During the concurring panels at the Pulitzer Center Gender Lens Conference on June 3, 2017, international journalists, activists, and editors joined together for a conversation on the impact of gender and gender roles on the refugee experience—exploring how those who are the most vulnerable are affected, how they cope, and how they survive. Journalists illuminated stories about Syrian refugees looking for a new home, LGBT refugees seeking resettlement, and host communities in border countries that are overlooked.
The panel was moderated by Kem Knapp Sawyer, Pulitzer Center contributing editor. Sawyer was joined by grantees Jeanne Carstensen, freelancer writer and radio reporter covering stories from refugee camps; Justine Simons, coordinating producer for video at Time Magazine, working on a Pulitzer Center-supported series about three Syrian refugee families; Asli Saban, project manager and program coordinator for Kirkayak Culture Association in Gaziantep, Turkey; and Jake Naughton, freelance photographer documenting the experiences of LGBT refugees in East Africa.
Carstensen reported on refugees who escaped to the island of Lesbos, those who remain trapped in Greece, and those detained in shipping containers in Hungary. “She asks how do they keep hope alive,” Sawyer said in introduction.
Referring to recent reports from human rights organizations, Carstensen spoke of the factors, including policies that fail, that then empower the trafficking networks, adding another layer to the threats that refugees face in their travels. She shared reports that a high percentage of migrants are finding their way to Europe in an irregular manner, meaning through covert means—smuggling.
“The result of this for women and children is really pretty horrifying. I don't like to speak of refugees as victims. These are some of the strongest people I have met I my entire life. I feel very inspired by people’s skill sets and incredible belief in what they are trying to do. I have seen a real deterioration in these camps—of course, what are already bad conditions for women and children are just unbelievable. As you can imagine, these are spaces where refugees are supposed to feel safe,” Carstensen said.
In Fall 2016, the Pulitzer Center started to support a team from Time Magazine to document the lives of three Syrian refugee mothers and their babies from the refugee camps in Thessaloniki, Greece, to the search for a more permanent home in Europe: Aryn Baker, Time South Africa bureau chief; Francesca Trianni, Time video journalist; and Lynsey Addario, freelance photographer.
“Without Pulitzer Center support, this project, “Finding Home,” really wouldn't have gotten off the ground,” Simons, video producer for the project, said.
Time launched the series as editors and journalists began seeing that for the first time the majority of people coming across the border into Europe were families—women and children.
“It was a big shift in the way the refugee crisis was unfolding and it would mean different resources would need to be dedicated to helping them. Governments and NGOs were struggling to keep pace with these needs and we wanted to see this crisis from the perspective of the family, because so many of us can relate to that perspective,” Simons said.
The women work hard, Simons said, to keep their families together, cooking elaborate meals and maintaining traditions and gatherings. The common thread the journalists found in the story was the importance of building community.
“You are talking about a whole country that’s been displaced and very different kinds of women so there is no way that one story is going to get at all of the nuance here,” Simons said.
Saban has worked with Syrian refugees for the last two years, in particular members of the Dom minority group who have been forced to flee Syria and now live in Turkey.
In the Dom community, Saban said, gender roles are different from that of other refugees—women work in the field as men do, and they provide income for the family—factors that place women in a strong position within the community. Yet while leading semi-nomadic lives and trying to maintain their distance from religious and extremist groups, the Dom often face discrimination and are often criminalized. In the Dom community, Saban said, gender roles are different from that of other refugees—women work in the field as men do, and they provide income for the family—factors that place women in a strong position within the community.
As a photographer documenting the journeys members of the LGBT community who were persecuted in Uganda and then sought refuge in Kenya, Naughton spoke about the importance of bringing underreported stories to light, “There is a strong case for providing a record in contemporary history that this is happening. Not a lot of people know that there are gay refugees. [Many] gain information from the work we do, such as lawyers helping refugees seek asylum.” He continued, “there's always an angle that is unique to you. There are so many stories to tell that you have to go out there and tell them.”
As Naughton showed photos from his reporting in Uganda and Kenya, his images gave visual context to stories of activists and others in the LGBT community who band together to find refuge from the persecution they face from their families.
“They have a whole other identity that they cannot show in public,” Naughton said.
Sawyer started the Q&A by asking the female reporters how they find access to stories in refugee camps and how being female may help them build trust with their subjects.
“Whether you are a woman or a male reporter we all have our techniques. I do find that in refugee camps, being a woman can be somewhat of an advantage because it is kind of a domestic space. It may be a marginal tent but that is their home. In general, people seem to be less threatened by women,” Carstensen responded.
Simons elaborated on the experience of the subjects of the “Finding Home” series: “The women are disempowered to the extent that their communities do not exist as they traditionally once did. Displacement disenfranchises people and takes away their power. Even for the man, these are issues we are starting to see when people are stuck in a system where efforts to relocate them are so much slower than anybody could have expected. In some ways being female can get you access to stories, but you have to be aware that your perspective might be different from the person you are interviewing.”
Describing how she builds trust with a community that is not her own, Saban shared what drew her to Gaziantep, Turkey. When she saw stories about refugee women who were raped, she realized she wanted to go work to help Syrian refugees, so she moved from Ankara to Gazanca.
“I was very upset with the situation. If you want to solve problems you have to work in the field. Otherwise, you can just talk about fake problems. But if you see the problems, maybe you can bring a different approach to the solution,” Asli said. “We have big problems in all countries, but if we don’t introduce ourselves as friendly, of course you always face discrimination because of being a woman and foreign. However, after challenges you can have cooperation with them.”
When Naughton was asked how he is able to report on sensitive issues amongst LGBT refugees, he shared:
“I'm gay and I do LGBT reporting because I think there are stories that go to often ignored or not told very well. I have found talking about my sexuality with the people I am reporting on is valuable. There is some sense that because I know a little bit about the stakes and about the ways LGBT community can be misrepresented. There is implicit trust in that regard.”
When asked how he respects the need for privacy of his subjects and yet still documents their experiences in order to raise awareness, Naughton said:
“Maintaining the safety of the people who open up their lives to me is really difficult. It is a constant negotiation process. I still keep in touch with almost everyone in these pictures. Even though 90 percent is not people's faces, I still ask and continue to ask if it's ok to use the photos. It causes a lot of difficulties but one worth doing because the stakes are very high.”
The panel shared a common motivation in covering the experiences of refugees, both those stuck in the system and those on the dangerous move, and Carstensen put it to words:
“It’s been an honor to meet so many people on the road who are so strong, and it is an inspiration to continue to share those stories.”