Refugee women in Germany defy extremists by learning journalism

By Ola Aljari, ECPMF’s Refugee Journalist

ECPMF’s Ola Aljari interviewed Mohammad Mallak, editor-in-chief of Saiedet Souria magazine, on the theme of giving women practical training and resources to tell their stories. The magazine has been published in the areas not controlled by the Syrian regime since 2014.

Berlin training Saiedet Souria_900X600 “'Women Revealing' means that we wanted all Syrian women to tell their stories and express their problems, those related to politics or anything else, which they could not talk about before - due to the political or social or religious reasons." - Mohammad Mallak, on providing journalism training for Syrian women, i.e. in Berlin. (Photo: Ola Aljari)

The magazine focuses on women affairs as a part of the female struggle worldwide. It also focuses on the issues Syrian women face today, including women’s rights as well as social, economic, political and cultural aspects. It launched a project called “Women Revealing” (Bawh Nesaie in Arabic), to train women and non-professional writers in how to tell their stories and get them published. The project is the focus of the interview.

ECPMF: What is “Women Revealing” and why do you think it is important?

Mohammad Mallak: During the last few years, women in Syria could not use a camera in public, because of the regime forces and the radical groups later. Women could not show their faces on TV either; except for a very few examples. They were also forced to put on veils and cover their faces, under the pretence of security conditions and dangers.

Under these circumstances, we thought that women do not only need food, drink or handicrafts projects. They need to talk and tell the world what their problems as humans are.

We thought of the “Women Revealing” project, because we thought that there were many obstructions and a lack of effort to make women’s voices heard. “Women Revealing” means that we wanted all Syrian women to tell their stories and express their problems, those related to politics or anything else, which they could not talk about before - due to the political or social or religious reasons.

Berlin training Saiedet Souria_books "The training lasted four days; we had 17 stories by the end. The stories were published in a special edition of the magazine under the name 'Women Revealing'." - Mohammad Mallak, on the results of the workshop. (Photo: Ola Aljari)

What are the activities included in this project?

The project is divided into three activities. The first is training women on how to write a story, because the project is targeting non-professional writers. We also trained many women in news editing (news, reports and radio reports). We thought that the radio reports can be a suitable replacement for TV reports, because the women who cannot show their faces on TV can at least use their voices in radio. The training took place in two ways: personally or via smart phone applications.

Saiedet Souria trained 140 women (110 inside Syria) during 2015 and we have plans to train 75 women in 2016. We think that the training was useful. Some trainees are working in Saiedet Souria’s offices inside Syria in Idlib and Alhasaka, while others are working for other media organisations. We are proud of this achievement, because we work in areas controlled by Islamic radical groups, and by giving these women voices we protect entire families from extremism.

Most of those women are now writing on a permanent basis and others are now getting income for their families by writing. Besides, they feel that they are valuable and doing valuable work when they see their names published on something they have written. All these things can be motives for women to continue and be active in their societies, especially in making peace and fighting extremism.

The second activity was courses on story-telling techniques. The first one was held in cooperation with the ABF (Arbetarnas Bildningsförbund Stockholm) in May 2015. Nineteen women joined this course. They were activists who lived or witnessed special events or circumstances. They came to Turkey to join the course in spite of the dangers on the way and the border closure. This actually meant a lot to our team! First it told us that they trust Saiedet Souria and second that they really want to make their voices heard.

The training lasted four days; we had 17 stories by the end. The stories were published in a special edition of the magazine under the name “Women Revealing”. It was published in September 2015. We printed five thousand copies that were distributed in Syria, refugees’ camps in the neighbouring countries and some countries in the EU, like Germany and Sweden. The special editions also contained 17 paintings by 17 female Syrian artists.

The third activity was the “Women Revealing” contest. We held it in 2015 but we have not yet been able to do it again in 2016 yet, because we do not have enough financial support. The contest was open to all Syrian women and non-professional writers inside and outside of Syria. We received tens of stories that were read by a jury of three female Syrian writers. The contest gave ten awards, each one 500 dollars. Then the ten winning stories were also published in a book that printed 3,000 copies.

About Saiedet Souria

With help from the German branch of Reporters Without Borders, Syrian refugee women are learning journalistic skills in a training course in Berlin. They are part of a project created by Saiedet Souria, a Syrian monthly magazine that started in September 2013, and published the first issue on 15/01/2014.

The magazine prints 7,000 copies of each edition, which are produced and distributed throughout Syria and Turkey. It is currently printed and distributed inside the territories that are not under the Syrian regime control (Aleppo and the Aleppo countryside, the Idlib and Hama countrysides, and the Southern countryside of Homs and Daraa) and territories under siege (the Damascus countryside, especially Al-Ghota).

In addition to that, 2000 copies are printed monthly by the magazine’s team and distributed in the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey. The magazine is also published via a website, and has a Facebook page.

Saiedet Souria has managed, through support from partner organisations, to found seven offices inside Syria. Moreover, it implemented important campaigns, like the “Child, not Wife” campaign, which speaks out against early marriage.

Your team also trained Syrian refugee women in Berlin. Why did you choose to do the training project in Berlin?

In “Women Revealing”, we want to observe the changes in Syrian women’s lives, by giving women the tools to speak about their lives and experiences. We also want to make it clear that the war in Syria is a big loss for everybody, especially women. Therefore, we targeted all Syrian women in the areas controlled by the regime, in the areas that are not controlled by the regime anymore and in the asylum countries.

We chose Berlin to hold the training in it because of many reasons. First the security conditions in Turkey changed recently and our team, like many other teams, were under threats by ISIS, due to our activities against it. Then, many members of our team moved to Europe, basically to Germany, France and Italy.

Our team members created good relationships in the countries they moved to and these relationships helped us to hold our activities in Europe, especially in Berlin. In addition, there are thousands of Syrians today in Europe that we consider as an audience and we have plans of projects that can help them.

What are the goals you wanted to accomplish with the training in Berlin?

When we held the training in Berlin, we had two goals: first to help women integrate in the new societies they live now in, which provide different levels of freedom and rights. These differences caused changes in the Syrian families’ lives in Europe and that was reflected in the stories produced by the women in Berlin. Second we want to keep the Syrian refugees in touch with what happens in Syria. While they are almost drowned in their daily life duties - like paperwork and learning a new language -  we want to ensure that they are able to make decisions about the future of Syria.

We held two training courses in Berlin. The first was held in June in cooperation with Sasha Walts & Guests organisation. Many female journalists and activists joined the training. Each of them wrote a story. We are now preparing them to be translated into German and published in an electronic book. Saiedet Souria covered all the costs of the training, while Sasha Walts & Guests provided the training place.

The second training was in August. Saiedet Souria also covered the costs, while the Reporters without Borders organisation provided the training place.

What was it like to work in Turkey and what are the challenges you had there?

We worked in Turkey for almost three years. During these years we did not face any problems with the Turkish authorities, taking into consideration that we were producing our materials in Arabic and we had no Turkish audience. The problems started in the middle of the year 2015, when the security condition in Turkey changed. There were many explosions and many Syrian journalists received threats from ISIS. Many threats turned into real murders and assassinations, which frightened all the Syrian journalists in Turkey and drove them to leave to Europe.

I think it is not only the Turkish authorities’ mistake, because the whole country was facing security difficulties. Maybe the procedures to protect the journalists were not enough and the Turkish authorities could have done better to ensure a safer environment. However, on the press freedom level we had no problems.

Saiedet Souria chose to keep a small office in Gaziantep south of Turkey, and change the project to a more flexibly-managed project that can be run from anywhere in the world. We are excited about working in Europe because there are thousands of Syrian refugee women, who we consider as an important part of our audience and we have a lot to give to them.

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