If you want to get an eyewitness picture of the refugee crisis from its epicenter, the shores of Lesbos, Greece, I’ve got a documentary for you. It wasn’t produced by the BBC, CNN, The UN or even by professional journalists. It was written, shot, edited and produced by students at Penn State University. The Journey […]
It wasn’t produced by the BBC, CNN, The UN or even by professional journalists. It was written, shot, edited and produced by students at Penn State University.
The Journey is a compelling story about the desperation of innocent people trying to escape extreme suffering that they don’t deserve. It might just as easily been titled, Humans Without Borders.
And if you’re wondering about the future state of journalism in this country, this work should reassure you.
The Journey recently aired on the WPSU, PBS station in State College, home of Penn State and was seen across 29 counties in central Pennsylvania.
The documentary is the result of a 10-day trip to Greece by 18 Penn State students and four faculty members who traveled to Greece in March as part of an international reporting class. They took their five JVC cameras. Half the students, a mix of broadcast, print and multimedia, went to Lesbos and the other half went to Athens.
“Each year, this class goes to a different country,” said Steve Kraycik, Penn State’s director of student television, and one of the faculty members who went on the trip.
“We’ve been to Cuba, China, Hong Kong, South Africa, Brazil. We choose a place where news and issues are happening. It’s not a vacation.”
Kraycik said this trip to Greece was planned in the fall, when the refugee crisis was front-page news. No one knew whether the crisis would still be going on in March when they went.
“And boy, it sure was,” Kraycik said .
He said the students would meet every morning as a group for a status update to check how the stories are progressing. “And then, they’re off and running.”
A faculty member accompaned one group to provide advice and feedback. Most reporters shoot their own stories, do their own interviews. However, since the requirement is that no student works alone, another student is there to help lug equipment and shoot part of the package.
In Athens, students used public transportation to get around. On Lesbos, it was mostly cabs. All post-production was done at Penn State University.
Yousef Saba was one of the anchors of the show, and reported on one of the packages. He was in both Athens and Lesbos during the trip.
Saba just graduated from PSU with degrees in broadcast journalism and international politics.
Saba was born in Egypt and grew up in Kuwait and came to the United States in 2012 to attend Penn State. Kraycik said Sada found it “very interesting to cover this refugee crisis as someone from the Middle East himself.”
Indeed. Having attended British schools in Kuwait, his English is flawless. But it was his ability to speak Arabic that was especially helpful.
“My partner and I were the only two who saw the rafts coming ashore in the middle of the night,” Saba said.
“And so while that was happening, I noticed they were looking for someone who could speak their language, as soon as they got off the boat. They were just looking for information, because a lot of them didn’t know exactly where they were. A lot of them didn’t know what was going to happen to them next. The vast majority were completely surprised that there were people there waiting for them.”
Saba says his ability to speak Arabic was welcomed by the refugees. “They were information starved and to be able to get information in their own language was ideal. I think many of them were very happy to see me, and talk to me.”
Saba said most of the refugees were Syrian.
“The Syrian refugees are the center piece of this unfolding crisis, obviously the largest in number. But aside from Syrians there were other Arabic-speaking nationalities so to be able to speak in their language was kind of a more personal connection, more natural connection.”
One of the volunteers waiting to greet them and help them off the boats was a semi-pro football player from Boston, Constantine Kadel.
“I just came to do anything I could possibly do to help,” said Kadel, while scanning the dark ocean horizon with his binoculars.
“With no expectations. To find my role as I went. No book, no movie, can show the tragedy.”
Kadel said the refugees continuously thank him, despite their ordeal.
What kind of people leave everything they own, pay exorbitant prices to smugglers, and risk drowning in over-crowded boats?
Saba said they “are peaceful people, normal people, modern people, who are just trying to live their lives.”
Some are women who are eight months pregnant. Other women came ashore with infants less than two weeks old.
When one refugee splashed into the water and crawled up the sand to the beach, he asked, “Where am I?”
How bad must the living conditions be that you are willing to go who-knows-where to escape them?
The Journey is well-told and well-organized. You’ll learn where the refuges are coming from and why they are leaving their homes. You’ll almost feel the splash of water as the rafts and rickety, over-crowded boats crash ashore, spilling people into the surf.
The process of what happens to the refugees is explained thoroughly. For example, why the Syrians are given better treatment than the others who are accorded “low refugee recognition status.”
The Journey reminds me of what my ancestors must have experienced when they came to America seeking a better life. But instead of welcoming arms at Ellis Island in the shadow of Lady Liberty, these folks face an unknown future in an unknown world.
Here is the entire documentary, The Journey.