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Bringing Afghan refugee stories to a Pakistani public

Kyle James
March 23, 2022

In Pakistan, local reporters and Afghan refugee citizen journalists teamed up to cover stories. They reported “constructively”, highlighting resilience and successful responses to challenges.

DW Akademie Buddy-System
Jamaima Afridi conducts an interview for a Buddy Team story on a fundraising program for Afghan refugees hit hard by Covid-19.Image: Shahid Shinwari

Raham Kahn might be considered one of the more fortunate of Pakistan’s Afghan refugee community. The 23-year-old was able to study economics at the University of Peshawar and teaches math. But he can only do so privately because the government of Pakistan won’t allow him or any of the country’s other 1.4 million Afghan refugees to take a government job or become a schoolteacher.  

“We face limitations in Pakistan,” he said. “We can’t own land or register vehicles. These things are not possible for us.”

These kinds of restrictions, among others, have left many Afghans living in Pakistan in poverty. A third of this group, who have fled violence in waves since the 1970s, live in refugee camps. Most must work in the low-wage sector as day laborers and they exist in a kind of legal limbo – tolerated by the government, but reluctantly. Despite Pakistan’s birthright laws, even those Afghans born in Pakistan are not offered a path to citizenship. In addition to these hurdles, Afghan refugees face something else: suspicion. The community is often made a scapegoat for terrorist violence and criminality. Police harassment and discrimination are commonplace.

This negative public image of Afghans is not countered by their own stories because Afghan refugees and their issues are not discussed in Pakistan’s media at all. It’s not an official policy at media organizations, but a very widespread practice. Despite decades of displacement and difficulty, there’s almost no opportunity for them to make their voices heard.

DW Akademie Buddy-System
Raham Kahn shoots a video on his mobile phone.Image: Mr. Tariqullah

“We are living in this country and are part of this society,” said Khan, who was born in Pakistan after his parents fled Afghanistan 40 years ago. “But our stories are not on the TV channels. No one knows how our communities work to contribute to society here.”  

Telling stories “constructively”

Giving marginalized communities a voice in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic was one of the goals of the Global Crisis Initiative, a special DW Akademie program funded by the German government. It aimed to build resilience to help media organizations survive the economic stresses brought about by the pandemic and maintain the flow of quality, accurate information to communities, especially vulnerable ones, which needed it the most.

In South Asia, the program’s focus was on “constructive journalism”, an approach to journalism that differs from traditional problem-centered reporting. It aims to move away from the doom-and-gloom, full-catastrophe nature of much news content today, which can leave audiences feeling depressed, helpless and apathetic.

A constructive approach reports on what’s going wrong, but it also looks at what’s going right – responses that are being tried out to fix problems as well as stories of resilience, success and cooperation. It’s a different mindset from the “all news is bad news” way of thinking.

“Audiences are fed up with the negativity. Anxiety and depression in this region is high since everything is about conflict and Covid,” said Said Nazir, executive director of the Tribal News Network (TNN), a DW Akademie partner and news agency which serves audiences in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northern Pakistan where many Afghan refugees live. “People want to see something positive that inspires, educates or offers a solution.”

Learning from each other

TNN and DW Akademie together designed this project that brought eight experienced Pakistani journalists and eight citizen journalists from the Afghan refugee community together, trained them in the basics of constructive journalism, then paired them up in “buddy teams” to work on video stories that had to do with Covid and the refugee community.

“The idea was that the Afghans should interact with Pakistani journalists and develop relationships with them,” said Tayyeb Afridi of TNN, who conducted the training workshop. “The Afghan refugees have different perspectives than the Pakistani journalists, and the workshop gave them opportunity to hear each other’s stories.”

Raham Khan, who had earlier taken part in a citizen journalist workshop with TNN and done a lot of journalism self-study on what he calls the “University of YouTube,” was paired up with Wagma Feroz, a 30-year-old freelancer with BBC Pashtu and The Independent Urdu. She decided to participate in the program because it gave her opportunity to look more closely at issues the Afghan community in Pakistan faces.

DW Akademie Buddy-System
Wagma Feroz presents the results of a discussion held in the constructive journalism workshop organized by TNN.Image: Iftikhar Khan

“Working with Raham really helped me to understand their problems and how they see things because they are still kind of alienated in our society,” she said. After the workshop, she realized that every story she did about the refugee population didn’t need to be negative. She wanted to continue looking at their challenges, but also at how people were meeting them.

A story of resilience from the camps

She and Khan decided to cover the story of a female Afghan school teacher who had lost her job in a refugee camp when her school shut down due to the pandemic. She began making face masks to earn money, which gave her an income. Then she taught other women in the camp how to make masks so they could earn money as well. The story described both resilience and a successful response to a problem, one which could be adopted by others in similar situations—important features of constructive journalism.  

All eight video stories from the project were posted on websites the Pakistani journalists worked for, and both the Pakistani and Afghan reporters got bylines. A competition among the stories was held, and Khan and Feroz won second place. It was also posted on the Independent Urdu website.    

The production had its challenges. Many Pashtoon women are reluctant to talk to the media or be on camera, and the two reporters needed permission to shoot a story in a camp. But the obstacles were overcome, and both learned from the experience and from each other – Khan about brainstorming story ideas and shooting video, Feroz about mobile journalism and telling a story from an Afghan perspective.

Both are proud of what they accomplished.

“We highlighted something important,” Khan said. “Afghan refugees are normal human beings and have feelings and desires like everyone else. It’s important that people see that.”

The two of them are already talking about future activities they can do together about the Afghan community.

“Last night Wagma Feroz and I brainstormed,” Khan said. “We already have new ideas about stories we’re going to cover.

This project is part of the global initiative "Transparency and media freedom – Crisis resilience in the pandemic" of DW Akademie and is supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.