Professionals again: How a UK project is giving refugee journalists experience, belonging

When Abdulwahab Tahhan arrived in the UK from Syria, he didn’t
anticipate how much he would need personal connections to work in journalism. But, as he asked when sharing his story with OpenCanada, “Where do you get these connections, if you’re a refugee?”

By: /
22 August, 2017
Abdulwahab Tahhan in London, UK. Credit: Catherine Tsalikis.
Catherine Tsalikis
By: Catherine Tsalikis
Former Senior Editor, Open Canada.

Abdulwahab Tahhan didn’t always want to be a journalist. The youngest of seven children, Tahhan spent most of his life in Aleppo, Syria. During his university years he studied English literature, improving his language skills by watching Western films, and even shows like Desperate Housewives — though he drew the line at Grey’s Anatomy. Tahhan planned to become a teacher, leaving Syria for the first time in 2010 for a teaching job in Beirut.

But as anti-regime protests kicked off in Syria in early 2011, he was pulled home. “I just couldn’t stay away,” Tahhan said over coffee one July afternoon in south east London. “I never expected there would be war, we were a bit naïve… We saw it as a peaceful demonstration, and that’s what I wanted it to be, and then it turned into kind of an armed conflict.”

As protests turned into a brutal civil war, and with all but one of his parents and siblings having made new lives for themselves outside of Syria in Turkey, Germany and the United States, Tahhan was forced to leave Aleppo in 2012, finding work as an English teacher in a refugee camp on the Turkey-Syria border.

It was there that Tahhan got his first taste of journalism work — never really an option at home. “The whole idea of journalism in Syria is a very new concept, because the concept of journalism before the uprising was that journalism had only one purpose, which is to serve the regime’s propaganda, that’s it.” Outside of school hours, Tahhan worked as a fixer and translator for visiting correspondents, and landed a job as production manager for a documentary, The Suffering Grasses, which went on to win eight international awards.

With the money he made in Turkey, Tahhan decided to pursue a master’s in linguistics at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, and received refugee status there in April 2013. But once he had completed the master’s program, the tough work really began. 

“The documentary won awards, we had screenings in 50 countries…I was like, ‘I’m from Syria, I really know this situation, I was a researcher and fixer for journalists — I’m going to find a job in the BBC,’” he laughed. “If you knew the number of applications I did, not only for the BBC, all TV stations, all newspapers…I got to the point where I received [rejection] emails and was like, ‘what, when did I apply for this?’” 

After a series of odd jobs — working as a cleaner, in a Starbucks, in a restaurant — Tahhan secured an internship at Amnesty International in London. But once that was over, Tahhan found himself back in Southampton, increasingly frustrated by a job search that was yielding little fruit.

“If you come from Syria, from the Middle East, to Europe or the United States or wherever, you would think, ‘I’m going to earn my spot, I’m going to compete because I’ve got the skills,’” he said. “I didn’t expect that not having connections would not get you a job. Where do you get these connections, if you’re a refugee?”

Ultimately, though, it was an Amnesty connection that would lead Tahhan back to the path of journalism — via something called the Refugee Journalism Project. 

A pilot project lifts off

One of the major challenges facing refugees from Syria and other conflict-affected areas who have resettled in the UK, U.S., Canada and elsewhere is the hurdles they face when trying to find work in their professional fields.

The year-long Refugee Journalism Project, a collaboration between the London College of Communication and the Migrants Resource Centre, and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, aimed to address this issue by helping refugee and exiled journalists to re-start their careers in the UK. It ran from March 2016 to March 2017.

As Vivienne Francis, co-founder of the project, explained to a crowd at the news:rewired journalism conference last month in London’s Canary Wharf: “Very broadly, the barrier that we felt they were facing was that classic one of, ‘it’s about who you know.’ They arrived in the country and didn’t have a network to rely on.”

While the project had been funded to take up to 20 individuals, and was meant to be based in London, Francis said they ended up taking 35, from all over the UK. Participants came from a wide variety of countries (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Bangladesh, Sudan and elsewhere) and most had worked as journalists (editors, correspondents, producers, newsroom managers — one had even been part of a team that set up the first English-speaking radio station in Eritrea). Some had been imprisoned and tortured for their work in their home countries.

But despite their experience, Francis told the audience, they “didn’t have any understanding of how to find media jobs — the informal conversations, going to certain events. I don’t know how many of you have applied for a media or journalism job in a paper and actually got it — but also…there was a lower value given to their qualifications.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Francis said, project participants included refugees who, due to the outbreak of war in their countries, were unable to continue with their studies or continue to build a work profile, like Tahhan. After hearing about the Refugee Journalism Project from a former Amnesty colleague, he applied and was invited to join.

“By us organizing these key moments where they could meet like-minded individuals, they felt a sense that they were professional people again.”

Through partnerships with organizations like Thomson Reuters, CNN and The Guardian, the project organizers offered workshops, connected participants with mentors and worked hard to find paid internships that would give participants much-needed British experience. 

Tahhan was paired with Airwars, an organization which monitors civilian deaths due to drone strikes in Syria, Iraq and Libya. After an internship, he was offered and accepted a full-time, contract position as a researcher.

Other participants have been offered full-time contracts, are doing freelance work or have been called in as experts for news programs.

But for Francis, the key purpose of the project was “something more fundamental” than securing jobs. “For many of these individuals, the way the government [refugee] dispersal system works is they could be anywhere in the country…there are a lot of stories of people being moved around repeatedly, but also stuck in communities where they felt quite isolated,” she said.

“By us organizing these key moments where they could meet and get together with like-minded individuals, they felt a sense that they were professional people again. It gave them that kind of respect, and a sense that they’re starting to rebuild their lives — that sense of belonging and value.” 

For Tahhan, the project also served the dual purpose of challenging negative stereotypes of refugees as “miserable” and a burden to the UK’s welfare system, and of contributing to more nuanced news reporting in the UK.

“It’s very negative, tabloids news,” he said of much of the UK media’s coverage of the global refugee crisis. “If you don’t work they say ‘oh, you’re living off of benefits’; if you work, it’s ‘they’re stealing our jobs.’”

“I would like to see some refugees from each country in the newsroom…We need the big organizations to find the value [there],” Tahhan said. “I don’t say that I’m going to write a better essay than you, I’m not going to compete in these ways, but if you’re reporting about a country that I was born and raised in, I would understand it way better than you do.” 

Extending opportunities

Despite official funding ending earlier this year, the project’s activities haven’t halted entirely; with the support of the University of the Arts, London, Francis has continued working with participants, helping them with job applications, identifying internship opportunities and, sometimes with Tahhan, giving talks in support of the project.

“It is absolutely not over,” Francis told OpenCanada. “The successful delivery of the project’s outcomes, coupled with continuing demand for its services, supports the position that the project should continue.”

Francis is in the process of writing a new two-year funding bid with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, after which she says the project will explore longer-term financial options. She is optimistic about the future of an undertaking that offers a rare positive example of refugee integration — in a competitive, shrinking industry, no less.

Tahhan’s contract with Airwars is officially up next March, but he hopes to continue on, should there be funding. For him, it’s a way to stay connected to the home that, six years after joining the anti-regime uprising, he can’t return to.

“I find value in challenging stereotypes and trying my best to improve news coverage,” Tahhan said. “There’s no way I can separate my nine-to-five job from going home and not talking about it, not seeing it, not following the news, not talking to my parents…I know someone who’s a researcher, nine-to-five they do it and then they don’t watch anything. I understand; it’s not their country, it’s their job. But when it’s your country, that’s impossible.” 

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