The goal was to talk to journalists from Afghanistan and Tajikistan about fleeing and migration – difficult, sensitive topics for both sides. The project was a success and strangers have since become friends.
By Priya Esselborn, DW Akademie project manager and regional coordinator South Asia
"You're taking a portrait. What's important? It's the eyes. Look at the eyes. They're the most important feature." Tajik journalist Saif Safar is showing refugees from neighboring Afghanistan how to take better photos with their smartphones.
Safar isn't a professional trainer but rather a participant in the DW Akademie project, "Here's to Good Neighbors: Fleeing and Migrating through the Eyes of Afghan and Tajik Journalists." As part of the project, twelve young journalists from Afghanistan and Tajikistan – including Safar – spent a day training Afghan refugees in mobile photography.
Some 30 Afghan refugees at Vahdat refugee camp, 20 km east of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, looked on wide-eyed as the journalists showed them photography techniques. They were learning tips and tricks from "trainers" who until recently had known very little about mobile reporting themselves. There were many jokes but laughter shifted into grief when the refugees talked about having to flee their country, their homesickness and the problems they were facing in their new home. Still, this was a special day, one where the refugees could think about something else, learn new skills and try out new equipment.
For the "Tafghan mojos" as the six Afghan and six Tajik journalists called themselves (from the abbreviation from Tajik-Afghan mobile journalists), the day in Vahdat was the highlight of a unique project bringing Afghan and Tajik journalists together to co-report on refugees and refugee issues.
The relationship between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, who share a rugged 1,300 km long border, is complex. The two countries share a similar language and culture but relations are strained by drug trafficking, crime and terrorism. And people in both countries are fleeing or leaving their homeland – even if they are often doing so for different reasons.
"Turning abstract issues into issues people can relate to is the basic task of a journalist," says Michael Karhausen, head of DW Akademie's Asia and Europe division. "That's why we wanted to use very personal stories to show just how difficult the relationship is, and to show it from different perspectives," he explains.
The idea for producing joint reports on the sensitive issues of refugees and migrants came in early 2016. The aim was to promote understanding between Afghans and Tajiks and also to give them an additional skill, that of mobile reporting.
This wasn't an easy task, given that no one in the region had heard of mobile reporting. Few owned a smartphone and finding participants took time.
The first of two workshops took place in July 2016 when six Afghan and six Tajik journalists met for a week in Dushanbe to learn the basics of mobile reporting. They practiced taking interesting shots with strong composition, recording quality sound and video and editing material and putting reports together with apps such as VivaVideo, PicPlayPost, Legend and Snapseed.
At the same time, the participants were also supposed to decided on the topics for their co-productions so that they could gather material before the second workshop in November. The idea was that in the second workshop, they would edit their reports and then show them to experts, media representative and activists at a conference.
"Making a virtue out of a necessity"
That was the ambitious plan. However, my colleague Lydia Rahnert (who was doing the organizing on the ground) and I often had to come up with alternate plans, not in the least because there's only one flight a week between the Afghan capital, Kabul, and Dushanbe, even though it's only a two hour flight.
We came up with the idea to visit the Vahdat refugee camp as part of our alternative planning for the first workshop – but it turned out to be a great alternative. Spending a day with the refugees, and finding out about their lives for a series of profiles, meant the journalists began to better understand their worries and hardships.
In fact, it was such an enriching experience that the journalists asked to spend another day with the refugees during the second workshop. They came up with the idea of passing on their new-found mobile photography skills as a way to thank them.
Using Lego to get acquainted
During the first workshop, trainer Guy Degen held a "Lego Serious Play" session as a way of creating a trusting and creative atmosphere among participants. Lego Serious Play is about using normal Lego building blocks that children play with to express thoughts or ideas given by the facilitator. "In the first step, participants used the tool to tell the others more about themselves," said Guy Degen. "We wanted them to learn more about how they saw themselves as journalists and to reflect on how they could apply the skills they acquired in the workshop."
As it turned out, few of the participants had ever seen a Lego block before but the playful interaction allowed the journalists to soon overcome their shyness and nervousness. They were then ready to tackle the workshop topic of fleeing and migrating. Each of the six journalist teams produced a report, both from an Afghan as well as from a Tajik perspective. Topics ranged from the lives of families with absent fathers to the legal status of refugees. Experts, including German Ambassador to Tajikistan, Holger Green, who attended the closing conference were most impressed with the reports.
Building bridges with mobile reporting
There were moving scenes at the end of the second workshop as the Afghan participants prepared to leave. Strangers had now become friends. And the participants are still in contact with each other, sharing videos and photos via WhatsApp, and sending up to 100 messages across the border on weekends. And as well as new friendships, they also have new skills.
"We're the experts now because in our own media outlets, we're the only ones who know how mobile reporting works," explains Afghan participant Khalid Sharifi proudly. "Now it's our turn to teach the others."
The two-part project, "Here's to Good Neighbors: Flight and Migration as Seen by Afghan and Tajik Journalists" was sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office.