Giving the word: the making of a refugee newspaper
Information editorial meeting. All rights reserved.On a Monday afternoon in September, a group of journalists sat down in the editorial meeting room of the Danish daily newspaper Information’s Copenhagen headquarters, a white building that was liberated from the Nazis by the Danish resistance movement in May 1945, when Germany lost the war and Information was transformed from an illegal paper for the resistance into an official daily newspaper.
On the agenda for the meeting was the usual planning of an edition of Information, but this group was different from your typical mostly-white, middle-class representatives of most Danish journalists. Other than a few Information employees to facilitate the meeting and the process, this editorial group consisted exclusively of journalists who were also refugees. The largest group of them were more or less recent arrivals in Denmark from Syria; others from Afghanistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kenya and Thailand.
On Friday 9 October the result was published: a 48-page edition of the newspaper consisting entirely of articles, editorials, columns, op-eds, essays and reviews edited and written by refugees. The texts ranged from a first-hand report about the selling of Palmyra cultural heritage in the Turkish border town Gaziantep to a poem from a Syrian prisoner of war. From an in-depth investigation of the consequences for women of the fact that two thirds of Europe’s Mediterranean refugees are men, to a personal review of Magnus Wennman’s photo series of Syrian children sleeping on their refugee routes, written by a 22-year old who herself walked much of the way from Afghanistan to Denmark at the age of seven.
A lawyer, journalist and poet from Kobane, Mustafa Ismail was part of the refugee editorial group and contributed to the paper with an introduction to Syrian poetry as well as a commentary on the election of the Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. As an epilogue, Mustafa Ismail (MI) and Information editor, Lotte Folke Kaarsholm (LFK), have interviewed each other here about the refugee paper project.
Information, 9 October 2015. All rights reserved.Just like many others in the editorial group who had also been persecuted for their journalism in their home countries, MI has been shot and jailed twice for his writings in Syria, and LFK started out by asking him what it is about words that make regimes so concerned about them?
MI: “Syria’s ruling regime was always afraid of the word, and of opposition literature, because it knew that democracy would be the end of its era of validity. So even before the revolution, the regime’s response to our political and social activity was only one: arresting us and suffocating our voices. Illegal and shallow trials were carried out rapidly and without any standards of justice or meaning against all politicians, writers, and intellectuals.”
“The system was always in fear of our vocabulary, words such as human rights, civil society, democracy, minority rights, separation of powers, free and fair elections. It knew that those terms belong to the new field of consciousness, and totalitarian regimes are always in fear of any new step in man’s consciousness. They don’t want a new awareness to grow in the country because that would end the people’s state of numbness.”
“We, on the other hand, did not have anything but our words and our voices in the face of the system and its horrific security agencies. Nonetheless, during my time in prison I was not afraid of the system. I felt certain that the system was afraid of my words and my writings, because otherwise it would not have put me behind bars.”
“Let me, on the other hand, ask you why your newspaper started the refugee paper project?
LFK: “As you just pointed out, words are very powerful, and not least the words presented by the media. As a journalist and editor for some years now, I’ve become more and more conscious of the fact that what truth we in the press present does not only depend on what answers we get from whom, but also on what questions we ask and even who gets to ask.
We started this project in order to give the floor (in Danish we say “give the word”) to an important group of people in our country who are talked about a lot but who rarely get to set the agenda or start the conversation.”
Information, 9 October 2015. All rights reserved.MI: “Where did the idea come from?”
LFK: “For a while now, a lot of Danish politics has been about immigration — how many people to let in, how much social welfare to give them, etc. And since a large group of refugees broke free from the police in the south of Denmark in the beginning of September, refused to be detained and registered (something that everyone else in our orderly society always accepts), and insisted on walking along the highway to reach Sweden, Danish press and politicians have been obsessed with refugees.”
“To me, the most fascinating thing was I had no idea what these people were thinking. Why did so many come at once right now, even though the horrible war in Syria had been going on for four years? What was their strategy? Why did they refuse to stay in Denmark which grants asylum to almost all Syrians and has some of the highest asylum benefits in the world? Why are so many of them men, and where are the women? What would they like their lives to become, and how could we help them?”
“As the Danish political establishment started to grow increasingly hostile towards the refugees and almost wilfully blind to their predicament, we at the paper realised we had to find a way to give them more of a voice. And so, giving them — you — our run of the paper for a day seemed like a good place to start. But it’s not nearly enough, and I still feel I have a lot to learn. What, in your experience, is it like to be a refugee?”
Information, 9 October 2015. All rights reserved.MI: “I arrived in Denmark a year ago. I was so worried and depressed. At the time, ISIS had occupied and subjugated my hometown, Kobane. Everything there had been destroyed. All property belonging to me as well as my parents had been demolished. Suddenly, my family and friends became refugees in Turkey. But to me, reaching Denmark has meant a new beginning, and the past has lost its value. Now it is merely a spot, which still needs explanation and consideration.
I had heard of Denmark as a country that respects the value of human beings and their right to express their thoughts. During all the days in which I was existing in the refugee’s camp, and later when I was placed in the Danish municipality of Odsherred, I was thinking of my exceptional luck compared to the millions of other Syrians who are suffering from painful conditions in other camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan, where refugees are dealt with in a very different, less humanitarian manner.”
“Nonetheless, one of my biggest difficulties was coping with my new status as a refugee. I had worked for many years in public affairs for democratic change, human rights, the establishment of civil society, and spreading the culture of democracy, and I discovered in Denmark that now I am just a refugee out of thousands of refugees; that I’d have to start from the beginning to stand on my own feet again, and that writing and public activity here in Denmark would not be easy or even possible.”
Information, 9 October 2015. All rights reserved.LFK: “What about being a refugee do you think is hardest to understand for Danish people?”
MI: “What has disturbed me is that the refugees in Danish society seem to be on the lowest rung of the social ladder, as if they have lost the significance, prestige and social status they carried in their previous country. It’s not easy for a refugee to build bridges with the community, and Danish society is quite closed.
Once, during a walk with a Danish friend, another Danish citizen attacked and assaulted me saying I was a terrorist and a member of the ISIS, and demanding to know what was I doing in his country. My friend tried to explain to him but in vain.
I understood his fear and his worries but unfortunately he had chosen the wrong person to attack. He didn’t know that I am a secular man and an activist working for reformation, democracy and human rights; that I am wholly against political and Jihadist Islam and its terrorist ideologies. That I and other refugees who came from the East have suffered cruelly from such radical organizations, that we as educated elites are part and parcel of the contemporary world and its concepts, and that we too have certainly read the European enlightenment culture and heritage. “Islam is the solution”, said the extremists, but we raised our voices and said, “The salvation is in democracy”.”
“With the release of the refugee newspaper on the 9 October I hope that our voices reached Danish society, and that the Danish citizens discovered that we did not come to change their country’s identity, or to beg for money or to live at the Danish taxpayer’s expense. Do you think we succeeded, or are you worried that we might have failed?”
LFK: “I do think we succeeded for that one day, yes, and the paper was overwhelmingly well received, which to me was proof that human capacities such as interest, compassion and empathy are impossible to hold down. As for worrying about any failures, I mostly worry about fear, because these are fearful times. But I hope curiosity and dialogue will win, and this project has made me much more certain that it will.”
Originally published at https://www.opendemocracy.net.