#syrien200: a multiplatform, multilingual tour de force of story telling

One of the biggest stories of the decade so far has been and continues to be the European refugee crisis, and particularly the exodus of millions of Syrians from a country decimated by war.

We all remember the harrowing image of little Alan Kurdi’s limp body on a tourist beach, then clutched to the chest of a Turkish police officer who retrieves him from the sea. The boy had drowned with his mother and sister while trying to cross a fierce sea to a new life. He became the human face of a tragedy affecting a generation of families.

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media research study organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees looked at how the refugee crisis was being portrayed in five countries: Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden and the UK.

The study revealed that Swedish media was the most positive in its coverage of refugees and asylum seekers…while the UK media was generally the most negative.

One of the projects that emerged from Sweden was called #syrien200. It represented six months of work by an investigative team of data journalists, researchers and producers at svt, a Swedish national broadcaster.

Together they interviewed 200 men and women who had made the journey from Syria and found refuge in Sweden.

It doesn’t have the production complexities of the masterful Snowfall project by the New York Times nor is the writer acting as commentator, as is the case in many of the inspiring works of journalism showcased on Medium by Josh Stearns, associate director at The Democracy Fund, in this recent round-up article.

What I particularly enjoy is that the producers of the project do not seek to impose their opinions or anyone else’s — they simply act as a portal through which a group of people can share their experiences.

In the #syrien200 project, every participant has the opportunity to tell a personal story. Using their native tongue (usually Arabic) each interviewee talks of their life so far, including their journey from Syria and their new home in Sweden.

I think it is a brilliant example of the power of long form, multiplatform storytelling, exceptionally rich in Character, Setting and Movement.

As Paul Bradshaw, leader of the MA in multiplatform and mobile journalism course at Birmingham City University, outlines here, it’s vital for any journalist planning a new story to work out first who are the characters and what are the settings.

In this example, the main CHARACTERS are the refugees themselves. The production team would have considered whether to bring in additional characters — refugee support workers, government officials, immigration policy makers, local residents, and a multitude of others. But instead they decided to focus on these principal characters and give only them a voice.

Their stories are told in text but additionally, speaking to an off screen interviewer, each of the 200 people share intimate moments of sadness, desperation, uncertainty and happiness. We see them and hear them, unfiltered.

Fadi, 44, has sad tears in his eyes as he talks of his two year old daughter, still in Syria and communicating with him via messages and phone calls, who is waiting and praying for her papa to arrange their reunion. He is in turn working desperately to enable them to to join him in Sweden.

“She asks me all the time, dad, when will we meet?” He is worried he has no answer for her.

Each of the 200 people featured is a separate character with a unique story but they are all in some respects a single character — the displaced refugee, far from home, trying to make the best of a new life in a foreign land.

A range of SETTINGS (or ‘umwelt’, meaning environment or the world around the characters) open up as each character tells their story — from tranquil pre-war Syria, to rooms of torture, to desperate escapes across oceans and mountains.

Some are specific — for example, being among a crush of desperate people inside a lorry, or the strong smell of jasmine.

We learn of each character’s physical journeys, some more dramatic than others.

Buthayanya crossed five countries with her children, on foot and by bus and boat, to reach Sweden.

Hind, from Damascus, says leaving her home was the most difficult thing she had ever done.

She writes about her previous life, her journey to Sweden and her wish that one day, when the war is over: “I will walk around on streets that are thousands of years old, and smell the scent of jasmine again.”

Abdel, a gay man who had denounced Islam, was in double jeopardy while in Syria, for his sexuality and his religious views. The story he weaves is one of leaving behind intolerance and hatred and finding a place of acceptance.

The project touches upon MOVEMENT in a vast range of ways — physical movement from place to place but also the psychological conflict and dramatic switch from a life of peace and safety to one of danger and risk and, in most cases, back again.

Inevitably, it also confronts the underlying political issues around immigration and refugees, particularly highlighting incidents of racism and being unwelcome.

All of this is set against the backdrop of the continuing war and the ever present dangers facing relatives still in Syria.

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, rich in drama and compassion. Every story is different and it makes the viewer/reader want to find out more.

Creating the stories in Arabic, Swedish and English ensures that as wide an audience as possible can fully engage with the characters and use these experiences in other ways, including as evidence for other research or in learning about the reality of life for refugees in Sweden and elsewhere.

After reading and listening to the stories, the question now is “what happened to them?” Was Fadi reunited with his young daughter? Has Abdel found love in Sweden? Has Hind managed to move out of her cramped flat?

It would be fascinating to find out and continue to share their journeys.

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