Refugees in Germany launch paper for fellow newcomers

A group of volunteer refugees have founded Abwab, an Arabic newspaper with helpful information and stories of hope.

Abwab, which means doors in Arabic, was launched late last year in a bid to support refugees in Germany [Ramy Alasheq/Al Jazeera]

When Ramy Alasheq was searching last year for a title to give to a newspaper he was helping launch for Arabic-speaking refugees in Germany, the inspiration came from his own journey.

A Syrian-Palestinian refugee, journalist, poet and activist who has asylum in the European nation, Alasheq was at the time at his home in Cologne with his host family.

“They are great and friendly, they give me a lot of love,” he told Al Jazeera. “Once, I thanked Cristina, the mother and wife of the family, for everything. She said, ‘Don’t thank me. I just opened the door’.”

The newspaper, he thought, should be called “Abwab”, Arabic for doors.

Launched on December 1, 2015, with Alasheq as its editor-in-chief, the first print run of Abwab hit 25,000 copies and was distributed for free at refugee shelters and community centres across the country. Given its success, a further 10,000 copies needed to be printed.

The second edition, due soon, will be printed at least 45,000 times.

 The feedback to Abwab has so far been positive, with refugees reporting back that the publication is both useful and welcoming [Ramy Alasheq/Al Jazeera]
 The feedback to Abwab has so far been positive, with refugees reporting back that the publication is both useful and welcoming [Ramy Alasheq/Al Jazeera]

Abwab is made and run by refugees who work virtually, via Skype and Dropbox, sharing files and discussing editorial angles. Its volunteer contributors are both Syrians and Iraqis, while its layout designer is based in Turkey.

According to government figures, more than one million refugees arrived in Germany last year, including 428,468 Syrians, 154,046 Afghans and 121,662 Iraqis.

Alasheq hails from the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus and has before been imprisoned in Syria and Jordan for his writing.

He arrived in Germany in 2014 on a cultural grant from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, an initiative affiliated with Germany’s Green Party.

A journalist since 2011, Alasheq said the initial feedback for the paper has been “a hundred times better than I had expected”.

He added: “We are refugees, we are journalists and writers. We know what it means to be refugees, to be newcomers.”

The launch issue’s cover story had the headline: “Merkel: The goal is to solve the Syrian conflict without Assad”.

There was also a piece on the first refugee orchestra; legislative information useful to those seeking asylum; missing people pages; an article entitled “10 steps to integration”, and another questioning “Are we racist?”, a feature on discrimination towards refugees from Africa and Afghanistan.

Ramy Alasheq
Ramy Alasheq

“Everything is written from a human perspective,” said Federica Gaida, director of Abwab’s publisher, New German Media.

Its parent company, New European Media, produces some 15 other newspapers for minority communities in countries including Italy and the UK, in languages from Romanian to Urdu.

Speaking to Al Jazeera by phone, Gaida said: “We’re not talking politics, we’re talking life.

“You have to give dignity to people, especially to refugees. They are survivors, they are victims of violence and they all have this suffering inside. We give them the possibility to hear good stories that happen in their community.”

The paper also covers news in Syria, and both the editor and publisher hope the publication will keep refugees updated with news from their homelands.

“Refugees somehow do feel like they have made it, but their friends and family are still there and they also feel guilty,” said Gaida. “We want to keep the connection with Syria alive, I want there to be a bridge between activists here and there.”

Funded by the telecoms group Ortel and the money transfer company Moneygram, the contract to support Abwab runs for six months.

READ MORE: The year of the desperate journey

Wenzel Michalski, Human Rights Watch Germany director, said the paper was a positive addition to the many community-led initiatives, including volunteer-run language classes and sports clubs.

“If refugees who come here are not guided by somebody, they are absolutely not informed at all,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking from Berlin.

“We are witnessing the rise of a new civil society … This is especially positive for refugees; they feel welcome and integrated. They are longing for any warm welcome.”

But the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment is strong, and has been stoked further by recent speculation that the perpetrators of a series of sexual assaults on women on New Year’s Eve were of Arab and North African origin.

Michalski cited instances of refugees’ homes being destroyed and anti-immigrant demonstrations.

“I hope this will stop,” he said. “I hope efforts of integration continue and are fruitful and better than the past.”

IN PICTURES: Refugees caught between hope and harsh winter

Sarah Eltantawi – a professor of comparative religion at Evergreen State College in the US, who lived in Berlin from 2011-14 – said there is a “huge nativist strain” in Germany, which she hopes “stays under control”.

“One worries about refugees in certain parts of the East,” she told Al Jazeera. “My hope [for 2016] is that the Syria conflict somehow gets solved. That’s a pie in the sky right now [but] my hope is that miraculously, some kind of political settlement is reached and more people can start going home.”

Until then, Abwab’s journalists will continue to provide a lifeline for new arrivals, providing information about migration legislation and stories of hope from within the refugee network.

“I hope [Abwab] has many more issues,” concluded Michalski. “Ideally they will become so popular that it might become the first, regular newspaper for Arabic speakers in Germany. Now we have millions of Arab speakers and soon there will be more … If this goes on, it would be fantastic to have an Arab language newspaper that can enjoy free press, and spill over to other Arab countries.”

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla

Source: Al Jazeera