It was a solid piece of journalism – about higher education in Syria’s opposition-held areas – so the editor-in-chief of Sada al-Shaam did not hesitate to place it on the Arabic newspaper’s front page. The article was bylined Ahmad Saflo and was published on November 3, 2015.
Ahmad will remember this article – his first front page article – for a long time. And so will I.
The story of that article is also the story of how myself and journalist, Kenana Haidar, an Istanbul-based Syrian reporter, accidentally came to teach journalism to at al-Salam school in the southern Turkish city of Reyhanlı and the program that emerged from it.
We had traveled to the school as part of a group of mentors working with Karam Foundation’s Leadership Program and our intention was to write stories about students who had fled Syria in search of a safer life.
But just one day into our trip I understood there was a certain egoism, or perhaps a sense of entitlement, behind my belief that I could convey their voices and their stories by writing about them myself. My writing of their stories did not matter. What mattered was that they tell their own stories, how and when they want to. What I had to do was try to give them back their voice. I could only provide them with the tools and skills needed, and then listen.
I shared my thoughts with the organizers of the Leadership Program, and together we decided to prepare a journalism course. The group’s manager, Lina Sergie, gave me a pile of notebooks and pens she had brought along and said, “Let them write.”
The decision to teach journalism came about quickly, and so did the preparation of a simple curriculum to teach the basic principles of journalism. On the outskirts of Reyhanlı, we sat in the small lobby of a hotel renowned for its wedding hall where wealthy locals celebrate their marriages. The hall was empty that evening, and so was the lobby and the streets around it. We searched online for programs we could use, and ended up choosing the Reuters Handbook as the backbone of our course. By dawn, we had a structure and were ready to begin.
More than 60 students gathered around a small whiteboard in the schoolyard: a glorious silence, imbued with focus and curiosity. The idea took flight and so did the students. Their questions were ahead of our curriculum. Each evening we returned to the hotel and worked on developing and expanding the program, only to have them demand more the following day.
I did not notice Ahmad Saflo, Hassan Fadel and Moaz Mansour on the first day, but by the fourth and last day they had left an impression. They made a video report about the Karam Foundation’s journalism course. We hadn’t asked them for a report, nor had we suggested the idea. We hadn’t covered video editing during that first course or even mentioned what software to use. But they had used their mobile phones to shoot the videos, had interviewed people, had downloaded free editing software and prepared their report in the evening.
During the four days we spent with the students, we covered many topics that were not on our initial agenda and had imagined to be beyond their age and understanding: How do you adhere to accuracy and objectivity while writing about a war that you are a part of? What does neutrality mean? Would you refer to those who were killed on your side as martyrs, but withhold the title from those killed on your enemy’s side? How do you protect your sources without sacrificing transparency? How do you maintain a neutral stance, when you are a reporter during the day but go home in the evening to the side of the conflict you belong to? How do you consciously separate those two parts of your life? What is the difference between a reporter and a media activist? What is missing when a reporter who does not speak your language or understand the details of your society writes about you?
The ethics and techniques of journalism are relevant in some way to all Syrian students today, regardless of what profession they choose. Following the news and being aware of who produces it and how means becoming a selective, critical and engaged reader rather than a passive recipient.
A year later we returned with a team of five reporters. This time we worked with 15 students on more advanced skills like filming, editing and writing for radio and television.
Ahmad, Hassan and their friend Muhannad Ibrahim – who has a natural talent for camera work – moved to Istanbul. Moaz, who did exceptionally well in the journalism course, did not join them. He moved to Germany and applied for asylum there. Hassan, who possesses unconditional optimism, tried to follow him but did not manage to cross the sea, and ended up staying in Turkey.
The three young men started internships with the Sada al-Shaam newspaper, under the direct mentorship of its editor-in-chief, Absi Smesem, in November 2014.
Under different circumstances, the students’ initial video report about our visit to their school might have been ordinary, but in this context it had a huge significance: it confirmed to us the students’ serious desire to tell and document their stories. It was also one year, full of training and near continuous work, that separated that first report and Ahmad Saflo’s front page piece on November 3, 2015.
Now, in collaboration with a number of reporters and journalism training centers, we developed the Karam Journalism Program and created two tracks. The first track is designed to teach the high schoolers we meet during our school visits the basics of newswriting and the ethics of journalism. The second track has a number or prerequisites: students must have a genuine desire to study and practice journalism; they must pass an Arabic language test; and they have to complete two essays. Selected students move to Istanbul to train at newspapers while attending English and Turkish language courses, as well as advanced journalism workshops that we organize for them.
Today, while writing these words, I sent Ahmad a text message asking how he was doing now that he has a steady job at a media office in Istanbul. He told me that he had just returned from Reyhanlı, where he – together with Muhannad, the twins Hassan and Hussein Fadel and their colleagues Ahmad Hammady and Amr Kurdy – had finished a short film they had written, filmed and directed. He sent me a group photo of “the Zoom Group,” the journalism and production enterprise they founded. The photo also shows a camera and a young man and woman who are the main characters of the group’s next film. Naturally, he also sent me a link to their Facebook page, which I immediately “liked.”
“Well, Miss,” Ahmad said, using the title commonly used by students in Syria to address their female teachers, “there are so many cases of suicide these days. We wanted to shed light on that and tell those stories.”
As Ahmad puts it, the group has a mass of topics to draw on, stories that in their opinion are all worth covering. They will tell them in their own way, using the tools that they choose and in their own time.
This op-ed was translated by Nariman Youssef.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Syria Deeply.