Hamburg, Germany – Larry Macaulay first arrived on Italy’s shores in May 2011 after taking a dinghy from wartorn Libya.
Having fled Nigeria a few years earlier during fighting between armed groups, he was forced to pack his bags and search for security yet again when the uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi broke out in Libya that year.
Sitting in his studio, he recalls the long journey from Nigeria and how he ended up in 2014 as the founder and editor-in-chief of the Hamburg-based Refugee Radio Network (RNN), a project that has expanded with several sister initiatives in a number of cities across Germany.
Made possible by contributions from its audience and fundraising, RNN operates in the studio of a local left-wing radio station.
I've been invited to a lot of mainstream media discussions and it's always them wanting to tell us what to do.
Inspired by Radio Democracy, a pirate radio project in Nigeria, he says the idea was “to get the news, pick it up in different places, adapt it to our local content and share it with the community and also with the refugee groups”.
Between January and April of 2015, RNN started by taking phone calls from refugees and broadcasting an hour-long Refugee Voices show, a radio magazine programme.
“The phone lines became congested and we couldn’t keep up with the demand, so I told the guys we needed to stop the phone thing now and go more into the field to get more reports,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“It is now a mixture of news, gossip, politics and poetry,” he explains. “We try to bring positive reports because the negative [topics] are already in the mainstream [media].”
The programmes include discussions and stories about human rights, self-organising, health, education, migration and others.
Macaulay says the project only grew more relevant as the weather warmed up in the spring of that year, when the refugee influx exploded. By the end of 2015, more than a million refugees and migrants arrived on European shores by boat, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
‘By refugees, for refugees’
RNN has expanded from an initial team of three people to a 15-person squad of broadcasters, hosts and technicians. “By refugees, for refugees – that’s our motto,” Macaulay says.
Though they work in Hamburg, Macaulay and his team now take reports from across the country and some from elsewhere in Europe. “Our philosophy is not the mainstream type,” he adds. “I’ve been invited to a lot of mainstream media discussions and it’s always them wanting to tell us what to do.”
Macaulay argues that much of the mainstream media is dominated by “supremacist” voices that dictate to refugees or try to coopt their voices. “We need to start interpreting our stories for ourselves.”
RNN is one of several refugee-launched initiatives to take their narrative into their own hands.
Along with more than 1,000 refugees and migrants, the RNN team participated in a large conference organised by refugees in Hamburg in late February.
The conference was a highly successful attempt to organise and discuss the most pressing issues across Europe at a time when borders have been closing for many fleeing from wars and economic devastation.
Macaulay recalls the conference as an important learning experience. “I had never even thought of deaf refugees until I went to the conference. They were also represented there. That’s good – everyone must be included.”
While the media was flooded with images of German solidarity with refugees in 2015, the influx of arrivals has not come without complications.
Like many European countries, Germany has experienced a sharp surge in right-wing, anti-refugee sentiment as thousands of people continue to arrive in the country every day.
In early March, the hardline rightist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party made huge gains in regional parliamentary elections in three German states.
Originally founded in 2013 as a Eurosceptic party, the AfD took the lead as the most aggressive anti-refugee voice in the country while more than a million asylum seekers arrived in Germany last year.
Critics accuse AfD of Islamophobia and incitement to violence against refugees and migrants. Frauke Petry, the leader of the AfD, in January proclaimed that officers “should use firearms if necessary” in order to “prevent illegal border crossings.
“No policeman wants to fire on a refugee and I don’t want that either,” she told the regional newspaper Mannheimer Morgen, arguing that “police must stop refugees entering German soil” in any case.
The rhetoric of groups such as the AfD is not divorced from reality. In 2015, an estimated 159 attacks or incidents of vandalism targeted refugee centres across Germany, according to the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an organisation that tracks racially motivated violence.
Macaulay asks: “Why must we always blame everything on the refugees?”
He argues that Germany must be criticised for its failure to ensure the protection of desperate people fleeing for their lives, but “we must also give them a thumbs-up”.
There were a lot of grassroots creations, social projects that sprung up from the bubble… Some of them are good; most of them are not. But that shows a society that wants to be part of the change – and these are mostly driven by young people.”
The radio project aims to provide refugee communities with a platform to broadcast their news in their own languages, as well as in German and English.
Hoping to expand, RNN has recently launched Afghan Voices, a programme that airs in Dari, Pashto and German to report on news relevant to the Afghan refugee community in the country.
Local Afghan community leaders approached Macaulay earlier in the year hoping to start the project. “They told me they wanted to do it because they want to tell the story of what they are facing here and what they faced in Afghanistan,” Macaulay remembers.
“It conforms with our ideology of bridging the camp between the local community and the refugees.”
Today, several refugees participate on a voluntary basis, coming from the nearby camps to the studio twice a week to record their shows.
Elsewhere, RNN’s shows are syndicated on local radio stations in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere, while refugee groups from across the country share content with RNN.
Asked about the RNN’s next step, Macaulay says the team is now in the nascent stages of launching a television project based on the same principles.
“You have to erase it from your mind that [refugees] are zombies. They are human beings – they can create stuff,” he concludes, laughing. “We are from earth. We are human beings; we have blood in us.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_