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Hello, Guten Tag! Welcome to the Refugee Radio Network

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by Belén Arce Terceros (@beluarce)

“Hello, Guten Tag! Welcome to the Refugee Radio Network (RRN). For refugees from refugees,” greets the host of Refugee Voices, one of the shows of this particular radio station. “No Freedom, No Life,” adds a robotic voice. An African song plays before the show kicks off – in German. Just a few seconds of streaming create an atmosphere of transnationalism, of a multicultural world with no borders, with no language barriers, where vibrant African tunes can easily travel across Europe through the airwaves, no passports or documents required. Seconds later, the messages of refugees – the main listeners and also the creators of this station – brings us back to the real world, where borders do exist and create a number of issues, some of which RRN is trying to address. The refugee crisis, the risks and losses people suffer while trying to reach Europe escaping from war, violence or persecution; xenophobia and discrimination added to the daily hardships migrants suffer when arriving in a new place.

“I felt the necessity to create an alternative media, to change the toxic narrative in mainstream media about refugees,” explains Larry Macaulay, the editor in chief and founder of RRN. Before starting this project, he didn’t have experience in journalism, but he did have the experience of being forced to leave his home in order to save his life.

Larry fled Nigeria, his country, because he was being persecuted by the extremist Islamic group Boko Haram. Back then, he worked in a citizens’ monitoring group, collecting information and data related to government activities and disseminating it. This information was not being featured in the mainstream media at the time and the Islamic extremists did not like to have “their secrets revealed”, he explains. So he was labeled an “enemy of the Nigerian government”. Fearing for his life, he fled.

First, he found refuge in Libya. Thanks to his background in engineering, he was able to set up a small firm and got settled. But when the NATO-led bombings started in 2011, with the proclaimed aim of protecting civilians being targeted by then president Muammar Gaddafi, he realized he had to leave – again.

“I came to Europe via Lampedusa. I arrived in italy, and was there for two and a half years, going through the asylum process. Afterwards, I became a political refugee,” Larry told the 19 Million Project over Skype. “I had documents and I continued my activism to support the refugee struggle and also to raise positive awareness to the refugee plight in Europe.”

It was 2011, years before the refugee crisis that last year put the eyes of the media and the world on the massive migrations starting in Africa and the Middle East towards Europe, but negative attitudes towards refugees already existed.

“I called other refugees in Germany and we started [working on the radio station] in a basement in Hamburg. I designed a platform, we came together,  we got money, we bought cheap equipments, and we started the Refugee Radio Project. Now, it’s growing on a daily basis,” Larry explains. At the beginning, three people were working on the project; now there are 14 and they come from different places, like Afghanistan, Mali and Syria. The station can be heard on seven FM stations in Hamburg, Berlin, Stuttgart, Marburg and Munich, and online. RRN participated in international initiatives, like World Radio Day organized by the United Nations, and they have been featured on international media outlets.

Challenging the narrative

RRN1Refugee Radio Network provides a space for refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants to tell their own stories and to be heard, not only by other migrants, but also by the host communities where they live. In shows like “Refugee Voices” you can hear their stories narrated by themselves (most of them in fluent German), and their journeys are described in letters, emails and interviews in other programs. The goal is to change the negative perceptions towards migrants and refugees and the way the media reports on these issues.

They decided to use a powerful weapon to take on this fight: humor. “It’s all about showing a different approach to the approach that is being told to the host community, that all these refugees are dangerous people, they are gonna steal your jobs. We have to make a joke about this kind of right-wing statements: ‘if I don’t have documents, how am I gonna steal your job’?” Larry explains and laughs.

They also do a criticism of the way in which some stories about migration are being covered, and they encourage refugees to become storytellers themselves. “Our approach is not as journalists. We are refugees ourselves so we talk to fellow refugees as brothers and sisters,” he says. Hamburg, where they started, is their best example: attitudes towards refugees have turned more positive over time, Larry claims.

To take their counter-narrative further, they participate in seminars, conferences, and give workshops on how to work with refugee communities as well as training new refugee journalists, in Germany and abroad. Today, Larry is in Italy, where he participated of a panel on diversity and journalism at the International Journalism Festival that took place in Perugia earlier this month. Part of his work, he says, is raising awareness on the discrimination against refugees in the media and among journalists, in order to change the predominant narrative.

“Before people became refugees, they did different things, they were teachers, musicians, actors, singers, taylors, designers, artists. The minute they ran for their lives from their country, they come to Europe, Europe does not see them as anything, they see them as animals or people who are not civilized. So that is what we are trying to change in the European context, [the perception] of what refugees are,” explains Larry. “We are here, we are professionals, and we will contribute to a positive European society.”

The refugee crisis

African refugees have been arriving to Europe for many years due to conflicts and violence in their countries. At first, this group lived a different experience from that of refugees coming recently from the Middle East – like the Syrians, who initially got automatic refugee status. Larry says that now both groups are sharing a more similar situation. Confronted with discrimination, Syrian and Afghan refugees became more active socially and politically. “We are all on the same boat,” he says. Regardless of where you are from or when you arrived, marginalization and discrimination seem to be a common experience for everyone who seeks refuge in the European Union.

Having worked with migrants since 2012, RRN provided help to newcomers during the peak of the refugee crisis, in the months of June-August last year. “RRN is always at the forefront of assisting refugees, giving them real advice: ‘Listen, I am a refugee, the team we are all refugees, this is what is really happening, this is what you will face. You need to get yourself together,’” Larry says. They also collaborate with international and local organizations helping migrants, and advising new initiatives that emerged with the arrivals.

According to the radio founder, the crisis is not over. “The situation is still the same, nothing has changed… Leaders still don’t want to solve this problem in the right way,” he says, and adds: “refugees will still come until we get to the root causes of this problem.”

That is why it’s important to address the needs for information of this moving populations. Larry now wants to target those who are still in their countries of origin and are thinking of migrating to Europe. “We want to embark on a movement to West African countries, Sub-Saharan Africa, talk to school students, young people, from primary school age to university, so that we can educate them about the risk of falling into smugglers’ hands and the risk of dying in the Mediterranean and also the difficulties of life in Europe,” he says. “Education through information is the key.”

Jungala Radio: it’s not a jungle

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People started arriving last year, setting up tents and forming an improvised refugee camp in the French city of Calais. The settlement came to be known as the “Calais Jungle,” another product of the refugee crisis that hit Europe last year.

Two Irish volunteers – Ciaran Henry, a documentary photographer, and Kathy O Hare, a youth and community worker – visited the camp on another mission last October and came up with the idea of setting up a community radio station.

“Community broadcasting essentially creates a space for those who do not have a voice, and in this case it challenges the stereotypical negative mainstream projections of refugees”, which uses a language that ends up creating fear, explained Kathy, who is now in Ireland, during a Skype interview. “The space is there for them to challenge whatever they want to challenge themselves,” she said.

Even the name of the station, Jungala Radio, challenges the views of the Calais settlement. “The jungle is where the animals live and we are not animals,” reads a Facebook post on their page. This quote, from a 12-year-old girl who lives there and is part of the project, led to the station’s name: “Junga”, for jungle, and “la”, which means “no” in Arabic.

Several refugees got involved with the project, they were trained and then produced their own shows where they tell the stories of what happens in the camp: the raids with tear gas carried out by the police, the judges visiting the camp, the evictions. Given that radio is a safe method to deliver information – which becomes important for people who are fleeing persecution in many cases – and that they are interviewed by other refugees, they feel comfortable sharing their stories on air. This first person narrative of the journey taken to get to Europe is a good example of how intimate the storytelling can become.

The camp used to shelter nearly 30,000 refugees, but as the government is trying to remove them, part of the camp was destroyed with bulldozers a couple of weeks ago. Refugees have spread in the area, their living conditions becoming more precarious. The situation forced the radio to regroup and think how the project will continue, as many refugees who participated in the station left the camp. They also want the initiative to grow.

“We want the work that our producers create to be recognised as a valuable contribution to community radio. We feel it is important that the work is highlighted and not the political status of the individual or the individual’s personal story or circumstance,” Kathy said. To keep the project going and make it grow, now they are pushing forward a fundraising campaign.

While the future of the camp hasn’t been decided yet, this media provides a space to get an alternative view of the situation there. “It is especially important that as the authorities dismantle the ‘Jungle’, that people from outside listen in,” refugees ask on Jungala’s website.

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