Renowned journalist Doucet to NU-Q grads: "Tell the story"

May 03, 2016

Award-winning BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet gave the following keynote speech at Northwestern University in Qatar's Class of 2016 Graduation ceremony on May 1:

Massa al Khair. Good evening.

It is, I have to say, a special treat to be here, with you, on you day. And I hope your day feels special for you -- for all of you -- the graduates, your family, your friends and teachers, the people who matter most in your life.

It was lovely to be invited. But because I work for the BBC, I must be truthful. I have a confession to make: I didn’t go to journalism school, didn’t go to a journalism and communications school either. And I thought, what if I get to Doha and the graduates whisper, "Why is she here? She’s not a graduate like us." And what if the faculty murmurs, “Oh, that’s why her reports are...well...like that...” ?

So what was I to do? I didn’t want to ruin your special day by, well, not being special enough. So I did what journalists do -- I did a crash course in your course. I went online to your quite lovely purple website, and it was all there: the information about your impressive state-of-the-art equipment; the nice words about your great teachers. I even watched your video about student life. Nice life. But maybe that was a video for your parents. I didn’t see any of the stuff that I heard about at President Shapiro’s awards lunch -- those all nighters in the studio with hot chocolate at five am that James mentioned.

Then, like a journalist I got to the point of your website. I saw the top line, the headline, as we say in journalism. What does it say?

TELL THE STORY.

Tell the story. What is the story? How do we tell it? And what is my story, and yours, today?

Well, you know how stories start. Once upon a time, not so long ago, in fact, quite recently, actually yesterday. Yesterday I was in Calais, in northern France, in the informal camp for migrants and refugees they call the Jungle. And today, I’m in Qatar with you. From Calais to Qatar. This is the story I will tell today, because it is a story of our time.

It’s a story of a world where we live in the best of times, the worst of times.

The best because never has our world been so connected, so educated. Never has there been so much wealth, where we can dream and dream big. Where you can travel -- across the world for some of you –- and get a world class education in Qatar. An American dream. A Middle East dream. East meets West.

The worst of times because never has there been a world where wars drag on so long that the average time a refugee spends in a camp, or somewhere outside his own country, is 17 years, where our humanitarian system is broke and breaking down, where so many states in the Middle East have collapsed or are cracking, where the dreams of so many people your age have been shattered, utterly shattered.

The best of times, the worst of times. And they are times which can bring out the best in us, or the worst. So, graduates, is the glass half empty or is it half full? Let us say a glass half full because it is your day, and your family and friends and faculty’s day. It’s a day we should celebrate because today your glass is full, and running over.

In my work as a journalist I always say a small story has the power and perspective to tell a much bigger story. So let’s start small, here, with all of you, starting with some of you who were honoured at the President’s lunch today.

Youmna is Sudanese, James is British, Owais is Pakistani, Ralph is also Pakistani, and Tamador is Qatari. (What a great name, Tamador. Should Tamador be a matador... or troubadour...?) And tonight we heard from Alya from Nepal.

And your class -– 14 nationalities in all -- and more than 30 nationalities, I’m told, in your student body. There are students of all faiths, and perhaps some of no faith, students from all corners of the world.

When I went to graduate school at the University of Toronto decades ago, one of the courses I studied was African agriculture. And there were several students from Sudan and Tanzania in my class. I now think back about myself then and think – what did the Sudanese and Tanzanians think about all of us young enthusiastic Canadians who had never been to Africa, never met an African peasant in our life, talked passionately about African agriculture, about modes of production? What would we say about all of us now? Hashtag #fail?

The first thing I did when I finished my degree is I went to Africa, to West Africa, and I stayed five years.

And what about you? You’re filming documentaries and writing stories on the Middle East, while studying in the Middle East. Or you’re investigating Asian stories while travelling in Asia. Hashtag? No, not hashtag. Emoji: clap clap.

And when you leave here, you leave with a great gift. Your website talks about it. “What students say time and again is that one of the great things about studying at Northwestern University in Qatar is its tight knit community of active and creative thinkers.” Tight knit. Thinkers.

You will leave -– I hope -- thinking differently about yourself and your world. Christians among you will think, in a more personal way, about Muslims. Muslims will know more about Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, whatever your belief. Americans  and Canadians and British, and so on, will know more about Arabs and Asians and African. Because all of you will have met a James, a Ralph, an Owais, a Youmna, a Tamador, an Alya…not to mention a Paulo, a Silma, a Eun Ah Rhee.

"Graduates of 2016, you’ve already been bold — leaving homes and cultures far away and taking a chance in Qatar. Qatari students took a chance on a different kind of campus."

That matters in ways big and small. In a small way, now you know what real humous and moutabal and falafel should taste like. You understand -– I hope -- why fasting next month in Ramadan matters so much to Muslims. You will understand how distinct each of you are, you and your 30 different nations. But you will understand that no matter where you come from, that belonging to your generation in 2016 is a time when you can all aspire to a better life. You know what it looks like. You can find it, see it , on the World Wide Web in a way no generation before you has done. You can dream big. And, just by studying in Qatar, your world, your dreams, became a lot bigger. Because some of the walls of your world have come down, the walls that separate us, that divide our world into us and them.

WE LIVE IN THE BEST OF TIMES. BUT IT’S ALSO WORST OF TIMES.

It’s a world everywhere from Qatar to Calais.

Calais is a world apart. But it is part of our world. Let me, for just a moment, take you our warm friendly space in Qatar to a cold inhospitable camp in Calais in France, just across the channel from Britain.

They call the camp in Calais the Jungle. It’s a miserable place of muddy lanes, wooden shacks, tarpaulin tents. There’s a church in a tent where Eritrean Christians are celebrating Easter today, a Sudanese tent where Sudanese gather to exchange information and play games to pass the time, a kids café where Afghan kids travelling all on their own can get a hot meal of rice and beans, play pool, play video games. There’s a Syrian corner where they serve hot tea and rice served the way Syrians like it.

They’re all people on the run. Call them refugees, call them migrants. They all have one goal: to get to the UK. London is only an hour away by car or train. But that door isn’t open to them, even though many have relatives in the UK. So they’re trying to hide in lorries, inside tires, under train...anything to get to Britain.

The story I went to Calais to tell is the story of people they call unaccompanied children, children traveling on their own, like the Syrian boy I met whom we called Hassan. He didn’t want his real name used. He didn’t want his face shown on film. He’s 16 years old. He was born in the city of Deraa, the city where Syria’s uprising began five years ago with a dream of a peaceful political change. That dream died.

Hassan is living in a tent of tarpaulin stretched across sticks in Calais. He wakes at night, with nightmares, crying, “Mama, Papa.” He wakes in fear of the huge rats that enter his tent through the cracks. And by day, he loathes the bitter cold, the long queues for food, the wait for water to shower and a change of clothes. He’s been living like this in Calais for six months. He first arrived, after being smuggled from Syria to Turkey to Greece to France, a journey where his boat sank in the middle of the Mediterranean, and they had to be rescued.

When Hassan first arrived in Calais he and his friends ran the gauntlet almost every night of trying to hide in a lorry, or under a train, risking life and limb, arrest, beatings and tear gas of French police, to get to England to join his three sisters and a brother. But a few months ago, he was convinced to try another route, to try to do it legally under a family reunification programme in the UK. Not everyone can get in the way but some do.

It’s hard to say with complete certainty how many kids like Hassan are in Europe now trying to get asylum. By some estimates there are nearly 100,000 children travelling on their own – aged from six to 16 -- and of that number, some 10,000 are said to have gone missing. They’ve been either separated from their families during the journey, snared by smugglers, human traffickers, sex traffickers.

I met many young boys in Calais -- they’re all boys because parents wherever they live wouldn’t risk sending young girls along such dangerous routes. I met Syrian boys like Hassan and 16 year-old Khaled who’s also from Deraa, Adnan and his twin brother from Darfur in Sudan, Mohammad and Abdul and Feroz from Afghanistan. Different boys. Different ages. But when I ask each of them, “What is your dream?” their answer is exactly the same. “I want to study. I want to go to England or, if I can’t, stay here in France.” They all say, “ I cannot go home. I have no future there.”

As you may have seen in the news -- and I hope you have -- more than a million people, young and old, made this perilous journey last year. It’s believed up to three million may try to do the same this year despite European efforts to stop them. They’re fleeing wars and hardship, or they’re looking for jobs. All countries, including my country Canada, Britain where I live, Qatar where we are together today, are all under pressure to open their border, their homes and hearts. But also, they’re under pressure to do everything possible to stop the wars that provoke this worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

But I’m not here today to talk about solutions to a refugee crisis. I’m here to talk about a world where your generation has never had it so good, but also has never had it so bad.

Climate change is threatening our planet, but we’ll all live longer because of rapid technological advances in science and health care. Technology makes it so much easier for us to communicate with each other, and our work as journalists has been utterly transformed. But the internet also brings the rise of hate, bigotry, misogyny.

There are far fewer jobs in traditional media like newspapers, TV, and radio. But there are many more jobs in new media: new TV stations, online networks, digital journalism, blogging. And there are lots more jobs in communication. Everyone needs a spokesperson now.

"Go with where your own greatness lies. Go with it, as far as the world outside will let you. And when doors slam shut, have another go. It won’t be easy. But when it’s hard, that’s when you’ll show your worth. And you may find, along the way, that what you thought you’d like to do has changed. You’ll go somewhere different."

When I graduated, a long time ago, in 1982 with a master’s degree in international relations, there was, like now, a recession and jobs were scarce. Everywhere I went I was told: you have no experience; you don’t have a journalism degree.

My dream was to be a foreign correspondent so I went to Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to teach in a village school for a few months and then took a risk and stayed. I had no money, no experience. I was on my own. But it turned into right place, right time. The BBC was setting up its first office in West Africa office and there I was –- with the wrong accent from the wrong country with the wrong CV. Wollahi, Allah Karim. By an act of God they took me on. More than 30 years on, I’m still with the BBC.

SO HOW WILL YOU FIND YOUR PLACE?

What else did I learn from your website? I learned about a course that taught you to write, to edit, to produce, to think critically. It taught you to write for print and online, to broadcast for TV, radio, and online too, and to work on whatever social media platform the internet keeps coming up with. Your website says it is what you need to create compelling high impact journalism.

It is everything you need to “tell the story.”

But before you tell the story, you have to know your own story. What is it? What drives you? What inspires you? Some of you will have discovered that you have a great eye for filming. Some of you will know you have a talent for that eloquent turn of phrase.

Some of you will have that magical quality of being a producer. It’s the quality I see in the best of producers I work with. When they ask you for a telephone number, they’re dialing it before you finish giving them all the numbers. It’s that “now now now” energy that creates the wow.

Go with where your own greatness lies. Go with it, as far as the world outside will let you. And when doors slam shut, have another go. It won’t be easy. But when it’s hard, that’s when you’ll show your worth. And you may find, along the way, that what you thought you’d like to do has changed. You’ll go somewhere different.

When I graduated so long ago, my sister Andrea gave me a poem written by an Irish poet, the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. It’s a short poem. And it goes like this.

“The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life.”

Timorous or bold.

Graduates of 2016, you’ve already been bold -- leaving homes and cultures far away and taking a chance in Qatar. Qatari students took a chance on a different kind of campus.

The boys I met in the Calais camp also made bold choices. Their chances of success are far less than yours. And few among us would encourage any of them to do what they have done -- to travel illegally, dangerously -- but, in their own minds, they had no other choice..

And sometimes, they get lucky.

As I left Calais to come to Qatar to help you celebrate your special day, it turned into a special day for Hassan. The 16 year-old Syrian boy who’s lived for months with nightmares and rats found out his case was accepted by the home office in Britain under the family reunification program. Next week Hassan will travel from the Calais camp to Britain, not hiding in the back of a lorry, not clinging to the bottom of a train. He’ll be sitting in a seat on the train with a ticket to ride.

There’s no guarantee for Hassan that life from now on will get easy. He still has to apply for asylum. He may or may not get it. But he has been given a chance, a new start.

CLASS OF 2016 YOU HAVE ALSO BEEN GIVEN, IN A VERY DIFFERENT WAY, A CHANCE, A NEW START.

Whether you stay in Doha or you leave, whether you become a journalist, keep studying, enter marketing, become a teacher, a traveler -- whatever it is, tell the story. Tell the story of a world where we live in the best of times, in the worst of times. Tell it with passion and empathy. Tell the stories of others far less fortunate than you with all the skills, the sensitivities that you have learned here studying and living in a place, in a culture far from your own, or if it is your own, it has been enriched.

Be bold, be brilliant, be the best you can be, whatever that is, because the better you are, the better will be our world.

Thank you. Shoukran kteer.