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One on One: Joe Parkinson, Istanbul Bureau Chief, the Wall Street Journal

This week, the Wall Street Journal launched Borderlands, an interactive multimedia platform using video and text to track uprooted Syrians now living on or near the Turkish border.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

Istanbul bureau chief Joe Parkinson conceived and spearheaded the project with correspondents Nour Malas and Ayla Albayrak.Here, he describes what went into telling the stories of Syrians like Hassan, a Syrian grandfather turned war correspondent, and Mohammed, a 25-year-old Latakia language student who’s now teaching fellow refugees at the Akcakale camp in Urfa province. 

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Over the past 18 months we’ve been spending a lot of time on the Turkish-Syrian border. The center of gravity on this story moves [all the time], from Damascus to Qusayr to the diplomatic arena, and of course along the borderlands between Syria and Turkey. On reporting trips we were seeing a lot of stories that weren’t really getting told or ending up on the cutting room floor. For a lot of people, this conflict is viewed though the lens of prototypes: the refugee, the fighter, the bearded Islamist.

But there are ordinary businesspeople, teachers and middle-class people whose lives have been upended in an extraordinary way, and we wanted to give a voice to these people and figure out a way to showcase their experience.

I had the idea that rather than trying to create a standard news package with me, or a colleague standing at the border and interviewing a subject, we should try to do something more thoughtful and let these people tell their own stories in mini-doc form. We spent time with them, lived part of their daily routines and cherry-picked the parts that best spoke to how their lives had been transformed.

One of the most compelling parts of the final product is that viewers see subjects affected by the Syria conflict who they can actually relate to, whose experience they can imagine. This doesn’t happen so much with fighters or refugees, for example.

We met some people and we knew they’d be fantastic for this multi-interactive. Hassan the journalist wasn’t a story you’d necessarily expect – here’s the equivalent of a guy working in news in a provincial town, something like a sports correspondent in Pittsburgh, and all of a sudden he’s a war correspondent working prime time on the national networks. He’s a grandfather who’s traveled into Idlib with fighters on the evening news, and his personal profile has become much much higher.

We ran into Hassan and said we wanted to spend time with him, and he was excited to do it. Some of the other subjects were much more complicated. A lot of people who initially agreed later decided they didn’t want to be on camera. Or often a man would say yes, and then talk to his family and abandon the project halfway through. Some people just disappeared.

When we launched yesterday, we were bombarded with emails from some of the subjects as well as from viewers. Hassan posted it on his Facebook page and got a lot of positive comments, and then some said, “You shouldn’t be covering the refugees in such detail, you’re bringing the refugees to our city.” That reaction spoke to the heightened tensions in Antakya and across the border region. We also spoke to the office of the mayor of the Kurdish city.

There are others we can’t get in contact with because they’ve moved on or disappeared. The doctor is often in Syria working in field hospitals. We don’t know where the mother is who was living in the caves, whether she’s still there or whether the family have moved into a refugee camp or somewhere else … because the borderlands on the Syrian side of the frontier are becoming increasingly lawless, the area’s becoming a bit of a black box.

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