A cultural exchange from the edge of civil war

A cultural exchange from the edge of civil war

The International Reporting Program is a yearlong course offered to students at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. This is a first-person narrative from a student about their experience of covering a challenging subject abroad and what it brought to their life and career as a result of being in the IRP program.

A story by Hala Kamaliddin

It all happened so quickly. After three months of extensive research, my team was headed to Jordan to cover mental health support for Syrian refugees. It was four of us from UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism: three students, a faculty instructor and a myriad of video equipment.

The International Reporting Program (IRP) is a fellowship offered for second-year Masters of Journalism students at UBC; it’s one of the most hands-on experiences for students in the field. In the first term, we had seminars on the potential ethical challenges we could face when reporting on mental health, especially in a foreign cultural context. Since my team dealt with refugees, we needed to understand how to approach and report on vulnerable people, such as those with trauma and/or mental illness, within a displaced population that is also struggling with the loss of home, family members and life security.

We had training on conducting interviews while ensuring to minimize harm to the people we meet, expanded awareness about other cultures, and how to give special consideration for the rights of people with mental illness or in distress. There is also the harsh reality of safety issues facing international journalists nowadays. My team, after all, was going to Jordan, which borders with three countries rife with civil war: Iraq, Syria and Palestine.

I was born in Iraq, fled to Jordan with my family when I was 13, and made my way to Canada six years later. After spending nine years here, going back to the Middle East as a foreign journalist has proven to be a surreal experience.


From the Director

Peter Klein, Associate Professor and Director of UBC’s International Reporting Program, and Director, Graduate School of Journalism (2011–2015)

In 2009, with a generous donation from Mindset Foundation, we created the International Reporting Program to train the next generation of global journalists — allowing them the opportunity to spend time in the field, experiment with new approaches to global reporting and produce major projects from around the world.

Our media partners have included The Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, The New York Times, CBC, Global, PBS Frontline, Al Jazeera and CBS News, and past projects have won a long list of awards, including an Emmy, an Edward R. Murrow Award, a Sigma Chi Delta Award, a Webby Honor and numerous top prizes at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.

But our bigger reward is having impact on global conversations. Our multimedia Pain Project is used by global health professionals to advocate for palliative care worldwide. Our documentary about the hazards of illegal electronic waste exports has been used by policymakers in Washington to establish strict new rules about e-waste export. And just six days after our investigation about the murder of a Brazilian Indigenous leader ran in The New York Times, more than a dozen suspects were arrested.

We are now growing the IRP into an ambitious non-profit Global Reporting Centre, the first organization in Canada dedicated to advancing global reporting and producing major projects on under-covered stories throughout the globe.”

From the Instructor

An inside look at teaching in the International Reporting Program with David Rummel, Assistant Professor, UBC Graduate School of Journalism.

In the Field

In the field
The IRP Jordan team, from left to right: Darryl Hol, Valentina Ruiz Leotaud, Mohammad Ghazal (local journalist and guide), and Hala Kamaliddin.
Photo credit: Dan McKinney

This experience started on the flight to Jordan, where I could hear Arabic emanating from rows around us. All of a sudden, a warm feeling of nostalgia awakened in me although I knew I was going into a different Middle East than the one I had left. There are revolutions taking place across the entire region now, the Islamic State is fighting in Iraq and Syria, and Jordan is home to more than 600,000 refugees from its neighbouring countries. I thought to myself: This is it. This is my opportunity to use my Arabic language and background and Canadian education to mediate between the two cultures.

Over the span of our visit, we spent our days driving around Amman, the capital, with our local guide and journalist Mohammad Ghazal and his brother Ehab, who was also our driver. We interviewed experts in emergency aid from international non-profit organizations, and Syrian refugee families living in temporary homes since the conflict began with the Arab Spring in 2011. Our evenings were consumed with reviewing our daily footage to better understand the context and the people we encountered.

The van, the living rooms in the homes of refugees and our apartment on the outskirts of Amman became our classroom. We were constantly drafting questions, revisiting statements, confirming permissions to film and interview and expanding on the focus of our story. The main concern was to ensure we did our best to bring back the experience of Syrians and those who offer them therapy and support for trauma, depression, fear, anxiety and hopelessness. Each account we heard left us shaken with emotion and an increasing urge to share their stories with the world.

It felt surreal to look ‘into’ Syria from the comfort of the farm, knowing that people are dying not so far from where I stand.

The UBC Graduate School of Journalism is heavily focused on accuracy in reporting, minimizing harm and creating positive impact, hence my primary question in the field: “How do I capture these stories in a way that not only shares the truth of the refugee reality, but also encourages the viewer to take action?”

After all, this is the worst humanitarian crisis of our times, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. More than 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced within the country and millions more have fled Syria since the conflict began. More than 80,000 refugees are registered in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan, making it one of the largest refugee camps in the world.

Towards the end of our trip, we visited an olive farmer’s home on the Jordanian-Syrian border. Three years ago, a Syrian relative crossed the border illegally to escape the conflict and sought refuge in the farm. The farmer’s family said they hear bombs exploding some times “on the other side”. There was a moment where we all stood amongst the olive groves, staring ahead... into a conflict zone. It felt surreal to look ‘into’ Syria from the comfort of the farm, knowing that people are dying not so far from where I stood.

The Syrian People

The Syrian People
Syrian refugee children at the Za’atari Camp.
Photo credit: Darryl Hol

Ghazal is a reporter with The Jordan Times daily newspaper. After he lobbied government offices to get us a permit to film in Za’atari, on December 11, 2014, we finally found ourselves on the desert road leading into the camp.

I went in expecting to see victims of conflict, but what I found was not just survivors but also people who are optimistic about their future.

I went into the sprawling 3.3-square-kilometer camp expecting to see victims of conflict. What I found were not just survivors but also people who are optimistic about their future. Standing on the barren land on a windy day, scanning seemingly endless lines of white tents while children crowded around my team, I was overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility. More than half of the refugees are children and our duty was to document one of the successful mental health projects in place to support these refugees.

For the rest of the day, I stayed close to my classmates Valentina Ruiz Leotaud and Darryl Hol and our instructor, Dan McKinney, translating between Arabic and English during interviews. We all felt we were establishing strong relations with the families we visited. The Syrians we met were exceptionally generous. They shared their lives with us over sweetened tea and Turkish coffee. They would split their food rations with us if we let them.

They spoke of memories of airstrikes, sniper attacks and watching their loved ones die. However, despite all the atrocious events they witnessed, their optimism and sense of community were inspiring. Many Syrians, in fact, volunteer in the camp and in cities across Jordan to help their fellow refugees.

Syrian Girl
Tasneem is one of the many Syrian child refugees at the Za’atari camp. Over half of the Syrians who are currently displaced are children.
Photo credit: Valentina Ruiz Leotaud
Syrian Kids
Hala Kamaliddin with child refugees at the Za’atari Camp.
Photo credit: Darryl Hol
Syrian Family
The first family visited at the Za’atari Camp. They escaped from Daraa, a Syrian village on the border with Jordan, after it was attacked by the Assad regime.
Photo credit: Valentina Ruiz Leotaud
camp market
The Champs-Élysées is an eight-kilometer market in the Za’atari Camp erected by Syrian refugees. With the conflict entering its fifth year back home, the camp is turning into a permanent settlement.

Cultural Exchange

My trip to Jordan has forever changed my life. When I went into the International Reporting Program, I had already set my sights on “foreign correspondence”. The IRP made it a reality.

Journalists working abroad are a special breed. They witness first, and then write within specific cultural and political contexts for a global audience. Training and education for such a line of work usually focuses on writing styles, technical skills and meeting deadlines. From my education with UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism, however, I now have a better grasp of the complexities of language, culture and ethical challenges in reporting on at-risk populations. We also had numerous seminars and material provided to us on how to express and process the painful stories we encounter on the front lines, which improved my own capacity to deal with the emotions of those experiences.

This international reporting opportunity should be offered in every journalism program across Canada. Because of the timeline of the IRP (three months of research, two weeks of field work, four months of editing and further research), my team was allowed more flexibility than we would have had in a real newsroom. This is why our trip felt more like a cultural exchange than a reporting experience. We had the time to bond with the people behind the story.

It was also a much deeper and reciprocal interaction between the journalists and the participants. The Syrians and Jordanians were incredibly open and trusting in sharing their stories with us — but they also learned about our cultures. In addition to me with my Arabic background, the Jordan team consisted of three nationalities: Canadian, American and Venezuelan. We were with the local people morning to night, every day. This allowed us to discover the commonalities in our identities and this is where positive change takes place. I was fortunate to witness correspondents and participants alike being transformed by the reporting experience.

It is one thing to learn how to write. It’s another to travel across the globe and report from a refugee camp. Not only do I now feel equipped to make films on complex issues, I also know that I can build trust with people from other cultures, in the most dire of situations. These are the resilient ‘soft skills’ that I will undoubtedly need as I launch my career in journalism.

Hala Kamaliddin

About the Author

Hala Kamaliddin is an International Reporting Program Fellow and Masters of Journalism candidate at the Graduate School of Journalism, UBC. She published her work with CBC Local News Toronto, the Vancouver Sun, Vancity Buzz and the Beltline Buzz. Her passion lies in issues pertaining to human rights, multiculturalism, and foreign affairs. After spending 20 years in the Middle East, Hala aspires to be an international reporter with a particular focus on conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Her current research is focused on displacement in identity for migrants. She is also a freelance editor.

Story Credits

Author: Hala Kamaliddin, graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism

Guest author: Peter Klein, Director and Associate Professor, Graduate School of Journalism

Thank you: Darryl Hol, Dan McKinney, Valentina Ruiz Leotaud, and the IRP faculty: David Rummel, Peter Klein, and Kathryn Gretsinger.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer/Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Senior Web Coordinator; Jamil Rhajiak, Communications Coordinator, Digital Information Channels; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer. Additional research and copywriting — David Leidl, Copy Editor and Researcher.

Published: April 2015