dangerous.’” recalls Alanny. She explained she met Canadians who don’t know about “the refugee as a person,” that refugees have been forced to leave their countries, leaving behind family members, careers and belongings.
Workshop participants say perceptions and stereotypes affect their everyday interactions in Canada. For example, Alanny says she met a potential landlord in Vancouver who was prepared to lease her a room, but she believes he changed his mind when she mentioned she was a refugee.
2. It’s important to highlight diverse refugee voices.
Workshop participants also expressed concerns that the media’s focus on Syrians meant that the concerns of a broad array of refugees were overlooked. They recommended the media cover the stories of diverse refugees from different countries, including the reason they’d fled their native countries and their varied resettlement challenges.
Two of the workshop participants, who asked that their identity be withheld, came to Canada as asylum seekers in November 2017. They said they were journalists who fled persecution in Iraq and struggled to get information about where to go for help after they arrived. They spent several months living in a homeless shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside while they figured it out.
“We had no hope,” said one of them. He wants to see more media coverage examining the challenges asylum seekers face in Canada, including a lack of access to the type of support given to government-assisted refugees and finding jobs to support themselves.
Data on refugees also highlight there’s a range of other stories to be told. Syrians are often in the spotlight in Canadian media, but three-quarters of the world’s 25.4 million refugees are not Syrian, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
3. We need to look beyond the crisis.
“I would love to advise journalists to listen carefully when it comes to interviewing refugees. When they’re listening to refugees they have to listen to the whole story and not be selective to one certain story.”
“I would love to advise journalists to listen carefully when it comes to interviewing refugees. When they’re listening to refugees, they have to listen to the whole story and not be selective to one certain story,” says Ely Bahhadi, a Masters of Journalism student at the University of British Columbia and privately sponsored Syrian refugee.
He worries that coverage of crises without more positive stories – such as coverage of solutions and refugees’ contributions to Canada – perpetuates negative stereotypes and hinders discussion of solutions to crises.
Bahhadi is one of several participants who recommends the media cover more stories that look beyond the crisis. Participants said they wanted the public to see who they are as people and move beyond the label of “refugee.”
“I think it’s better to focus on what we can bring to the country, rather than thinking about, ‘Oh, we need to train them … we need to send them to English classes,’ or something like that,” said Sara Lopez, a protected person who is training to be a counsellor for refugees who have suffered trauma. She came to Canada six years ago, crossing the U.S.-Canada border on foot.
4. We need to explain journalism better.
Many of the workshop participants said they came from countries where journalism was controlled by the government or where journalists risked their lives to cover daily news.
Amid rising concerns about fake news and media outlets struggling to make ends meet, understanding journalism and figuring out where to get accurate information can be confusing for any member of the public. With newcomers, there’s the additional issue of having come from a place where journalists operate differently.
Many of the workshop participants said they came from countries where journalism was controlled by the government or where journalists risked their lives to cover daily news. Three were journalists fleeing persecution. Participants asked how much control the government had over the media in Canada, how editorial decisions are made, how fact-checking works and how they know they can trust a journalist.
5. Compassionate follow-up can advance the conversation.
Workshop participants also said they’d like to see more journalists follow stories as they develop, rather than doing one-off stories about specific refugees or issues.
“A New York reporter goes [to an African refugee camp] to cover the story and maybe has a protagonist to follow and tell the story on the larger population. Then it’s in the media. It’s out there. But what next?” asks Qaabata Boru, an exiled Ethiopian journalist who came to Canada a year ago. He believes spot coverage of refugee camps in Africa leads people to “forget” them and makes it harder to hold decision makers, such as UNHCR, accountable.
Similarly, Raul Gatica, a community organizer and Indigenous Mexican who came to Canada 12 years ago as an asylum seeker, wants to figure out how refugees can avoid becoming the “topic of the month” and convince journalists to cover their concerns over time. He believes it is important for journalists to follow up with refugees, rather than just “extracting” their stories, and to think about what practical benefits their stories might have for refugees.
These are just some of the recommendations that came out of the collaborative workshops. For more detailed tips and information check out our tips for journalists here and the tips for refugees here. Please share it and give us your feedback. It’s a living, working document that we plan to update over time and share with refugees and journalists in hopes of improving coverage of refugees.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.
This story, which was originally published on The Discourse, was made possible by contributions from over 30 refugees, newcomers and settlement workers who spoke to us over the phone, in person or attended our workshop series. The workshop was supported by staff and volunteers at Pacific Immigrant Resources Society and Options Community Services.