When the Skill of Questioning Is Listening: Interviewing Refugees in Europe

19/07/2016 12:55

Having recently undertaken the perilous journey from Damascus to Berlin, researcher and filmmaker Reem Karssli - now seeking asylum in Germany - had a strong connection with the people she interviewed for BBC Media Action's research into the communication needs of refugees in Europe.

Filmmaker Reem Karssli knows first-hand the importance of reliable communications to refugees. Six months ago, she fled the war in Syria and is now a refugee herself in Germany where she became part of the team researching the communication needs of refugees for BBC Media Action's Voices of Refugees report.

"You have to be more than patient - you have to be a saint," Reem, 29, told me. "We lost four years of our lives in the war. Now we are losing more time just waiting - for papers, to understand our legal status, to learn the language...and throughout all this we never know what's going to happen to us next."

The report examines the priority information and communication needs of refugees in three areas: on their journey, in "transit" camps in Greece and in Germany. Reem's task was to interview 13 refugees who had reached Berlin.

Her impressive CV includes working for BBC Media Action in Jordan, but since becoming a refugee she has not been allowed to work so did the research for this study voluntarily.
Reem arrived in Germany's capital last September after she and her brother bid farewell to their parents and sisters in Damascus, flew to Istanbul, before travelling with smugglers by boat across the Mediterranean. They then travelled, mainly by bus, from mainland Greece, through the Western Balkans corridor (which was closed in March) to Berlin.

"You just had to be crazy to take that decision," she says. "There was no information at all. We just followed everyone else."

Reem told me the fact that she had already "made the journey" allowed her to connect with her interviewees. They were often weary of being interviewed by various agencies and fed up with still seeing no change in their situation. But very few were reluctant to share their story with her.

"I understand these people. Their stories are familiar to me and they trust me - I am not an outsider. I could share my experience with them and invite them to share theirs with me. I tried not to just question - I tried to listen, to let them talk, talk and talk more."

Reem's interviewees were at the "end" of their long and perilous journeys - sometimes as long as 3000 miles. So were they relieved to be safe at last? She found that rather depended upon where they were in the "process". Those who had managed to find an apartment and attend language/integration courses felt some sense of moving forward, of regaining control of their lives and had some optimism. But few had had their expectations met. They felt bewildered by paperwork. They were confused by the system. Having survived long and dangerous journeys, having protected the most vulnerable in their travelling groups - babies, toddlers, the elderly, sick and disabled - they found themselves powerless to effect further change and short of reliable information about their options.

This is echoed throughout our research and the findings highlight refugees' overarching need for critical information about their current and future situation, and their need to be listened to, to participate in dialogue that provides them with physical, social and psychosocial support. Many require trauma counselling.

Many of the people she spoke to were living in the decommissioned Tempelhof airport in central Berlin, where they expected to live for the first six months. At the time of the survey, an estimated 2000 refugees were living in this ¼ km long building. With so many people from different countries and ethnic groups, speaking diverse languages, crammed together and nobody knowing what was going to happen next, tensions often threatened to erupt into violence. Security was high.

The tensions were heightened by the fact that some originated from higher priority source countries - e.g Syria, Iran, Iraq and Eritrea - and were more likely to be able to attend language/integration courses and be granted asylum status.

"People were not just frustrated, they were traumatised by their situation there," says Reem, "They couldn't do anything because they had no money. Two families I spoke with had asked to go back to Iraq. They couldn't stand it any more. For most their expectations had not been met."

"You survive the war, you survive the journey and then you are stuck in this place."

The research highlighted the importance of consistent communication between agencies and refugees to help reduce widespread confusion, foster tolerance between groups and help avert dangerous information vacuums in which rumour and anecdote can fuel powerlessness, panic and violence.

Indeed, the analysis also shows that participants who stay in regular contact with other refugees and who have wide communication networks (e.g. mobile networks and social networking sites/groups such as Facebook and WhatsApp) are likely to be more resilient than those who are less connected. This need for clarity was a major concern for refugees at all stages in their journey - including the so-called endpoint.

Katy Williams is Research Editor at BBC Media Action.

This blog is cross-posted on BBC Media Action's Insight blog, which features analysis and commentary on the role of the media in international development.

To read the Voices for Refugees report and watch the accompanying film, specially design for watching on a mobile phone, please visit: