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VICE Correspondent Ahmed Shihab-Eldin Humanizes the Refugee Crisis in “Escape to Europe” [Exclusive]

Photo Credit: HBO

Photo Credit: HBO

Whether or not you’ve been following the news out of Munich about a possible ceasefire in the Syrian civil war, there’s no way you haven’t heard about the refugee crisis. The war, which has been going on for nearly 5 years, can be blamed for the large number of Syrians fleeing their country. But it seems like this issue didn’t really come to the attention of the West until recently. I don’t know about you, but I personally didn’t see any coverage in the mainstream media for a long time. In fact, it could be argued that there is still very little attention on this issue outside of political rhetoric.

What I’ve always loved about VICE is that it opens my eyes to so many issues, both foreign and domestic. In “Escape to Europe,” correspondent Ahmed Shihab-Eldin travels to Turkey and follows some of the refugees on their journey. A large part of his aim is to put a human face on this crisis. We all know the supposed political and economic ramifications of so many people relocating to Europe and beyond, but what’s the price in human capital? How much longer can we afford to either ignore or politicize this issue? At the end of the day, this is a human rights issue and one we should care deeply about.

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I had the chance to talk to Ahmed earlier this week. I asked him about pitching this story to VICE, what kind of research he did before he left on assignment and what he hopes people will take away from this piece.

TV GOODNESS: I watched the episode, which I thought was great. I wanted to talk to you because I feel like a lot of people have no idea what’s going on with the refugee crisis. Did you bring this to VICE or was the story assigned to you?

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin: “The story wasn’t assigned to me. When I was hired I was asked to pitch several stories and this was one I kept pitching because it was very clear for years now that a crisis was unfolding, even if it had yet to reach Europe. [I have] family in Lebanon and [spend] a lot of time there in particular.

Essentially there are now more than 2 million refugees off the boats in Lebanon, which means 1 in 4 people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. So having witnessed how it was changing the country and the region and wondering why there wasn’t as much coverage of it, I pitched it. And several other producers have pitched it. As the story began to evolve and affect Europe, once thousands were arriving on European soil, it seemed as though it was well worth covering. But it was definitely a story I was passionate about, not just being an Arab-American and a journalist who covers the region.

One thing many people don’t realize is these refugees who are escaping to Europe, who are escaping first to Lebanon and Turkey, are refugees already living in Syria. There are Palestinian refugees, there are Iraqi refugees who escaped the Iraq war. And now, again, they’re being uprooted from Syria.”

TV GOODNESS: As you said, this is a story you already knew intimately. When you got the go-ahead from VICE did you talk about the angle you wanted to take and what research did that entail?

Ahmed: “I had some preliminary research having met Syrian refugees [on] previous reporting for other jobs. Once we got the go-ahead, what we really wanted to do was try and humanize the people who are making this journey, not just Syrians quite frankly, even though they make up the majority of the refugees arriving in Europe.

We only follow the journey and one question that kept coming up both as we were doing our research and, I think it keeps coming up in the media, is the war has been going on for 5 years. Why all of a sudden, a year ago, is there a sudden influx of refugees to Europe? So we wanted to try and address the bigger picture of what happens when you have these protracted conflicts in a region like the Middle East and you have people who are fleeing from immediate danger. But once they arrive in Lebanon, once they arrive in Turkey, these countries aren’t necessarily well equipped to accommodate them and to protect them and to provide for them.

Our angle was to try and speak to as many Syrian refugees as we could and understand their thinking. No one leaves a war zone or a country in conflict and plans or expects to never go back. There was a shift, I think, in a lot of the Syrian refugees’ mentality, especially those in Lebanon and Turkey in recent years. It started to dawn on them that the administration in Syria was only getting worse, that the international community was paralyzed as they were in dealing with it, were now bombing it from the Russian side, the American side or other Western countries. Syria was going to remain in crisis for a very long time, so they started to look elsewhere to move on with their lives.

Sadly, the most desperate community of people are refugees. This is always true, but in particular in Syria. [They] are being exploited, not just by the smugglers who take $1,000 and pile them up on these tiny boats. But they’re arguably exploited by the host countries they live in. Many of the Syrians arrive in Greece after making this epic journey. They call it ‘The Journey of Death.’ [They’re] risking their lives. As you know from watching the film, they find no salvation in Europe.

It’s not just that the government of Greece is unprepared economically or socially in particular. All of a sudden this desperate community of refugees is being exploited and being vilified as though they are something to be feared and something that is a threat. That’s what we wanted to try and deconstruct by simply telling their story, following them on the journey. We had hoped to be able join them on this journey on the boat, but that proved challenging for many reasons, both moral and other.”

TV GOODNESS: Beyond showing the plight of the refugees and hopefully educating the public more about this crisis, what are you hoping people take away from your story?

Ahmed: “I’m hoping people recognize and take away that this crisis in particular is not new, but it is something that will affect everybody. It is affecting everybody. In America we have a presidential candidate saying he can look at a Syrian refugee child and tell him not to come to the U.S. America’s only accepted 2,500 Syrian refugees.

Photo Credit: HBO

Photo Credit: HBO

I hope people watch this and see the refugees as humans. I hope people understand what is really at stake, not just for Europe but for the entire world if this crisis continues. I hope people can understand that this isn’t the kind of thing you see on a Facebook video that makes you sad. This is something relentless that is happening every day. People thought, for example, in the winter that it would die down, that things would get better. There have been almost 55,000 people going to Europe since the beginning of 2016.

There are consequences to war that we don’t always witness or understand because it doesn’t happen in our backyard or in our immediate vicinity. I think it’s easy to imagine that those consequences don’t affect us until the refugees start showing up. I hope this really paints a picture of not just the consequence of war but the consequence of inaction and I don’t mean that politically. We all live in a globalized world where there aren’t just isolated incidents of war. For as many Syrians that we met, we met people from Afghanistan, people from Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, so many countries. These kinds of crises aren’t going to end anytime soon. They’re only getting worse and we need to be more aware and more proactive rather than reactive because they do really affect all of us.

These people are people like us, who are forced to flee and who aren’t welcome anywhere. [They] are now being vilified by society at large, by our leading presidential candidates and governors. I would hope people will see, especially with Gianna’s piece which comes immediately after the one I’ve done, that’s there’s a cycle of violence and there are ways to stop it. These are humans. They’re not numbers. They’re not statistics. They’re not evil. They’re not terrorists. They’re human.”

Edited for space and content.

Photo Credit: HBO

Photo Credit: HBO

“Cycle of Terror”

Gianna Toboni’s piece is the perfect companion piece to “Escape to Europe.” After the bloody ISIS attacks in Paris stunned the world and rumors circulated that one of the attackers might have posed as a Syrian migrant, politicians all over the world raced to declare their homelands off-limits to Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Gianna travel to France and around the U.S. to see how the global reaction to the violence in Paris is affecting the fight against terrorism.

VICE airs Fridays at 11/10c on HBO.

Want to know more about Ahmed’s experience on location and what he has coming up for VICE? Here’s part 2 of our conversation.

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