Giving a Voice to Young Refugees

Human Rights

More than 700,000 children are living as refugees in Lebanon. Many of them do not have access to education because the schools are overcrowded or too far away, or the children are sent to work to support their families. Photographer Erol Gurian has started a project in the Bekaa Valley to give these children and teenagers a voice - by teaching them how a newspaper works.

When I was in Lebanon in 2015 for a project, I visited tent schools run by the Beyond Association and happened to stumble across the "Press Club," a small group of refugee children who were eager to learn about journalism. Their teacher, Mesiad, himself a refugee and former Arabic teacher from Syria, taught his eight students the basics of journalism.

The boys and girls would write their pieces by hand, print out the photos they took, and glue them into a scrap book that anyone passing by their Press Club could see.

Pages are meticulously glued on thin red and blue cardboard and lovingly bound together by three pieces of green ribbon, commonly used for wrapping birthday gifts.

Through this little book, which was sitting on a dusty counter in a remote UNHCR tent in the middle of Bekaa, these children offered an insight into their lives as refugees that was more honest, authentic, and closer to reality than any newspaper article. Whoever walked past could gain a glimpse into the children’s challenging lives … but not many walked past.

I asked myself how these precious insights could be shared in a way that more people would find out about the lives of these children. So that they would enable others to better understand, be empathic, and maybe even help. Why not take the young people’s journalistic skills a step further? Why not teach them about newspaper layout and produce a minipaper that could be printed in the local copyshop and distributed in the camps?

Five months later, in September 2016, a colleague and I returned to the Bekaa Valley with a laptop and a mission: to help the kids of the Press Club develop and produce their own printed newspaper. 

When it came to choosing a name for the paper, the children quickly agreed they did not want to have the word "refugees" in the title. Instead, they named it "Sawtuna" or "Our Voice." A brilliant name for our project: what’s more personal than a person’s voice and more powerful than a community of like-minded youth?

After a week of discussions, research, writing, and layouting, we finally held the newspaper in our hands (English version). The stories ranged from a portrait of eleven-year-old Qassem, who works in a car shop instead of attending school, to a poem on war and peace in Syria. The Our Voice logo was displayed boldly on top of the paper. It felt good.

Finally, the stories were transferred into a computer layout and we had 150 color copies printed, consisting of one sheet of A3 paper printed on both sides.

At the same time, we started to wonder if print was the right form for "Our Voice." What if interested readers could find these articles on the web and we could include rich media and 360-degree video? What if we could bring this journalism know-how and technology not only to the children in the Bekaa Valley but to a worldwide audience? What if migrant and non-migrant youths on the other side of the planet could network and even support each other?

Our first issue of Our Voice was available mostly for refugees in camps close by....
...but if there were a digital version, we could make it accessible to people all over the world.

This is how our vision of the "Our Voice Mobile Media Center" was born - a project aimed at bringing youth media literacy to where it is needed most.

The project is a combination of two components:

  1. A compact theoretical and practical media training, covering the basics of good journalism in text, photography, and video.
  2. The publication of original content produced by migrant youth on the web, edited and curated by a team of experts.

Responsible Leaders Forum Casablanca

At the Responsible Leaders Forum in Casablanca, Erol met the publishers of zenith online magazine, who are covering topics from the Middle East and North Africa. They quickly decided to work together on the idea of the Our Voice Media Center. Apart from offering a channel on their website, the publisher of zenith, the Candid Foundation, is helping find funds for the next steps of the project. 

We are planning to work with NGOs on site that can help us recruit a team of teenagers between 12 and 16 who are literate and eager to participate. During a one-week project, they will learn media literacy and generate stories themselves. These will then be uploaded to a dedicated channel on our partner website

The hardware kit, consisting of tablets and a mobile WiFi modem, will stay with the NGO once the training team of the Mobile Media Center leaves. This way, the trained staff can keep producing and publishing content with others.

We will return to Bekaa in May 2018 with the first Mobile Media Center to produce a digital issue of Our Voice, which will be published in Arabic and English.

Our long-term goal is to be able to bring the Our Voice Mobile Media Centers to different parts of the world, where we can support refugee youth with media literacy training and help them network and connect worldwide.

Share if you want to spread and support this vision!

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