Ahead of World Refugee Day, a day dedicated to refugees, their plight and their rights, we spotlight the work of Jordan-based filmmaker Jumana Saadeh and Kashmir-based multimedia journalist, Raqib Naik, who work to challenge misconceptions about refugees and bring about greater empathy for a community that is often voiceless.
Open Media Hub alumna, Jumana Saadeh, made her debut short film ‘Second Hand Refugee’ in 2013. In the film, which won her a BBC Arabic Young Journalist Award, she narrates the story of a long-term stateless Palestinian refugee family from Syria who fled to Jordan for a new life when the shelling became unendurable. Still without identification papers, the family were now “twice stateless.”
Her multilayered storytelling is urgent and leaves an enduring impression, but when she describes the challenges of making her film, she talks of how healing isn’t straightforward or linear for refugees. In the case of Ahmed, the son of the main character, Thawra, in the film, so often was he brought back to a place of traumatic recall that Jumana spent long hours building a friendship with him in order for him to find his voice.
“It’s challenging when you’re dealing with minors,” says Jumana. “You need to make sure you do not put pressure on them to answer questions that will only return them to the difficult mental state they were in before.”
Jumana’s next two films are in equal parts heartbreaking, horrifying and hopeful. In ‘No Kids Land’ (2017), she follows unaccompanied Syrian child refugees in Lebanon, separated from their families because of death, disappearances or jail. In need of guidance and foster care, these child refugees find themselves in precarious, and at times dangerous, situations between crime, control and neglect.
Her follow up, ‘No Kids Land, No Mothers Either’ was funded by the Migration Media Award in partnership with Open Media Hub and was broadcast on BBC Arabic in late 2020. The film highlights how refugee families face huge hurdles to reuniting and features a Syrian mother who leaves her children behind in Lebanon without a guardian to seek asylum in Sweden.
In the time it takes for an application for reunification to be processed by the Swedish government, her eldest son, Adeeb, turns 18 and his application is denied. The youngest, Rabea (pictured above), is able to live with his mother in Sweden but the challenges for the family do not end there.
“There’s the threat and fear of deportation,” explains Jumana. “There are also the difficulties of integrating into a new society and above all, the separation that still exists for the family. Adeeb remains alone in Lebanon, despite further applications for unification.”
Jumana’s award-winning work is inherently collaborative, based on deep connections and research into her subjects: “I do a lot of research to find powerful stories and I do what I can to build strong relationships with the subjects of my films,” she says. “The idea is to get them to feel relaxed and share their experiences with me. This requires dialogue, trust and transparency.
“If you’re fortunate enough not to be part of the oppressed population, then you need to be part of those that defend them”
“Their stories matter. But people are tired of hearing the same stories about refugees so it’s important to find angles that aren’t widely covered that will generate empathy again.”
“If you’re fortunate enough not to be part of the oppressed population, then you need to be part of those that defend them,” continues Jumana.
“One aspect of defending them is to enhance the media’s role in supervising and overseeing officials. As journalists and filmmakers, we should have our eye on everything, and we should hold authorities accountable if needed.”
Jumana hopes a day will come when refugees are recognised as citizens of the land they inhabit, with passports and identification papers, and respect and acceptance from those around them. “Imagine the power they will have when this happens. Maybe one day.”
Like Jumana, Kashmir-based multimedia journalist, Raqib Naik, hopes his journalism will help to restore empathy and widen conversations about what it means to be a refugee, rather than defer to a preconception which reinforces stereotypes.
2020 was the year the pandemic collided with global refugee crises and in his work, Raqib reminds us that it isn’t just the virus that is being unkind to refugees.
“I focus not just on the physical threats of COVID-19 on Rohingya refugees in India,” says Raqib, “but how they are perceived and received within the host communities and how the pandemic is being used as a political weapon against them.”
"Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in India in 2014, there has been a rise in negative sentiment and violence against Rohingya Muslims," says Raqib. “Now COVID-19 concerns are being used to justify hardline migration policies.”
“In March, the Indian government detained more than 200 Rohingya in the Jammu area of Indian-administered Kashmir and is now in the process of deporting them to Myanmar where they previously fled persecution.”
True sanctuary is still a distant prospect for Rohingya refugees, but Raqib depicts them with ample sensitivity in his work and hopes his reporting will counter hostility towards them.
“A refugee story requires a very different and sensitive treatment to other stories,” explains Raqib. “Whenever I go out to report on them, I try to imagine how I would cover them if they were my family.
“I always make sure that the questions I ask don’t remind them of their trauma and I’m very careful about the terminology I use to describe them. I also get my stories peer-reviewed to make sure that, consciously or unconsciously, I do not end up reinforcing stereotypes.”
Raqib believes the plight of Rohingya people has failed to make headlines with the world’s attention still firmly on the pandemic. “Their stories often find no space in the regular news cycle,” he says. “Which is why it is important for journalists like myself to humanise their stories and give a voice to their issues in a way that generates compassion and empathy, especially in the host community.”
"If I was fortunate not to be part of the oppressed people, then at least I want to be part of the people who are defending them" – Jumana Saadeh, Jordan
“Refugees are the most vulnerable people living within our communities. Let's ensure coverage that generates empathy” – Raqib Naik, Kashmir
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