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The challenges facing exiled journalists

I don’t want to work in a chip shop - I’m a journalist!

THE CHALLENGES facing our members who are asylum-seekers, refugees or exiled journalists provided the theme for the March Branch meeting. We heard from three NUJ members about their experiences and the issues they face, as well as some of their achievements and triumphs since starting a new life in the UK. The aim of this discussion was to enable London Freelance Branch (LFB) and the Union to "give the best practical support we can offer", in the words of Membership Secretary Phil Sutcliffe, who introduced our speakers.

Paria Khodagholizadeh; photo: Matt Salusbury

Paria Khodagholizadeh joins the March LFB meeting

Phil noted that LFB's "membership applicant lists tell us that more and more freelances joining us have come to us from another country. And the trend doesn't seem likely to diminish in the near future. Usually these members are coming to the UK with a first language other than English and from a different media culture, in terms both of how journalism itself is done and of the business side of freelancing."

Journalists who have applied to the government for "asylum-seeker" status are, Phil reminded us, "in the toughest position - because UK law prevents them working for money". They are allowed to work for nothing. The NUJ therefore offers them a special category of membership. There are currently 19 asylum-seeker members in LFB and 83 more in other Branches of the NUJ.

A number of LFB members have been granted leave to remain in UK as refugees and can work for money. "That, of course, is hardly the end of their problems," as Phil pointed out. For example, Phil reported that one exiled journalist member of the Branch had to send apologies - they couldn't make the meeting due to "problems with accommodation".

Our speakers were three exiled journalists - all members of the NUJ, two in LFB: Paria Khodagholizadeh, Ronahi Hasan and Hilal Seven. We also heard from Professor Chris Frost.

Paria Khodagholizadeh describes herself as "an Iranian journalist who recently gained recognition as a refugee in the UK".

Paria told the meeting that she has a bachelor of journalism degree and a masters in sociology from Tehran University. She worked at a newspaper for more than 10 years as a "social journalist" - covering environmental issues, women's and children's rights and education. She "arrived in the UK after a long, long journey... I had leave my home country to save my life... I'm in the UK, I'm so glad because of this country... which is famous for press freedom".

As a journalist in a new country, Paria sent speculative applications to "50 job opportunities" and despite her relevant experience and education she hasn't got a job through any of these. "How wonderful it would be if media managers trusted people like us... gave us an opportunity... even without pay... as a trainee."

She identifies the need also "to improve my knowledge of journalism in the UK, based on UK media". Refugee journalists "need more practice... to make a big network".

Sadly, Paria arrived in the UK just as lockdown started, so she didn't initially have a chance to form friendships or meet journalists. Adapting has been "too hard and tough... you have to deal with new problems... a new language... new culture... without money, jobs and salary... without friends and family." Particularly tough have been her encounters with the Job Centre. "When you want to remain a journalist in a new country it's a quite different thing." The Job Centre "push me to find a job" in a pizzeria or a chip shop: it's "very hard to explain to them" that "I don't want to work in a fish-and-chip shop, because I am a journalist!"

"The NUJ is like a family to me," Paria concluded: "the NUJ helped me to find a laptop." Through Phil, Paria has "met some nice friends... really useful to me... let us stick together and support each other so that none of us gives up."

Ronahi Hasan is a freelance journalist and a documentary filmmaker who came to the UK from Syria as a refugee: she's now a British citizen.

She apologised "for being invisible" - she was joining the meeting audio-only. "I am a British citizen, but again we still see these difficulties going on." She summarised the "difficulties we are facing in the media industry... The lack of connections in the media industry leads to lack of representation in the media and film industry."

When she came to the UK, Ronahi "didn't have a background in journalism: I used to write in secret for [a] blog in [the] Kurdish language in Syria." Becoming an NUJ member in 2013, Ronahi "spent a long time improving my English first" before starting an undergraduate journalism course at the University of South Wales, from which she graduated in 2015. Within a year of that she'd won a Wales Media Award.

But "I still haven't got a job." She's been freelancing since then, much of it for free. She has written many articles for the Western Mail - but she's been paid "maybe once only" - the others were unpaid. "Sometimes you feel you are valuable in that media but sometimes you feel you are underestimated." Ronahi said of herself and her refugee colleagues, "I feel like we can be a great asset to the media industry."

From the UK Ronahi "provided the BBC back in Wales and here in London with unique stories... about the battles in Raqqa". She has worked with Channel 4 on a trip to go inside Syria - and has made "many appearances on BBC talking about Syria and the Middle East or religious extremism. But I didn't get paid."

Refugee journalists do not "have enough support even in terms of mental health... Most of us who arrived as refugees are trying to heal from trauma."

Also, "we have difficulties to get advice and support in the film field." She described how, lacking her own camera equipment, she had to hire a videographer - who "stole material" which ended up on another network, embroiling her in an expensive legal dispute. In cases like this "you have to show them that you are not lonely [alone]." Mariam Elsayeh Ibrahim of LFB Committee, who is also an exile, was at the meeting and has contacts with the network in question. She offered to mediate.

Hilal Seven; photo: Matt Salusbury

Hilal Seven

Hilal Seven is a Kurdish journalist from Diyarbakir in Turkey, who has been writing about Turkish-Kurdish migrants and refugees for the last seven years. She is also involved in the Refugee Journalism Project, based at the London College Of Communications, with which we hope to co-operate in the future.

Hilal has for the last seven years covered the regional conflict between Kurdish militias and the Turkish state. She left Turkey six years ago: it was a "tough time for journalists" with many of her colleagues "either in prison or escaping".

She came to the UK as an exile - she did not seek refugee status. The Refugee Journalism Project (RJP) "had me for one year," which was a "great experience". There she received mentoring and learned "how to get a job in the media industry... improve my networking... how to pitch". Some participants get scholarships to work with Reuters or Bloomberg or the Guardian. Hilal was placed with NewsSpectrum, which is funded by the International Press Institute. It matches journalists from minorities to publishers.

Hilal described "some of the struggles" for exiled journalists: "language is always a problem... nuances... the culture of the newsroom". Then there's the endless hassle of "solicitors... visas... your papers... the Home Office" - it's "a long journey to a British passport". You need to "get support if you don't have an income."

Chris Frost; photo: Matt Salusbury

Chris Frost

Chris Frost has, as a member of the NUJ's Finance Committee, specialised in dealing with asylum seekers joining the Union. He emphasised "the importance of doing what we can as a union" to support asylum-seeker members and to "help them integrate into this country."

Current rules adopted at various NUJ Delegate Meetings (conferences) allow the NUJ to admit asylum-seekers members, who are not allowed to work for money, without paying union subscriptions or (obviously) meeting income requirements.

But what happens when they're granted refugee status? Chris finds it "extremely unfair to ask an asylum-seeker... to suddenly have to pay subs". He asked participants to feed back discussion on practical issues around barriers to asylum-seekers becoming NUJ members to him via the NUJ's Finance Committee, on which he sits. Through Chris we have a "line up the democracy of the union" through which to report problems that our asylum-seeker members face.

Chris also sits on the NUJ's Ethics Council, which advises on media reporting on asylum-seekers, which is often "appalling". The Ethics Council encourage members to do asylum coverage "responsibly" and to produce articles on asylum issues that are "fair and accurate".


Julio Etchart, an exile from dictatorship in Uruguay, recommended the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture for mental health support. He had found them "very approachable". He advised exiled journalists to pitch to the New Internationalist magazine - "very inclusive" and always on the lookout for contributions from different voices from around the world.

Francesca Marchese of LFB Committee reminded members of All the Voices of the NUJ, the LFB project of which she is the instigator, which aims to support members who have a first language other than English. She appealed for members with minority languages to join in and support colleagues who speak the same language. Mariam said that non-native English speakers like herself felt an urgent need for support with sub-editing and proofreading of their articles. Watch this space for Branch initiatives in this area.

Newly-elected Branch Chair Tim Gopsill, winding up the meeting, said, "you've given the Union work to do, it's up to us to see if we can help you." Phil noted that this meeting had itself become a super-networking session, with "so many connections flying about" and advice via Zoom's Chat function.

  • We were also joined in the March meeting from Moscow by Stuart Smith of LFB's Committee. He updated us on the restrictions he operates under while trying to report on what his Moscow-based broadcast news outlet can only refer to as a "special operation" in Ukraine. It cannot be referred to as a "war" on air, to do so would be a criminal offence. See here for more on reporting on events in Ukraine from Russia.