This journalist is teaching refugee women and girls digital economy skills
Over the past couple of years, Greece has experienced a refugee crisis: In 2016, over a million people arrived in the country by sea, and refugees have continued to come since. Over half of these refugees are women and children, waiting in camps to reunite with relatives or have asylum status approved by the Greek government. Few resources are available to them in these camps and, what’s more, they are at increased risk of exposure to traffickers and other threats.
In April, documentarian and journalist Priyali Sur — best known for covering human rights violations and, recently, reporting on the European refugee crisis — started the Azadi Project, an initiative that helps refugee women and girls develop digital economy job skills. The Azadi Project teaches women in Greek refugee shelters expertise in jobs related to multimedia communications and storytelling in order to promote their integration into the local labor force. In an interview with The FBomb, Sur explained what’s happening with the refugee crisis and how her work at the Azadi Project aims to address it.
The FBomb: How did you first become interested in the refugee crisis?
Priyali Sur: In 2015, the world was seeing an unprecedented refugee crisis with more than a million refugees fleeing conflict and making their way to Europe. I felt, as a journalist, I had to be there, tracking their journeys, writing about their hardships and informing the world.
One night in September 2015, I found myself amid an unfolding humanitarian crisis. I was not far from the Hungarian city of Szeged, at the Rozske-Horgos border. The government of Hungary had just shut down its borders with Serbia and Croatia. Through locked gates, I saw starving women and children shivering and begging for entry. Having traveled hundreds of miles, they were now sitting on a cold road without shelter or sustenance. The conditions on the other side of the border were deplorable and heartbreaking. For hours, with the help of volunteers armed with food and blankets, I probed the border in a supply van to get to the other side. By 4 a.m., we found an opening and reached the refugees. I spent the rest of the night with them, talking to them and trying to understand their struggles. The next day I filed my first report on Europe’s refugee crisis. Ever since, I have felt the need to stay involved and help any way I can, be it as a journalist, a social entrepreneur, or a conscientious global citizen.
The Azadi Project focuses specifically on helping refugee women and girls by teaching them digital economy skills. Why did you decide to teach these particular skills, and how does having them help female refugees?
Many refugees who are fleeing to Europe are educated and skilled professionals. Unfortunately, the jobs available to them in their host countries and communities do not always do justice to their capabilities. Low-wage and unskilled jobs with short or no career paths are mostly what’s available to refugees, and women are generally recruited for gendered roles like caregivers. Women refugees also face intersectional bias; they are marginalized on the basis of their gender, their status as refugees, their ethnicity, culture, and color.
During one of my reporting trips to Greece, I visited refugee camps and shelters and noticed that while refugees wait for asylum determinations, women in particular have little opportunity to use their time constructively. This makes them further vulnerable to smugglers and traffickers. The Azadi Project is trying to change that by building skills to help refugee girls and women achieve their true potential and capitalize on the increasing tech-savvy orientation of the millennial generation. Digital skills such as multimedia storytelling and coding will put these women and girls on a career path with opportunity for professional growth, and Azadi helps connect them with organizations for internships and jobs. Also, by helping them build skills that employers are looking for, Azadi empowers these remarkable people to pursue livelihood opportunities beyond borders, in any country in Europe.
It’s also important to note that, through multimedia storytelling, refugee women and girls are able to take control of their own narrative and change the negative public perception about them. During our Athens workshop (September 2018), the girls produced films that showed them as strong, ambitious, and hopeful. They were determined to tell the world that there is more to them than just the word “refugee.” Digital skills also enable them to reach a wider audience beyond geographical limits. One of Azadi’s participants, Nour Omran from Palestine, started her YouTube channel after learning filmmaking skills at the Azadi workshop. She says she wants to share stories of other refugees like her through YouTube.
Azadi is groundbreaking because it empowers women refugees to pursue livelihoods and overcome intersectional bias. It boosts their autonomy and enables them to be a powerful force for economic development. It helps this marginalized population show it can be a productive part of its host community and achieve the freedom and dignity it deserves.
Do the cultural backgrounds of the women with whom you work affect their approach to and relationship with technology?
It’s a myth that refugee women and girls are shy or scared of technology. They are like any other tech-savvy millennial. They love technology and, in fact, have found ways to innovatively use it to communicate better or enhance their lives in their new communities. The multimedia films produced by the participants in the Azadi workshop help break this stereotype by showing how refugee women and girls engage with and use technology. Another workshop participant, a 22-year-old woman, has multiple Instagram accounts that she masterfully curates according to each of her audiences’ cultural sensitivities. All of her content across these accounts has an emotional impact on her followers. Many like her have multiple identities on social media and live vicariously through an aspirational digital identity.
Through your work, what have you observed are the hardest parts of refugee women integrating into new cultures?
I think integration is facilitated when people interact in educational, professional, and social spaces. One of the biggest challenges is that that most refugees find work in organizations and NGOs working for refugees. This is where they work, socialize, and take language courses. While all of this is crucial, this limits their social interaction with the non-refugee community. By providing digital skills to refugee women and girls and helping them with internships, Azadi facilitates their entry into a skilled labor market where they can interact professionally and socially with other host community members. It also helps host community members see refugees as talented and professionally capable, as people who can help make their cities and countries stronger and more vibrant.
Does the Azadi Project address the trauma the refugees with whom you work may have experienced? Does that trauma affect the work you do?
Trauma is a deep and serious issue and requires the attention of trained professionals and therapists. Addressing trauma or psychosocial counselling is not Azadi’s focus. Still, during our multimedia storytelling workshop, it became clear that the sessions can become very therapeutic for participants. In Athens, they opened up about their lives and the hardships they had faced. They shared their stories with each other in a safe space and drew strength from each others’ failures and triumphs. The culmination of the workshop was especially very emotional: They screened their films before family and friends, demonstrating that, despite all the violence, political problems, and life-threatening journeys they had endured, they survived and thrived.
Conservative and ultra-right leaderships across the world are increasingly standing against immigration policies that help refugees. Has this affected the Azadi Project's work?
We are working with women and girls who are already refugees or seeking asylum status. Policies affecting the newcomers don’t affect our work because there are already so many who need help. However, anti-refugee rhetoric and policies can influence public perception, which in turn can affect the integration of refugees in host communities and labor markets. This may impact Azadi’s work as we focus on integration through building digital employment skills. Participants in Azadi’s Athens workshop have shown the way forward by taking control of their own narrative, showing themselves to be ambitious, strong, hopeful, and confident.
More articles by Category: Feminism, International
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