"I feel sorry for my family but I can do nothing," says Tekle Berihu, a refugee from Eritrea who fled his country and arrived in the UK five years ago.
As a refugee journalist, I can relate to his story. I went through the same bumpy ride in 2018, when I fled Turkey, leaving my family behind. I still remember the feelings of depression, frustration, constant fear, and the fundamental need to tell my story to everyone.
I interviewed Berihu for the One Thousand Dreams project, an initiative by Witness Change, a non-profit organisation that aims to interview, photograph and collect stories of 1,000 refugees in Europe. To date, nearly 700 refugees and asylum seekers from around Europe have shared their stories.
Tekle Berihu dreams “to be safe and protected.”— Witness Change (@WitnessChange_) June 18, 2021
A #refugee from Eritrea living in the United Kingdom, his is one of 1000 portraits and interviews from our new 1000 Dreams project that reclaims the refugee narrative.
Support them by sharing this story on 20 June #WorldRefugeeDay pic.twitter.com/0YoU64YsM5
"It tries to counter some of the toxic narratives that surround refugees," says Robin Hammond, an award-winning photojournalist and the founder of Witness Change. The project wants to show that the refugee experience is not singular, it is as diverse as any community in the world.
In 2020, 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide, according to the UNHCR, with 26.4 million classed as refugees and 4.1 million as asylum seekers. Biased reporting on this topic and stereotyping refugees as invaders or victims, or using inaccurate language and terminology can directly hurt them.
“It was a very repressive society...And that eventually caused a rift in me, a split that made me think I had to escape.”— Witness Change (@WitnessChange_) July 3, 2021
Niki (pseud) left Azerbaijan seven years ago to seek a new home in Europe.
She hopes that the world “changes for the better.”#1000Dreams#UNHCR #refugees pic.twitter.com/24zsSwTDAr
"I think we have to be active to ensure that marginalised groups have the ability, capacity and the opportunity to tell their own stories," Hammond says, adding that he removed himself from the process entirely. Instead, he rounded up 40 refugee storytellers from around Europe, with varying degrees of experience. Some have been professionals in their countries while others were starting from scratch. I was one of them.
Although I have never worked with a camera, I was able to photograph 16 refugees thanks to a week-long workshop. We also received a strict technical guide and a list of questions.
"The goal for the storytellers was to get across the refugees’ strengths, challenges and dreams," he adds.
Every journalist needs to be cautious about interviewees’ mental health, especially when working with refugees. With the One Thousand Dreams project, storytellers were given strict guidelines on how to avoid re-traumatising refugees and encourage them to express their emotions about their journey to safety in Europe.
“Mentally challenging,” is how Jad (pseud), a Syrian #refugee in the UK, describes the #asylum process.— Witness Change (@WitnessChange_) July 5, 2021
But worse is “being apart from your family.”
An attitude of “everything will get better soon” has helped. "This is the coping mechanism I'm using.”#1000Dreams#mentalhealth pic.twitter.com/4Qd1QC5GyW
Three themes, three timelines
Although all storytellers had their own experiences as refugees, using the "three themes, three timelines" formula helped them focus on changing the narrative about this community. Asking refugees questions about three themes - strengths, challenges, and dreams, during three timelines - their journey towards safety, their life now in Europe, and their dreams for the future gave depth to their stories that could otherwise get lost.
The project’s website was launched on World Refugee Day and was covered widely by the UK media.
"I think that the UK media has played both a very positive and a very negative role in telling refugee stories," Hammond explains. He believes that the role of the media is not just to reinforce or compound stereotypes but to educate and bring insight to their audiences.
As someone who has seen the reality from both sides, I hope this project increases the awareness about refugees who live in the UK and Europe. "UK media need to listen to refugees themselves," says Hammond. And this exactly is the goal of the One Thousand Dreams project.
After three years, my dreams came true, I returned to working as a journalist, settled in the UK as a refugee, and was reunited with my lovely family. However, Berihu's dreams are still on hold, he misses his loved ones and is worried about their safety.
Osama Gaweesh is an Egyptian journalist who was exiled in Turkey after the Arab Spring. He later had to flee to the UK because of his investigation on malpractice within the Egyptian government.
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