Paper with a purpose

‘The Refugee Voice,' a multilingual Tel Aviv-based newspaper launched last month, aimed at providing Israelis with a window into the lives of African refugees in Israel.

The Refugee Voice editorial meeting (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The Refugee Voice editorial meeting
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
They say journalists should try not to be a part of the story they’re covering – but that’s easier said than done for the writers and photographers of the newest addition to the Israeli media scene.
Launched last month with an initial printing of 5,000 issues, The Refugee Voice covers issues pertaining to the African migrant community and seems equal parts information guide for new arrivals to Israel, and hasbara meant to give Israelis a window into the lives of the tens of thousands of African refugees and migrant workers living among them.
Printed in four languages – Hebrew, English, Arabic and Tigrinya – the monthly paper reaches out to both migrants and Israelis.
The debut issue comprises a mix of news and feature articles and includes a cover story titled “It’s like stepping out of a grave,” featuring first-person accounts from migrants on the hardships they faced crossing into Israel from Sinai, where rape, torture, and exploitation of migrants have been widely reported.
It also offers tips for migrant workers on their legal rights; a health section dispensing advice on contraception and infectious diseases; and a food section highlighting restaurants opened by African migrants in Tel Aviv.
The paper includes profiles of community members such as musician Eizek Pascal Newton of Ghana, who was severely wounded in a bombing in the Naveh Sha’anan neighborhood of South Tel Aviv in 2003. In January, he released a new CD.
The Refugee Voice was dreamed up by Tel Aviv University social work student Maya Fennig, 25, who has been volunteering with Israel’s African community for four years. Fennig said the idea to launch the paper came in November, when news of the building of the Negev detention center and new visa regulations showed her that there was a glaring need for an information outlet for migrants, who, in the absence of concrete information, were relying on rumors to understand their situation.
“I realized that the migrants didn’t have any sort of reliable source of information,” Fennig said. “They rely on all of these different organizations [NGOs] to give them information, creating an absurd situation where I have more information about what’s going on in their lives than they do.”
At the start, she said, there were only 10 refugees whom she brought together to work on the paper; then, shortly thereafter, about 10 Israeli volunteers joined, making a news staff of 20. The Israelis are mainly there to help the migrants.
Early on, having the paper available in four languages, including Hebrew, was seen as essential, according to Fennig.
“The idea behind having Hebrew in addition to Arabic, Tigrinya and English is so that Israelis can also read what’s written. A lot of newspapers in Israel say stuff about refugees – like they’re all migrant workers, or that they carry diseases, or are very violent. The media is full of rumors and [the migrants] have no opportunity to explain their own story in their own words and be able to take part in the dialogue.”
In addition to the paper’s ability to present African migrants’ experiences in their own words, Fennig said she sees it as an opportunity for a talented community of people to find a creative outlet.
“From the social worker’s standpoint, I see that they are very intelligent people with abilities that are not being given opportunities [to develop]. They wash dishes or work in factories. But now they have an opportunity to do something else too – to be writers or photographers. This helps them look at themselves and their community differently.”
The paper’s first issue ran without any advertising, and none has been set up for the second issue either. Fennig said they have received some funding from the United Nations High Committee for Refugees (UNHCR) and other private citizens have chipped in, but the paper still finds itself in dire need of funding and without a revenue stream from sales or ads.
THE PAPER holds its weekly editorial meetings in the offices of the African Refugee Development Center on Rehov Golomb near the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv.
A recent meeting was an egalitarian sort of affair with a group of 18 people, 11 of them Israelis, sitting and discussing articles from the debut issue as well as ideas for the next edition, with “hot return” – the issue of the controversial returning of migrants to Sinai by the IDF – a priority.
During the meeting, 26-year-old Yonatan Levi gave a lecture on Journalism 101, describing the differences between a news article, a magazine article and an opinion piece. He also gave tips on preparing for and conducting interviews.
The former editor, writer, and translator at Yediot Aharonot was recruited by Fennig, a friend, to work as a Hebrew and English editor for the paper. At last Tuesday’s meeting he worked to instill basic journalistic principles and pointers in the nascent news team, which he said lacks familiarity with many principles of the field.
“Some of them don’t really understand the concept of a paper, partly because many of them don’t have a free press where they come from. It’s a challenge to teach someone how to do journalism when they don’t really know what it is and haven’t had time to really learn what it is or go through any sort of training.”
Levi added that the personal nature of the subject matter presents additional problems for the writers.
“They don’t really understand, so when they write about something very close to their hearts in the news section, they often write their feelings or opinions in it. Because it’s something that affects them and their lives, and their families’ lives, they have a tendency to write about it from the heart.
For them, it’s different than an Israeli writing about something that’s exotic or strange for them.
“So one of the important things to teach them was not to write their feelings in news stories.”
At the same time, Levi said that what the writers and photographers may lack in journalistic training, they can make up for with their ability to gain greater access to the subjects of their stories than most Israelis can.
“They speak the language and they understand the situation… I also assume that they build trust more easily, because they understand the [African migrants] better.
“Also, they see the Israeli media and the talkbacks on the articles, and they know how people look at them and write about them in the media. I’m sure this causes suspicion toward Israeli journalists.”
Levi mentioned an article from the first issue that illustrated one way these new reporters may be able to reach angles of the African migrant story that the mainstream Israeli press won’t.
Written by Israeli Tomer Camus and Darfurian refugee Adam Keala, “The Return to Sudan” is a short article covering the recent repatriation flights to South Sudan organized by the International Christian Embassy and the Interior Ministry, and the rumors of arrests and violence suffered by some of those who have returned on these flights after they arrived back in Sudan.
Keala looked into the rumors and was able to call relatives and associates back in Sudan in order to get information for the story. In addition, having experienced the hardships that drove Africans from these countries, many migrants like Keala have a better understanding of what repatriation to such countries can mean. They have a greater potential ability to reach those individuals who can tell their personal stories without having to be in Israel or speak English or Hebrew to an Israeli journalist.
Beyond their ability to tell their story and inform their community, it appears that for a number of migrants working on the paper, the project is a source of pride and confidence that helps them deal with a country and a way of life that is often daunting and debilitating.
WRITER KIDANE Isaac, 25, juggles working at the paper with a full-time job at a bakery in Yavne, and draws energy from working in journalism, a field that had been a complete unknown for him.
“This is my first experience doing anything like this or working in journalism at all, and I think I’ll grow with it,” he said. In Eritrea, we don’t have a free press; we only have one newspaper and a television station owned by the government.
Everything is published and run by the government, so we need to appreciate the free press here in Israel.”
Isaac said he was initially drawn to working at the paper because of what he said was the dearth of information for African migrants when he arrived in Israel only four and a half months ago.
“When I first got to Israel, I saw that there was much miscommunication for the refugee community, and that people need information because they live off rumors. When I got to the ARDC center, we met with Maya [Fennig] and other people, and they told us about this idea.”
Isaac said that the first issue’s 5,000 copies were “gone in a night,” adding that he hopes the paper will find a way to solve its financial needs and continue to grow.
“It has been very amazing and we have gotten much good feedback from the refugee community and Israeli friends of mine,” Isaac said.
“It’s very important for the future that the paper grows.”