Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series / News

VICE “Escape to Europe” Postmortem with Correspondent Ahmed Shihab-Eldin [Exclusive]

It’s clear that the refugee crisis is taking a heavy toll on those who are fleeing the Syrian civil war. When I talked to VICE correspondent Ahmed Shihab-Eldin earlier this week, I wanted to hear more about their plight – how they’re getting out of Syria, how they’re being treated along the way and what awaits them once they arrive in Greece and other parts of Europe. In my preview of “Escape to Europe,” Ahmed and I talked about the importance of putting a human face on this crisis. In this postmortem we talk more about that as well as the myriad abuses the refugees must endure, the growing backlash against them and the importance of conflict journalism in our increasingly globalized (and violent) world.

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TV GOODNESS: Can you talk a little bit more about your experiences talking to people in the camps? I know they didn’t necessarily want to give their full names. Was it easy or hard to find people who were willing to talk about their experience?

Ahmed: I think being that I am Palestinian and that I speak Arabic, they were much more willing, I would imagine, than they otherwise might have been. [It] seemed as though they genuinely felt I was there to help tell their story. But there were many who were guarded because they were just disillusioned. As desperate as they were and as much as they wanted the world to hear their story and understand their plight, perhaps in the hopes that that would change their circumstances or their prospects, there were many who- It’s not that they were scared to give up last names or identify themselves for fear of retribution. They just were so exhausted and there was a real sense of humiliation and frustration, almost as if even speaking to us would be too tough and was a waste of time. Every time I would ask them a question they would have as many questions for me.

It was clear they were being taken advantage of, not just in the journey across the Mediterranean, but once they arrive in Greece and head into the Balkan states. There’s smugglers all along the way; it’s a billion dollar business. They really felt marginalized, they felt as though the world just didn’t care and many of them felt as though talking would be a waste.

Photo Credit: Meher Ahmad for VICE

Photo Credit: Meher Ahmad for VICE

What they really wanted to talk about, more often than not, was logistic as in, ‘How long do we have to wait once we arrive in Athens? We heard that the situation in the camps in Greece is horrible. Should we not go?’ They’d be piled onto a train on the Hungarian border from Croatia and they would be asking me as the train was pulling away, ‘Do you know where we’re going? Are we going to Austria? What happens when we arrive in Austria? Can we apply for asylum [there]? Must we apply in Germany?’ So, I would say there was a real mixture of frustration and confusion as to where they were going. All they knew was that they couldn’t go back home.”

TV GOODNESS: In the piece, one of the refugee camps in Greece is called an internment camp, which I found shocking just because of the connotation of the word “internment.”

Ahmed: “Yeah. Is it formally called that? Because I found that [shocking] as well.”

TV GOODNESS: That’s a great question [Editorial note: it is labeled as such in the segment] and maybe it’s apt because it feels like the refugees are confined and stuck there. Is that what you were getting when you talked to the people in the camps?

Ahmed: “When we arrived in Greece, it was overwhelming to witness what was unfolding because you’re certainly right. Not only do they feel trapped, but in many cases in Lesbos, for example, they were expected to walk for miles and miles and miles on end through this hilly area to get to the camp. Once they were at the camp, it’s over capacity. They were not trapped in the camp and not allowed to leave, per se, but there was heavy police presence. They were trapped by virtue of the fact that it was 100 degrees and they had no modes of transportation and they didn’t always have water.

The conditions in Greece, in particular in Lesbos and some of these camps, were so shocking, so much worse than some of the camps, even the makeshift camps in Turkey. That’s where I felt the most desperation and the most anger at their situation. They’ve spent however much money and risked their lives, thousands of dollars paid to smugglers to get to this point and then they’re there waiting for a week in these camps with no information. There’s a lot of bureaucracy.

They’re living and sleeping in squalor, in their own excrement and it’s overcrowded. They’re trapped with no papers to leave and [they were] in this enclosed, confined space where we visited. There’s a few shots in the film. One of the places in Lesbos was a former military barrack. Even within the camp the indoors was over capacity, so there were people just outside and there was no medical attention.

Within the larger struggle of trying to get out of Syria and find salvation — first they went to Lebanon, then Turkey and now they’re in Greece and they’re thinking we’re gonna make it to Germany or Sweden — they were also trapped as a result of the European Union’s inability, including Greece, to properly process them as refugees.

They were left to take care of themselves and they were cordoned off and confined into makeshift shelters. Greece was the most stressing because that’s where the biggest numbers were arriving. Throughout the journey that was one of the most striking things. They were just waiting and it was the way you wait for parole in a prison or in a jail cell. They were waiting for what, they didn’t know, but hopefully for someone to process them or give them papers or give them direction or offer them some basic hope.”

TV GOODNESS: That sounds awful. At the end of the segment, and you mentioned this already, you talk about this growing backlash in Germany and the rest of the world, which is so sad.

Ahmed: “It really is.”

TV GOODNESS: It seems like the refugees to some degree realize that this is happening, that people aren’t accepting them or don’t want them. How was that to confront during the piece?

Ahmed: “You mean the fact that they were aware that they weren’t welcome?”

TV GOODNESS: Yes.

Ahmed: “Whether we talked about Turkey or Lebanon or even Europe, a lot of the refugees didn’t necessarily want to criticize the host country. When we talked to them once they’d arrived, they were aware that a lot of these countries were having their own set of problems, infrastructure issues and whatnot, so they were very cagey to criticize people. But it was the kind of thing where, again, humiliation factors in. Once we asked them, ‘How are you doing? What is your plan?,’ or more general questions, that’s when they started to regretfully share with us some anecdotes.

I think the biggest thing was that they were being viewed as a security threat, that they were being viewed as people who were trying to come in to take over- this xenophobic idea of making Europe a Muslim country or imposing Sharia law. They were really angry at the ignorance that was motivating a lot of those emotions. One guy, I remember, when we got to Greece he was saying, ‘The people here are asking me why there’s a war in Syria.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t wanna talk about politics. I just don’t want to be treated like an animal here.’ There’s just so many instances that I’m trying to wrap my mind around all of them.

When we got to Macedonia from Greece, we walked along with one of our characters for miles and miles and took a train and a bus. We get to the Macedonian border and there had been rumors that the border was open, rumors the border was closed but open for a few yours. So we get there and I can’t describe the scene to you. It’s in the piece, but there were thousands of people along this border and there were Macedonian military trucks. You can just see the tension and the fear and the hate.

It’s different there because they’re soldiers for the Macedonian army. But the people there had just crossed through the Balkans. Even though there’s some people who are trying to help them, they’re like, ‘We were robbed. We were mugged by police. The smugglers robbed us. We were left to fend for ourselves in the Balkans.’ They don’t speak the language. They’re sleeping in fields and I think many of them were surprised at the collective sense of suspicion around Syrians and around refugees. In some cases there are compassionate people in Europe and people who want to help them.

I think many of the [refugees] were so surprised that there was this level of disdain and worry and fear that was awaiting them in Europe. When they would be on the trains headed to Europe or when we would be on the border of Austria and Germany, they’d be sitting on the floor with their families after having made it this far. They’re about to cross into Germany and none of them looked happy.

To answer your question, the reason they may very well have not looked happy is because along the way they had probably experienced some of these things, but especially when we were there towards the end of the summer things started to take a turn for the very confrontational and that was scaring a lot of them especially the ones with [families].

I moved to Austria when I was 20 and I was harassed. Racism in Europe is not as common as it is in the US, but it’s definitely a lot more blunt and in your face. That’s why I think they were shocked, they were surprised. Also, it’s not something they were thinking about before they set off for the journey. They were more just hoping to make it and get there. They hadn’t actually thought whether or not they would be accepted. I think that’s maybe why they were so surprised.”

TV GOODNESS: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about conflict journalism and the importance of VICE covering stories that mainstream media just doesn’t seem interested in for whatever reason. What’s it like to report from the front line and why do you think stories like this aren’t getting more widespread coverage?

Ahmed: “I think there’s a misnomer that Americans in particular don’t care about international news and don’t care about these kinds of stories involving conflict because you could paint it with one big brush, especially when it pertains to this region, the Middle East. So that’s one issue. I think that’s not true.

A big problem is that it’s challenging to provide context. Without context people don’t care because it’s happening far away and because with the third world, we’re accustomed to seeing it as a violent place without, necessarily, a willingness to understand the nuances and what it’s about.

Photo Credit: HBO

Photo Credit: HBO

I find it a privilege to be able to cover these kinds of stories. I think part of the reason it doesn’t make the news is that there are other things that are more interesting, especially when you talk about mainstream media. What interests them [are] things that involve mostly domestic issues, for better or worse, and that’s just a product of habit. It’s less costly to cover domestic stories. It’s very risky to go to these countries. You have to really invest time and energy. You have to find people who understand the social fabric of the countries they’re reporting in and then the people they’re reporting on.

On the flip side what’s interesting is with social media and the democratization of media, you’re starting to see more and more people telling their own stories from these places of conflict. So, I think for some media companies that means, ‘If people are covering that locally then why should we go and cover it?’ It demands a lot more attention when you have people telling these little bits and pieces of their own stories. I see that as an opportunity to go deeper and really embed with the people whose lives are most directly affected by these stories.

It’s a globalized world, so I think — now I’m arguing as to why these stories should be covered, but you asked why they’re not being covered. It’s challenging to cover these stories, especially when they’re doom and gloom. Part of the reason people assume people aren’t interested is because that lack of context and background. If you provide just enough context, you can make a story successful.

VICE attracted me, not as a correspondent or a reporter, but as a consumer. They’re willing to go there and connect the dots and make a story that may not seem like it would matter or factor into your life, make it acceptable to you whether it’s tying it to the US or US policy or humanity, which we all share obviously.

Budgets are being cut and the media business is having issues with those kinds of things. I think everyone’s trying to recycle content as well. There’s not as much investment in original content. It’s a daunting thing to undertake, especially if you have other ways to make more content more shareable. And I would imagine in some cases maybe advertisers aren’t that interested.

In conflict reporting there’s a lot of [risk], but there’s so much more to gain. This was the first story that I’d done for VICE. Even though [this topic] was covered [in the media], it was covered in a way that was always focused on the politics of it all. It was always Russia and Syria and politics.

It’s rare that you feel the human element of these stories and it’s that which is really, I think, challenging to do and not done enough in the media. When we do cover conflict we cover it from a macro political perspective or economic perspective or foreign policy perspective. What about the lives of people who live there? How do their perceptions of what’s happening immediately around them affect our lives here in America? The more you cover these stories, the more you realize how connected we are.”

Ahmed is currently investigating the latest escalation in the West Bank, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and child trafficking and cyberdens in the Philippines.

VICE airs Fridays at 11/10c on HBO.

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