Meet the exiled journalists that came to NTU

Nottingham Trent University (NTU) proudly welcomed four refugee journalists who fled their home countries (Thurs, Feb 20), and we were lucky enough to speak to each of them about their journey to the UK.

Amel Al Alariqi (photo credit: Faith Pring)

Amel Al Alariqi

In 2015, Amel Al Alariqi came to the UK after fleeing her home in Yemen. 

In her home country she worked as the managing editor of the Yemen Times, before being employed by Oxfam International as a communications and information officer for 4 years.

She was the first person to be appointed for this post with the aim to establish new communications and policies. 

Amel visited the UK using a visa in 2015, and after finding out there were uprisings and strikes back in Yemen she realised she could not go home.

She said: “I wasn’t really preparing to stay in this country – I say it in a good way not in a bad way! I’m so glad I’m safe to be honest.

“I was here in the UK by myself and my family was back in Yemen and I really struggled during that time because I lost connection with my family and everything so there were a lot of difficulties trying to communicate with them.

“Also feeling guilty being here safe while they are really at risk. It wasn’t an easy situation. 

“I was in a zone where I was so depressed and I was having a lot of negative thoughts and darkness around me everywhere in every aspect of my life. I lost everything basically. 

“It was that feeling of things out of my control and not having a plan and it was a difficult time which I think lasted for around 2 and a half years.”

She found work with a charity for Syrian refugees, and helped families who came to the UK with resettling. 

Amel then contacted Vivienne, Director of the Refugee Journalism project based at London College of Communication, and became involved in the programme. 

She was able to give lectures to students on her experiences and how journalists work in conflict, and describes it as a ‘platform’ to convey messages about her country and what is happening. 

“This is what I really enjoy doing now, it’s supporting other journalists and being through this experience has really empowered me instead of feeling bad. 

“That was a difficult experience but it really empowered and I really appreciate who I am now. If you’d asked me 3 or 4 years ago I would’ve said why am I living, why am I breathing? 

“I felt depressed, sad but also anger – I felt like no one was listening or even cared. 

“Though I spoke the language it’s different in other cultures and it was really challenging and lonely.”

“By sharing our own experiences hopefully students have a moment of thinking how it can be better to convey messages – we’re in the right direction and these are the people we need. 

“I see myself as a journalist turned activist now and I think as a journalist it’s important to empower future journalists to convey messages.”

Left to right: Amel Al Alariqi, Zozan Yansar, Vivienne Francis, Zabihullah Noori, and Temesghen Debesai (Photo credit: Faith Pring)

Temesghen Debesai

From Eritrea, Temesghen Debesai worked for the Eritrean state media as part of a team that created the country’s very first English-language news broadcast in 1998, before he fled in 2006.

He said: “For some strange reason, the government allowed private papers to flourish, one started in 97, and then in early September in 2001, there were about seven or eight of them in Eritrea, and I think people were gravitating towards those papers rather than those that were there before.”

In 2001, this was the week after the September 11 terrorist attack, the government imprisoned all the private journalists and 15 government officials. September 2001…they’re still there, those that are alive at least.”

“I finally came around to understanding that we are really dealing with a dictatorship and I was still in the middle of it, kind of like a mouthpiece for the state run media, but I still believe in the freedom of the press so I was stuck in between a rock and a hard place.”

Temesghen found himself in a difficult position as Eritrea used a shoot-to-kill policy on their borders, not allowing anyone without permission to leave.

“I just had to wait. From 2001 to 2006, I just had to carry on and pretend that I was happy with the set up and act like I’m one of the guys and eventually in 2006, they sent me out for a week to Bahrain, and I never made the trip back.”

“I was in Bahrain and I was hiding for five or six weeks and then I came here.”

However, when he came to the UK, he found that his previous journalistic experience was not valued as highly as he anticipated.

“All that experience goes down the drain when you’re here, I think there is this lack of understanding on the part of European countries.

“They think just because you come from a third world country, your experience isn’t right when the theory is all the same. It’s something I learnt later in life that it’s not about your experience, it’s about who you know.”

But for Temesghen, the need to be a journalist was just as important as it had always been.

“I’ve recently come to find out that I’m an empath, (someone who can sense another’s feelings or emotions) and I’m someone who likes to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

“I had to let that frustration out somehow, and journalism is probably the best way to do it. When other people can’t talk about it, it’s our job to help them, and I sleep better at night because of it.”

Zozan Yansar (Photo credit: Faith Pring)

Zozan Yansar

Zozan Yansar found refuge in the UK after being persecuted in her home country of Turkey.

As a Kurdish woman in Turkey she faced persecution and potential genocide, with the Turkish goverment destroying her village in the 1990s when she was a young child.

This meant Zozan was not able to go to school and taught herself how to read, write and learn. 

She says as a Kurdish woman she felt like she ‘didn’t exist.’

Zozan was eventually granted an ID card, however as her given name was Kurdish it had been ‘banned’, and the government had given her a new name on the card.

After fighting in court, when she was 20 she was finally given her name back. 

She said: “During this time I became an activist – I started to teach the Kurdish language. 

“I worked for the Human Rights Organisation and I was fighting for people in Turkish prison. 

“I was arrested when I was 22 years old by the Turkish government and I was tortured because as a female it’s really difficult. 

“They have certain ways when they arrest females so one of them sexual abuse, and then sexual violence and it’s really easy to use these things against women to push them to work for them.”

After being released, Zozan took a university entrance exam in Istanbul and was accepted to study political science. 

While studying for her degree she worked for voice of America: “actually the most important thing from my childhood and young age was with all this information what can I do in the future to help people? 

“The issue of Kurds is not something new, but from which side can you defend people. 

“The hierarchy affects you so you’re not just fighting one thing, you’re also fighting gender equality and being a journalist – the hierarchy are trying to keep you from being a female and being free. 

“Fighting all these things wasn’t easy.”

Since moving to the UK after rising tensions between Kurdish people and the Turkish government, Zozan freelances as a journalist and is studying for a masters. 

“It’s an experience to learn about journalism in the UK so all my experiences don’t work in this country and in this country you can write about anything. 

“You can cover different stories and different things, and maybe work in coffee shops or restaurants and all these things.”

Zabihullah Noori (Photo credit: Faith Pring)

Zabihullah Noori

Zabihullah Noori is originally from Afghanistan, and trained as a journalist there before fleeing to Pakistan the country as a result of the ongoing conflict. 

“I started my journalistic career in 1998 in Pakistan, and I saw a lot of biased coverage of the Taliban, and I determined myself to get into this field to try and change that.

“I worked for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and started my career there as an office assistant, translator and training assistant, and I was a one man band there, training local journalists and translating their stories,” he said.

However, after becoming involved with some award-winning documentary making, Zabihullah had to once again relocate, and found his way to the UK, before being granted refugee status in 2012.

He then tried to make it into the journalism industry in London.

He told us: “When I came here my expectation was that I came from a very rich journalistic background and I should be straight into the job, but it took me more than five years until I got into this fantastic journalism project, with Vivienne.”

“I kept applying for journalistic jobs, and now I work for a 24-hour Persian television channel and I work as a multimedia journalist.

“From that time on, it’s just working, getting paid and paying the bills…and spending time with kids.

“It has its ups and downs, but now I think it is good, now London is home.”

For Zabihullah, playing an active role in the journalism career was personal, and was a way to get the truth across to people outside of his home country.

“I saw how biased the Pakistani media was, and how the country was falling apart and how the Taliban was helping.

“Reading the paper I would become upset and if I was ever going to do something, I want to do that, to help report in a fair and biased way.

“It’s kind of like I’m trying my best and it’s still subjective and at least I try my best to not be biased.

“The media there is out of our control and that was my motive, I saw that these people were being praised by the papers and I wanted that to change.”

Zabihullah still occasionally goes back to Afghanistan to report on the situation there, his most recent visit in December, allowing him to capture some more raw footage of conflict.

He revealed: “The funny thing is was my training because whenever you go to a war zone you have to be trained on how to react and everything, but when I was there, I was reacting like I normally do and they asked if I received any training before and I said no, this is because I lived in that situation and I know how to react.”

“I saw the first dead body in my life when I was six years old, a soldier was killed and I was going to school, in year one, and there was this body.

“I didn’t even know what it was, the concept, and I went home and told my parents and they tried to kind of play around it like ‘oh, it’s this, don’t worry about it, let’s go play something’.”

“These were the things that we went through, your life experience adds to your career.

“If you see something, you learn how to react to it, those are the situations when you get to do your job.

“If you really want it then you won’t, you have to have passion to make it.”

By Faith Pring & Eve Watson

All images credit: Faith Pring

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