Behind the eye of a refugee.

Words: Melissa Johnson
Photography: The Guardian Newspaper

The British media continues to be unsuccessful with the representation of migrants, and one main reason behind this failure is the lack of diversity within the industry. Many journalists will and have agreed that the media industry is middle-class white male orientated and it’s one of the biggest issues of our generation, that needs to be tackled.

The majority of British media are white males. The figures shows that 94% of journalists are white, 86% of journalists have attended university, and 80% of editors were privately educated. More than half of leading journalists went to a private school making the figures 51%. Most ironically, 46% of bosses in the industry are uncomfortable with the level of diversity in their own news rooms.

Only 37% of senior radio roles are held by women and only 11% of journalists come from a working class background. However, the most upsetting figures show that only a small faction of 0.4% of journalists are muslim. It’s coming up to a new decade and these figures show that there needs to be drastic change very soon.

Many migrants, regardless if they are born and raised in the UK, or are here to seek asylum, find the representation of migrants somewhat inaccurate, non-existing or even in some cases offensive.

Abdulwahab Tahhan is a 31-year-old Syrian refugee who is now living in the UK. He’s currently studying media studies at UAL (London College of Communication) and has previous experience in media such as working as a researcher for NGOs and more. However, with his background and lack of ‘western qualifications’ he struggles to find a job in the UK in the media industry.

His story began in Dubai where he was born, but not long after his birth his family moved backed to Aleppo, Syria – his home country.

“There are no borders and people can cross if they wanted.”

Towards the end of 2012 Abdul left Syria permanently. By that time, it was about two years into the war, and he went to Turkey which is not too far from the boarder of Aleppo. “While we were filming the documentary called The Suffering Grasses in 2012, we interviewed a Turkish government official, where he explained with a map that there are no borders and people can cross if they wanted” said Abdul with a calm expression.

Watching the documentary and visually seeing Abdul talk about the war on screen which was supported with footage of civilians being attacked, gives you a good idea as to why Abdul felt like he needed to leave his home. However, his calm expression suggests that he has made peace with this decision.

“I felt like my views were not welcome, I’m against armed opposition. I’m pro peaceful resistance, pro peaceful protesting, I was protesting on the streets, I was filming too. I was against arming the uprising. It came to a point where I had to either carry a weapon and stand against what I believed in and become one of those who carried weapons, or become a media activist for one of those armed factions and I didn’t want to, or I had to leave.

It came to a point where I had to either carry a weapon and stand against what I believed in and become one of those who carried weapons, or become a media activist for one of those armed factions and I didn’t want to, or I had to leave.

Living in the Assad controlled area was not an option because I was wanted by the Assad government. I didn’t have many choices; Turkey seemed like the best option” he explains.

“If you’re rich you can bring your loved ones, if you’re not forget about it.”

The immigration laws are not friendly either, unless you come from a wealthy background, you are welcomed with open arms and pink flowers. However, in contrary to that if you do not, the door is shut. “If you’re rich you can bring your loved ones, but if you’re not, you can just forget about it.” Abdul was able to come to the UK through a student visa with a deposit of £2,500, once he arrived, he applied for asylum and was able to receive it.

Moving and settling down in the UK was a big step towards a war-free and safe future for Abdul, and there are expectations in regards to the people and the country itself. “The first thing that I noticed from the plane was, it was very green compared to Syria.”

The people however, were indifferent and slightly ignorant to the war that was happening in his homeland. “I remember meeting an Asian girl and she asked me where I was from and I said Syria, she asked where is Syria? I said it is next to Italy it’s very beautiful there, it has a lot of beautiful beaches. She wanted to go there but I hope she didn’t” he said as he nervously laughed.

People were not aware of the horrible war in Syria, and that a lot of refugees were putting their whole life on the line to make their way to Europe.

However, once the media started reporting and covering stories in regards to the amount of refugees trying to cross the borders, it was only then people became more aware. They started paying attention, but even so the only reason people decided to pay attention is because the situation involved them, on a now, more personal level.

“You either make it or you die trying.”

When Abdul wanted to have conversations and debates on the Syrian war he noticed a lot of people avoided the topic, or perhaps did not want to talk to him about it. He assumed that the reason behind people choosing not to talk to him about the war, maybe had to do with the fact that he was Syrian, and the other party was afraid to offend him in any way.

Although Abdul was not one of them, there are still many people who try to cross the border illegally. They risk their lives because they are desperate and are simply looking for a way out. They have no other option and don’t want to go back into a war zone. “You either make it or you die trying.”

Abdul has family members and friends who were not as lucky to be able to find a job and attempt to escape the war in a safer or legal way, illegal border crossing was their only option. “Some were successful, one person drowned in the ocean, most got caught.”

If Abdul was unable to find a job in Turkey, which then allowed him to come to the UK to seek Asylum, he says he would have taken the same drastic measures and would try crossing illegally to either go to Sweden or Germany.

Abdul has close to ginger short hair, light brown hazel eyes and a pale peachy skin tone. A stereotypical ‘European’ look, as he claims. When asked about if he was ever a victim of racism when he arrived in the UK, he said he wasn’t as people thought he was European and did not think he was Syrian. “A lot of people thought I was Italian, and have said I don’t look Syrian, some people even thought I was Jewish here.”

A friend has even said to him “you look European Maa sha’Allah”, – for those who do not know the meaning of Maa sha’Allah it is a term used in Arabic and Islam where it means ‘god has willed it’ to express appreciation, joy or praise – Abdul questions the reason as to why his friend would think looking European is something that should be praised.

Although Abdul was lucky enough not receive racism personally, he has witnessed that some of his friends and even students were not treated the same way. He’s even had an incident where one of his students was thrown food at.

“I remember I wanted to cross the road, I was living in Southampton with a guy, he was Mauritius and he was dark, I said let’s cross there are no cars, he said no we have to cross from the traffic lights, you can cross but people will shout at me because they see me as an immigrant.”

The media plays a huge role on people’s opinions on refugees, and depending on which news publication you choose to receive your news from it can impact your thoughts on refugees drastically. With tabloid publications, the readers pay to read it and live on it.

In some situations, the media can also lead to unrealistic expectations due to the coverage of rare exceptions. Most non-British people who live in the UK to seek asylum such as Abdul cannot find the stories covered relatable when that’s the exact purpose it should be.

According to Abdul and many like himself, what they’ve witnessed is the fixation of two extremes on opposite end of the spectrum and nothing in between. A story about a very successful immigrant or a child getting bullied. Although the stories about the successful immigrants are tend to be used for inspiration among a lot of people, but there is still lack of representation within the media.

“What I saw on the media is the fixation on the incredibly successful people, who for example a 13-year-old girl who speaks seven languages and has a double PhD from Cambridge and oxford who was a refugee, or someone who’s bullied.” For Abdul as a refugee even though he feels happy for those who have become successful, and sends out his thoughts and prayers for the bullied victims, he says he doesn’t see his story represented and for a lot of other refugees it’s the same situation. They fall in the middle of the two opposite extreme spectrums.

This is only when individuals are being reported on however, when it comes to the middle east and Syria for example, as someone who’s Syrian and have lived through the war in Syria, Abdul has noticed that the only two narratives that is portrayed is either ISIS or Assad. This is due to a lack of diversity within the media industry.

Working within the media industry in the past Abdul has realised that it’s not well structured, and believes the model of journalism in the UK is not fit for purpose anymore. As he disagrees with neutrality. “If you know for a fact that something is a lie you should be able to say they lied instead of they claimed. Once you keep repeating that then you’re just a parrot.” He says while portraying his frustration.

This situation makes him feel upset, and witnessed first-hand what happened in his home land, he watched as the Assad regime killed his friends and neighbours but only being able to report on it using the word ‘allegedly’ when he knows first-hand it has happened upsets him.

To be able to structure the media industry for the better, one thing that Abdul strongly believes that should change is the lack of diversity within the media, and journalists, reporters being able to report about their own home lands or people.

“When I was in Syria, I too thought that the BBC was the holy grail of journalism”

One issue this could lead to is the news story turning into a bias report, however Abdul explains in a calmly manner that it will be more quality reporting because you’ll send someone out there who knows the locals or at least understand them, understands the language and understands the culture. “What annoys me the most is I know a lot about my country and I’m really informed. But I’m not able to write or report about it because no one would hire me.”

The reason behind the unemployment of journalists who are refugees is seen to be the lack of ‘western qualifications’. It is seen by employers that western qualifications are ‘superior’ to eastern qualifications, therefore employers believe the journalist is not qualified enough. “When I was in Syria, I too thought that the BBC was the holy grail of journalism” says Abdul while laughing at his past self.

This is why the Refugee Journalism Project started, to help change the quality and diversity of reporting, there are not only journalists from Syria but also from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Africa and a lot of different places. It’s a project to help journalists who have immigrated to the UK for whatever reason and help them find a job in the media industry in the UK.

“But instead they have this celebrity war reporter who’s white, who knows nothing about the locals, nothing about the language and absolutely nothing about the culture.”

The BBC released a Panorama episode about ISIS brides and the person who was reporting on the topic in Syria was the journalist Stacey Dooley, she referred to the Islamic prayer gesture as the ‘ISIS salute’ even though the BBC later apologised for the mistake, and even deleted that section from the episode, Dooley herself has not apologised.

“The media industry needs diversity, people who are from different religions, cultures, background, so mistakes like Stacey Dooley’s doesn’t repeat itself,” explains Abdul with his brows crossed and serious face.

If the roles were to be switched around and a non-English speaker in an Arabic country was to report on Brexit, and if that journalist was to only interview Arabic speakers the quality of the reporting would be, in Abduls words, ‘utterly awful’.

The only people who can bring a change to this issue are the people in the decision rooms and they need to understand why diversity is important. Everyone thinks differently and everyone have their own way of approaching certain situations or issues.

Journalists from different backgrounds have different understandings, opinions and also connections to the world, and therefore there are stories they would want to cover where the audience would very much want to read about. This is why we need diversity within the new rooms.

Melissa Johnson.