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IMMIGRATION

Syrian civil war reporters launch Spain’s first refugee-led news site

Before arriving in Madrid, Muhammed, Ayham, Okba and Moussa honed their skills as journalists during Syria’s bloody civil war and now they have opened Spain’s first refugee-led digital magazine.

Syrian civil war reporters launch Spain's first refugee-led news site
(L-R) Syrian journalist Muhammad Subat, Spanish journalist Andrea Olea, Syrian journalist Moussa al-Jamaat, Syrian journalist Okba Mohamed and Syrian journalist Ayham al-Ghareeb pose in the office of Baynana bilingual media outlet in Madrid on April 9, 2021.Photos: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP

Launched on April 7th, Baynana is an innovative online ‘magazine’ whose Arabic name means “Between us”.

All four are originally from the southern Syrian city of Deraa, birthplace of the 2011 revolt against President Bashar al-Assad that sparked the war.

In early 2019, they fled to Turkey, then in May that year, they flew to Madrid with the help of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the New York-based press freedom watchdog.

“When the war started I was 12, but I knew very well what was going on because many people were out protesting — near my home, in the mosque,” says Okba Mohamed, the youngest of the four who is now 22.

Just four years later, he began working for local news outlets, “recording protests, bombings”.

Muhammed Subat, 31, told AFP he initially studied psychology in Damascus before going on to work for an Istanbul-based opposition channel called Syria TV, first in Syria, then in Turkey.

Spain was a place he had always wanted to visit because of the football, but he’d never imagined being there “as a refugee or migrant”.

“I imagined coming here as a traveller or as a student. But that’s life,” he shrugs.

With articles written in Arabic and Spanish, Baynana’s aim is to show “the good face of migrants here in Spain,” says Ayham al-Ghareeb, 32, who came to Madrid with his wife and two young daughters.

The fourth member of the team is Moussa al-Jamaat, 39, who also worked as a journalist in Syria and built and maintains the Baynana website.

Migrant success stories

So far, the focus has been on successful migrant stories, such as that of Ashraf Kachach, a YouTuber with Moroccan roots who fights Islamophobia, or Malak Zungi, the Lebanese founder of a project to train refugees as chefs in Spain.

Another report profiled Sevilla striker Youssef en-Nesyri, whose success in Spain’s top-flight football league incarnates the dreams of many youths in the Middle East and North Africa.

At the same time, Baynana seeks to provide “useful information” to Spain’s Arabic-speaking community, especially migrants who face many challenges in their daily lives.

“There is not a lot of information in Arabic on how to get your residency papers,” says Ghareeb, citing just one example.

It’s a problem they themselves have faced while they wait for their asylum claims to be processed.

According to the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR), more than 20,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Spain since 2011.

“I have been in Spain for nearly two years and I still can’t travel so I can’t see my family,” says Mohamed, whose relatives are refugees in Jordan.

He last saw them in 2014.

Although life in Spain is “very safe”, there is “racism against migrants and refugees”, Ghareeb said, giving the example of problems trying to rent a flat.

Broad audience

Baynana presents itself as Spain’s first refugee-run media outlet.

A similar project already exists in Germany where 10 journalists from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran and Syria write for a magazine called Amal, Berlin! which is Arabic for “Hope, Berlin!”.

Baynana’s potential audience within Spain — home to around one million Arabic speakers, mostly from Morocco — “is very broad”, says its Madrid-based editor Andrea Olea, who also translates into Spanish what her Syrian colleagues write.

And there is great diversity among Spain’s Arabic-speaking residents, who range from Moroccans “who come over to work on farms” to refugees with university degrees, she said.

Baynana’s staff share a modest office at the headquarters of Spanish foundation Por Causa which promotes investigative journalism about migration and is providing them logistical support.

Even so, funding for the project remains tight with the staff launching a crowd-funding campaign on social media.

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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