Letter 1

“Without media attention, humanitarian crises, with their horrifying impacts, will continue to be learned by the outside world way too late.”

–Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council

Within ninety minutes, I listened to a woman forced to flee her home in Homs, Syria both cry and laugh as she recounted stories from her life. While only a small glimpse into her incredibly complicated narrative, the interview delivered a wide range of emotions. It was one of dozens with Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees I participated in at Amman, Jordan during the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Duke Immerse program last semester.

A cute dog

One of the most striking things: no two stories were alike. That makes sense, of course. People differ. Though my friends and family have lots of similarities in our lifestyles and shared experiences, if asked to recount some of the most important events in our lives, I feel confident that very little would overlap. Why is it then that in the media a singular story can be assumed for refugees; a story filled solely with tragedy and heartbreak?

The stories I heard in person from refugees in Jordan are very different from those that I see in the media. As a student interested in journalism, I wonder why the two so often don’t align. Why do news media focus on the suffering, trauma and death that goes along with refugee stories? Part of this likely helps bring attention to humanitarian crises. Or perhaps it is more likely to attract readers? Or maybe some politicians’ attacks on refugees are bringing their stories to the front page of newspapers?

News media have an incredible amount of power to shape stories of our time, including those on migration, which is growing globally. Think for a minute about the Syrian refugee crisis. What comes to mind when you try to visualize it? For many, the answer to that is a photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy lying dead on a Turkish beach. Media reports made this boy, Alan Kurdi who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, a symbol of refugee suffering. This image not only became linked to the entire Syrian refugee crisis but also helped to bring the world’s attention and resources to this humanitarian issue. This power makes how the news media portrays migration incredibly important.

My advisor pointed me to a New York Times article that expressed the difficulty of trying to report the complex narrative of migration. Titled “My Interview With a Rohingya Refugee: What Do You Say to a Woman Whose Baby Was Thrown Into a Fire?,” the article well captures what I observed when interviewing refugees in Jordan. Not only is finding what to say to refugees immensely difficult, but more importantly: how do we do their stories justice? A picture of suffering, like that of Alan Kurdi, is a fundamental part of the story, but it is not the whole story. The refugee story does not end once they leave their country of origin. It does not even end if they are resettled in a new country like the United States (though only one percent of refugees globally are ever resettled). Their lives and stories continue. Ignoring this continuance fails refugees and news media consumers. Instead of focusing on suffering news media should ask: what makes these refugees like everyone else? How do they assimilate to new cultures? What are the public policy implications for a community with mass migration both coming and leaving? Refugees show a glimpse of how our world and its people are intertwined as they migrate; they show the best and worst of humanity. The news media can highlight this if they share more than just refugee suffering.

With journalism’s power comes much responsibility. As a Kenan Summer Fellow, I will research how journalists can more fully report on stories of refugees. Specifically, I want to explore how journalists can best use interviews to accurately represent people’s experiences. My project has three parts. The first is a lot of reading and researching ethical issues that have come up in different fields regarding how to ethically work and talk with vulnerable populations. From this research, I hope to create and apply a set of guidelines for interviews. Next I will work with an organization in Athens, Greece called the Melissa Network to interview refugee women from all over the world. I plan to ask these women what the media get right and wrong about their stories and write an article with what they tell me. For the last part of my project, I will use all I learn as material for a research paper to inform news media educators and organizations about my findings.

As Jan Egeland put it, news media have a responsibility to bring humanitarian crises to light because often only they can. To journalists’ credit, many publications have ethics guidelines that reporters and editors must follow. Yet do the guidelines adequately address reporting on vulnerable populations? How do can we preserve refugees’ humanity and express more of their stories than just the trauma? I hope to learn more about this over the next few months, though I anticipate that, at first, I may find more questions than answers.


Is soccer here the same as soccer back at home?

Alex Johnson - DukeImmerse JordanTwo things that I love are soccer and kids. So it wasn’t surprising that Ryan and I recently found ourselves running through the grass with a bunch of elementary school children at the Citadel. Impressed with our Arabic and desire to play with them, the children immediately took us in as teammates, passing the soccer ball to us, yelling “yallah!”, and running up to us for high-fives after scoring a goal

For me this was just a fun moment. Yet I noticed how playing soccer here is different than my experiences with soccer in America. These boys carried soccer balls in their bookbags and were not afraid to have a full game on the sidewalk outside of a mall or at Roman ruins filled with tourists. It doesn’t matter the condition of the ground, all they need is a ball, people, and  space. Unlike this, when I played soccer at home, it was an organized practice for a club team.

I began to notice while looking for differences between Jordan and my home, they’re not that hard to find. The differences people are able to find between new and old places show something we all have in common: a love for the place that we call home. In one interview that Ryan and I conducted with an Iraqi woman, she noted fondly of her home, “…even the breathing back there [in Iraq] is different than here.” For refugees, the differences between a new place like Jordan and the home from which they fled must be even more pronounced, especially when they remember home as the place where they experienced the happiest times of their lives.

In all of the interviews I have done so far, I have heard refugees briefly mention things that make them happy in Jordan. Yet, when talking about what truly makes them happy, they all talk about their homes, the places they had to leave. A home is a place that should be safe; however, these peoples’ homes have lost that sense of security. Most are now hoping to find a new, secure place to call home. I hope that they do because even the small things, like soccer, are different here when compared to soccer at home.


This year will be the Fourth Annual Intercultural Writers Contest. Each year, newcomers and native Irish youth submit poetry and prose on the ethical challenges of intercultural diversity in Ireland. Jointly organized by Metro Éireann and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the contest draws submissions from across the country. I have spent my first week here helping Santiago Gonzalez-Boneta publicize this contest.

Ireland, Dublin especially, is increasingly diverse. More than 20% of Dublin residents were born outside of Ireland, this represents more than a 50% increase in single decade. With this fact and the contest in mind, I have spent much of my time in Dublin reflecting on the theme of the writers competition.  Drawing both from my own first impressions and conversations with others, I’m not sure yet what the most salient ethical challenges are posed by this diversity. But it does have me wondering whether diversity should always be considered a good thing? Does diversity alone make for an intercultural city?

Ireland is diverse along many dimensions: race,  culture, politics, etc. And yet, people often say that diversity is a shared value and shared good. Diversity benefits all. Integration, it is often assumed, will be simple. But at first glance, Dublin, like other cities, has traces of self-segregation. Is this a problem? The Northside of Dublin is sprinkled with ethnic shops and restaurants catering to Vietnamese, Brazilians, Poles, and other newcomers. But are they frequented only by newcomers or are they becoming integrated into the lives of native born Dubliners as well? Does it matter? Do Irish shop at the Brazilian shops? Do Brazilians eat at the Vietnamese restaurant? Do Vietnamese buy sweets at the Polish bakery? My initial impressions suggests that these shops primarily serve a single nationality, but I can’t say for sure. Nor can I say if  that is necessarily a bad thing? And if so, who is it bad for?

Metro Éireann is Ireland’s only multicultural newspaper. It is the herculean effort of its editor and principle writer, Nigerian immigrant Chinedu Onyejelem. The newspaper has long heralded the successes of newcomers to Ireland, but it has also shed light on the considerable challenges to life in Ireland for newcomers. The paper tries to humanize the statistical patterns. For Chinedu, integration requires mutual respect and understanding; it is a a two-way street. Immigrants adapt to Ireland but Ireland also adapts. Diageo, the parent company of the world-famous Guinness Stout, recently sponsored a well-publicized training program for young adult refugees. And some refugee youth are eager to play Gaelic sports.

Part of the task is helping the Irish understand the experience of newcomers. Toward this end, Dublin City Council and a local photography gallery are planning exhibits and workshops on borders and migration—including collecting and displaying family albums from across the newcomer communities. Initiatives like this, as well as the writing contest, are opportunities for native-born and newcomer Irish to forge a new way forward.

In the coming months, youth across Ireland will be using their imaginations to craft stories and poems about the ethics of intercultural diversity in Ireland. Through these stories, the young people will reflect on intercultural sensitivity. This topic is of seminal importance in Chinedu’s mission for two-way respect and understanding. More important than my views on the intercultural sensitivity in Ireland are those of the young people who are living here. These are the ones who get to decide the future of Ireland’s people together. Together with Metro Éireann and projects like this writing contest, Irish and newcomers can together explore the opportunities diversity will offer and forge a way forward.