Northwestern documentary project brings stories of Arab refugees to American audiences

March 29, 2012

Students at Northwestern University’s US and Qatar campuses premiere documentaries at film festival in Evanston, Illinois 

Doha, Qatar – March 28, 2012 – After a 10-day reporting trip to Jordan, journalism students from Northwestern University’s campuses in Qatar and Evanston, Illinois have produced six short films documenting the lives of Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees.  Earlier this month, their documentary series “Shifting Diasporas in the Arab World” was screened to overflowing U.S. audiences at the four-day Talking Pictures Film Festival.

The project that led to these documentaries, called Refugee Lives, is a collaboration between the renowned Medill School of Journalism faculty and students at Northwestern University in Qatar and at Northwestern’s home campus in Evanston.

Everette E. Dennis, NU-Q dean and CEO, said: “Northwestern’s combination of media education and practical field experience is at the heart of our efforts to prepare students for leadership in the rapidly-evolving digital, global media industry.” He continued, “Our students in Qatar offer a unique local insight on the Arab World.  Projects like this allow them to share that perspective with their peers from the U.S. campus and, more importantly, with wider international audiences that may not otherwise have access to authentic voices from the region.”

Students on both campuses were selected to be part of the project in September 2011 and, during the fall term, they were required to take a preparatory course that covered the history of refugee situations in the Arab world, refugee law, international reporting and documentary methods. In Doha, the course was taught by Assistant Professor of journalism Janet Key.

In December, both groups of students –from Doha and from Evanston –traveled to Amman, Jordan for a 10-day reporting trip to collect footage for their documentaries.

NU-Q’s students, a trio of journalism juniors, produced a documentary titled “Al Malaath Al Amn” (“Safe Haven”) for the series.

“Al Malaath Al Amn” revolves around the lives of doctors and nurses at a clinic in downtown Amman, which serves refugees from Iraq and, increasingly, Syria. Maha Al Keswani, a nurse, and Dr. Ahmed Afana struggle each day to provide healthcare to refugees from neighboring countries. With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, the clinic has seen a huge increase in the number of refugee-patients and the clinic must now cope with the overwhelming numbers.

NU-Q student, Ismaeel Naar, who produced, directed and edited the film with help from fellow students Salima Al-Ismaili and Zainab Sultan, said: “What makes our documentary so unique is that it takes a macro-level situation of refugees and distills it into a micro-level experience where viewers are able to witness a ‘day in the life’ of the people involved in the healthcare refugee industry.”

Other subjects explored in the documentary series include: the emergence of graffiti art in Amman, the repatriation process for Iraqi refugees, the plight of elderly Palestinians living in a refugee camp, and two Palestinian teenagers’ efforts to establish a soccer program for girls against the backdrop of the conservative Talbiyeh refugee camp.

“As a professor here, what has been really exciting about this project is the cross-pollination with our colleagues back at the home campus. Students often learn the most from each other and it was thrilling to see our students from Qatar working in the field alongside our students from the US,” said assistant professor of journalism Andrew Mills, who led the project from NU-Q’s end.

“The Refugee Lives initiative is a prime example of the thing I love best about our journalism program at Northwestern: that it’s real,” said Mills, adding, “There are no simulations here. Our students were real documentary filmmakers telling the real –and often heart-breaking –stories of refugees who had fled real wars. Our students then had the opportunity to produce and edit a documentary that was screened at a real film festival. Preparation for a career in journalism doesn’t get much better than that.”