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Sharing compelling refugee community stories

One of the main goals of this project is to help reporters tell multifaceted and moving stories about refugees, so storytelling is at the heart of this goal. To write these kinds of complex stories, the author must have an in-depth understanding of both the issues and the people involved.

Writing refugee stories

Many journalists looking for compelling narratives find that refugee journey stories are a natural fit for this kind of storytelling. Focusing on a refugee family’s journey is an approach many reporters take.

This is one way Tallahassee Democrat reporter Nada Hassanein tells refugee stories. “I try to focus on their journey, coming here, and how that has affected them,” she said. Although it is a common approach, it provides opportunities for a vast array of stories because of each individual’s unique experiences and how they affect them.

Hassanein also tries to emphasize overarching similarities between refugee and non-refugee populations. “Everyone has the same wants and same needs and that’s what I try to reflect,” she said. Hassanein focuses on universal experiences so that, even when she’s describing an experience that might seem very different to some readers, it will still resonate with them on a basic level.

I try to focus on their journey, coming here, and how that has affected them.

Another tactic to telling nuanced stories is balancing harrowing backstories with success stories and refugees’ lives here. “I would suggest that newspapers … balance refugees’ prior lives or their circumstances for leaving with what they’re doing now and how they fit into the broader community,” Lincoln Journal-Star reporter Zach Pluhacek said. This provides readers with a more full range of the refugee experience.

It can be easy to lean too heavily on overly dramatic and stereotypical tropes when telling refugees’ stories. It’s important to look at a refugee’s life in a broader perspective and remember there’s more to their identity than their refugee status, said Bansal, editor of The Development Set and founder of Honeyguide Media.

“Just because you have refugee status doesn’t mean that’s your whole identity,” she said. “If you ask someone, ‘What are the top five things you would use to describe yourself,’ they would be very different things. Maybe refugee isn’t even on the top five ways they would identify themselves.”

Here are some of the ways we learned from reporters to grapple with the challenges of stereotyping and oversimplifying—challenges that face journalists on any beat.

Among these suggestions:

  • Make sure to get a variety of viewpoints. In this case that includes the individuals or families involved, related organizations and experts. Remember that there are often more than two sides to a story.
  • Be open-minded. “It’s the same as all reporting: listen with an open mind, try to understand what makes them tick,” Seattle Times reporter Nina Shapiro said.
  • Put your stories into larger context with facts and statistics. Look for contextual statistics that will help you and your audience understand the situation on a broader level.
  • Share their unique truth with honesty and empathy. Hassanein came to this conclusion after struggling with a story about a refugee family who had “fresh wounds” after only being in Tallahassee a few months, she said. She found an angle after an editor asked her what that family’s message was. “I would say as journalists, we uphold the truth: What is this family’s truth?” she said. “What are they living, what is their reality? I think a lot of it has to do with empathy.” By keying in on that family’s message, she was able to identify the heart of her story and convey their truth in an honest and empathetic way.

Additional considerations for refugee interviews

The process of interviewing refugees can be challenging in itself. There are varied personalities, cultural norms and experiences. However, there are a few general points that can make the interview process smoother.

One of the biggest barriers to understanding various refugee populations can be language. Before interviewing, be aware of subjects’ fluency in English and get a translator if necessary. This could be a refugee resettlement worker, cultural liaison at a public school or refugee community leader.

Some reporters like to do research on a group’s cultural norms to avoid potentially offensive situations and help the interview run more smoothly. A cultural liaison — someone who can provide information about the customs and etiquette of a particular group — can also be helpful in resolving possible communication issues.

The amount of time a refugee has been in America can make a large difference. Especially when interviewing newly arrived refugees, be cognizant of their vulnerability as people who have arrived in a completely new culture, often with little support. Reporters should take time to explain their purpose and the implications of their interviews, Koumpilova said. “Even if the sources say up front they don’t have any questions, take the time to talk to them about your work and the article you are writing.” This can ease potential anxieties and help refugees better understand your intentions.

A cultural liaison … can also be helpful in resolving possible communication issues.

Some refugees haven’t had experience or contact with the press, so reporters should be flexible and understanding if the interviewee doesn’t follow what might seem like obvious protocol. Pluhacek said subjects might later ask to retract certain statements or are uncomfortable with certain questions, for example. “While many journalists have strict rules for these things, it’s important to be flexible and understanding of different cultures,” he said.

Finally, many refugees have been through traumatic experiences and may be wary or nervous about being interviewed. This is reasonable considering that many had to go through incredibly high-stakes interviews during the resettlement process. Be sensitive to this while interviewing and make sure to respect their time and privacy, Bansal said.

Collaborating with refugee communities

While newsroom collaboration with local refugee communities isn’t common by any means, it can provide a way to connect different audiences by allowing refugees to share their own thoughts, feelings and experiences.

One example is the Sun Journal’s “Somali Voices” column. The Sun Journal is located in Lewiston, Maine, a city of 36,000 that has been home to Somali refugees since 2001. The column was implemented in 2016 and features locally known Somali refugees. 

Washuk wanted to start the column as a way to better reflect the Somali population’s growing presence in the community. The topics covered have ranged from the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr (most Somalis are Muslim) to the election of Trump to the experience of being a refugee and graduating from high school.

She said it’s been a challenge to introduce this relatively new topic to the Somali community and manage busy schedules. She had to change her plan of having regularly contributing writers to asking potential columnists to write on a case-by-case basis. She has had success with this model by thinking of topics and reaching out to community members she thinks might be interested in writing them.

Washuk believes the columns have helped make the Somali community more visible in Lewiston. “I think it helps audiences connect better and it helps lift refugees’ status in the community as they ought to be,” she said.

Having a guest column is one of many possible ways to collaborate with minority communities. Reporters can utilize tools like Evrybit to let subjects tell their own stories by letting them upload original photos, video, and audio. While journalists should take care to utilize basic journalism practices like fact-checking in collaborative content, they can help break stereotypes by sharing individuals’ stories and experiences firsthand.

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