Refugee journalists in Lesbos tell their own stories

Refugee reporters document the aftermath of the devastating Moria fire, and other tragedies, on troubled Greek island.

Naqib Rasoli, one of the refugee journalists, took this image documenting protests following the Moria fire [Naqib Rasoli]

Lesbos, Greece – In the wake of the fire that destroyed large parts of the Moria refugee camp, a group of former residents have been documenting the aftermath.

The students of ReFOCUS Media Labs, co-founded by Douglas Herman and Sonia Nandzik, have been chronicling life on the ground in Moria for the past year.

“Our programme has always been focused on their futures, to take them out of Moria both physically and mentally for as long as possible each day,” said Herman, who has also made a feature-length film with his students.

“We never intended to have them use these skills to document their daily misery. But the fascism, the pandemic, and now the indifference following the fires have left us all with no choice but to report no matter what. As mainstream media slowly shifts away from Lesbos, our collective hope is that they are not forgotten all over again.”

In recent weeks, the journalists have been reporting non-stop.

Their stories had focused on life under lockdown in the Moria camp, until the most recent fire.

As Greek police frequently denied the press access to some areas, the students, equipped with cameras and phones were often the only ones left to document.

“When Moria was gone by the fire, we came to the streets,” said Mustafa Nadri, a student journalist from Afghanistan.

“For many days, journalists were not allowed to even get close to the area, so ReFOCUS citizen journalists were the only group reporting from the protests.”

The ability to report from these places, often inaccessible to other international media, comes with its own risks, said Nadri.

“If an international journalist has an issue with the police, they can get a lawyer, but what about us? We have no one to help us but we report anyway because we have to.”

In this photo by Yaser Akbari, a refugee journalist, people protest after the fire that reduced Moria to ashes [Yaser Akbari]

Yaser Akbari, a member of the team, said there is a noticeable gap in coverage when journalists only stay on the island for short periods of time.

“A major issue for us is the lack of connection between journalists and refugees. They’re just here to take some photos, some videos, then leave. We live this every day, and we see this all the time. It would be more impactful and powerful if they actually knew who they were photographing.”

The refugee students are aware of issues of photography and consent; they never take photographs of children although they often see other journalists freely pointing their cameras at children.

But Mohammed Ali, another student, acknowledges that international reporters also play an important role.

“After Moria burned we were in the streets for nine days. I saw many journalists trying to show the world what was happening. At first, we feared the new camp would be closed, but we are allowed to leave and go shopping. I think the many journalists that came here and worked very hard to show our problems, they are why we are not locked away in a prison.”

Roxani Krystalli, lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, said refugee-owned narratives are important to show the breadth of the experience.

“A key issue is that much humanitarian, journalistic, and academic interest in the lives of refugees centres on their experiences of violence, loss, and trauma. While those are significant, refugees also have stories of joy and care – and many refugees want to narrate those because they are as true a part of their experience as their losses. Centring refugee voices can allow for a fuller, more textured story of the refugee experience to emerge beyond the single narrative of violation.”

The images and videos taken by the team have largely focussed on the strength and resilience of the refugees themselves.

Many of Herman’s students are now living in a new temporary camp, Kara Tepe, termed by some “Moria 2.0” – and they will continue reporting.

“When I’m working with the media and reporting on these issues I feel like a messenger who can show the world the situation of the people here,” said Yaser Taheri, another member of the team. “It is a heavy responsibility yet it makes me feel free.”

Source: Al Jazeera