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Refugee Stories Told Through a Student Lens

The global displacement crisis demands more in-depth storytelling, says veteran journalist and teacher Stephan Garnett. He tells Refugees Deeply about a unique student project, the Flight For Life.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
The former cargo barge Transit, anchored on a canal of the Süderelbe River in Hamburg, has become a temporary home for refugees. Phillip Meuser

Stephan Garnett, a veteran reporter turned journalism teacher, had grown frustrated in early 2015 with what he saw as shallow coverage of the refugee crisis. He thought that the mass movement of people demanded a deeper look and more patient storytelling. His time spent as an adviser to the global journalism program at the prestigious Medill school at Northwestern University provided him with the kernel of an idea.

He compared notes with a counterpart at the International Media Center at HAW Hamburg, Steffen Buckhardt, and the pair decided to unleash their respective students on the assignment. The result is Flight For Life, a mix of text, video and audio journalism, picking up on the stories of refugees and asylum seekers in Germany from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ghana, Egypt and Iran.

Ten teams of students from universities in three countries (the United States, Russia and Germany) spent weeks conducting research and interviews trying to capture the hopes, fears and aspirations of people making the transition from home realities to an alien host country – and the pathos of their situation. The result stands comparison with some of the better reporting from professional outlets.

Bringing his own experience, ranging from crime and investigative reporting to time as an essayist for “Chicago Matters,” an acclaimed local Public Radio community series, Garnett helped to guide the diverse group of students, who included graduates and undergraduates.

Refugees Deeply: Where did the idea for Flight for Life come from, what was the impetus behind the project and how was it realized?

Stephan Garnett: The students involved run the gamut of ages from 19 to 35. It took almost a year to develop [and] started in July 2015 with a conversation with Steffen Burkhardt from the International Media Center at HAW Hamburg. Hamburg was at the heart of it, it’s the wealthiest city in Germany and it’s part of the refugee story. We came up with a title and it started from there.

We had worked together on a previous project ( We wanted to use a model where we have teams of students, something we’ve done previously. And he said to me, “How about bringing in Russian students?”

“Russia, I said, you’ve got to be kidding me” – but he wasn’t. He’d worked with them before and thought it would add another dimension. I felt it was something that would be an exceptional development, given Russia’s icy relationship with the West.

The next thing is I took it to [the] Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern because I wanted some of their grad students to join. Then we did a seminar with them to learn more about Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts to understand the impetus for this mass refugee crisis that’s going on.

The students produced most of the content you see on in just six days. The reason that happened so fast was the work that was done by the German teams in advance. Each of the teams had members from some of the countries; we – Burkhardt and I – opened a Facebook page to talk to each other and fix stories ahead of arrival. They talked about what kind of stories they wanted to pursue, so everyone knew as soon as they got there what they would be doing.

Refugees Deeply: What do you think that student reporters were able to bring to this story that was unique or different?

Garnett: Different students brought their own prior knowledge to the project, in terms of languages. Within the Medill group, we had an Arabic speaker with a Palestinian background. We had a Moroccan who speaks Arabic and an Afghan who speaks Farsi in the HAW group.

Patick Martin is a former marine who served in Afghanistan, that’s why hechose that topic. He knew about that situation. We had students from all sides and perspectives who had personal interest and investment in the topic. We had a student with an Italian background who did a story on the attitudes of German citizens and could compare it to the way refugees were being received in Italy.

Basically, all the students joined the project for very personal as well as journalistic reasons. They wanted a better understanding of who these people were and what they’d been through.

The people who they found and interviewed have been through so much. They’re not terrorists, they don’t want destruction. They want their families and their lives back. They can’t have those lives back in Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq or Iran or Egypt. But there’s a risk that Afghans might be sent back. Germany doesn’t see Afghanistan as a conflict zone.

This was not easy material to report. Many of these people have been through hell. A guy kidnapped for six months and tortured. A victim of sexual mutilation who didn’t want the same thing to happen to her daughters.

The students are very young people but they handled this so well. They were sensitive, they were understanding and did a good job at getting their subjects to open up. Some of them were understandably afraid to talk. There were people afraid of what might happen to their families back home if they spoke to a reporter.

Refugees Deeply: What is your assessment of the balance of media coverage of refugee issues and the global displacement crisis as a whole?

Garnett: The refugee crisis has not been covered very well at all in the U.S. When we do see coverage, it’s from a distance. There was more of it last year when there were the largest number of arrivals in Europe. That’s a hole that Flight For Life fills. There’s a lot of coverage of terrorism when someone goes nuts and does something stupid. But these incidents are carried out by people [who are] on the fringe of society and are mentally disturbed.

They are not representative of refugees. The refugees are people just like you and me – doctors, architects, teachers. And we don’t see this in much of the media. We see them as floods of people arriving in Europe and causing problems, contributing to ruptures like the Brexit vote. This lopsided coverage helps to fuel populists like Donald Trump in the U.S.

In terms of giving us a close-up look at who these people are and what they’re going through, the media is not doing a good job. When we sat down and discussed this as a group, that’s what we wanted to show more than anything. That these refugees are people who are being forced to flee.

A lot of media organizations are cutting back, especially on the foreign bureaus. There might be an opinion among some editors that this story is not of the greatest interest to people. That audiences are more interested in the problems refugees are causing.

I was told 41 years ago when I started my career, and I’ve never forgotten, that if it bleeds it leads. Distressing news is what attracts the audience.

Refugees Deeply: How is Flight for Life different? What does it add to our understanding, and what would you like to happen as a result of this project?

Garnett: Flight for Life takes its time. It features a four and a half minute-long video that takes you inside a refugee camp outside of Amman, Jordan, [and] a 15-minute audio doc that takes the listener on a tour of a refugee camp outside of Hamburg – your discretion entirely, of course. And we’re in a society where most people don’t take the time to really understand what the refugee crisis is about and who it’s affecting and who these people are. The people covered in Flight For Life [are] just a sample of them, but it’s a very representative sample.

I would like it to be known, I would like people to see it and for the project to get attention. It’s not even mainly for the students – and I hope like hell they’ll benefit from it – I want to fill that hole where we’re not seeing who these people are and what they’ve been through. It’s very enlightening, extremely edifying, it might even change an opinion. When you start looking at these stories – a man looking at his daughter on a cellphone while she’s far away in a camp in Jordan and he’s crying, what parent can’t relate to that?

The refugees are really heroes to a very great extent to have gone thorough what they’ve gone through, and to pick up and say I want something better and I’m going to take my family to find this new life. That’s why we called it Flight for Life.

Educating people, telling people something they did not know before, that’s what Flight For Life is. When we do something like this, we’re doing what journalists are supposed to do. We’re educating people.

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