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[ Engagement Journalism Is Impactful Service Even in Building Narratives ]

When Mutiaa Alhaffar went through one of the worst experiences of her life, a lot of journalists parachuted into her house, took photos of her children who suffered a lasting physical and psychological effect of the war, and left with no return. Refugee stories are often about the ones who don’t make it like Alan Kurdi who was found dead on the beach near Bodrum, Turkey; or the hundreds of thousands refugees who are pictured sitting passively in front of tents or crossing European borders. These are images that lead to dehumanization. They carry a tone of tragedy and victimhood devoid of a social, political or historical context. The stories which are eventually told are done so through mediated experiences, i.e. voices of journalists. We rarely get to hear from Mutiaa herself or from her children. And this leads to further ramifications of hostile narratives in the political sphere. Mutiaa Alhaffar chose her Syrian passport as a significant belonging. She says that her journey started with getting this passport, but she hasn’t reached the end of the road yet. Photo credit: Mutiaa Alhaffar, 2020 When the pandemic started, Amina Ahmed, a 45-year-old seamstress who arrived in the U.S. in 2017 as a refugee with her family, made hundreds of homemade masks for healthcare workers who were short on protective gear. When I interviewed her about this, she said that she was doing it to prove to those who were anti-refugees that refugees were “giving back” to the country that has taken them in. Amina, Mutiaa and many other refugees feel the increasing hostility towards them in the U.S.. This comes as no surprise after the president himself blurted out tweet after tweet, policy after policy, that dehumanized and villainized Muslims in general and refugees from Muslim countries in specific. “Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our great country. Who knows who they are — some could be ISIS. Is our president insane?” was one of Trump’s tweets during his presidential campaign. Trump did not stop at talking about Muslims and refugees in this manner, but he also installed policies and made executive decisions that were aimed at keeping them out of the country, with no evidence that they are a threat to American citizens. He came up with the Muslim ban in the first year of his presidency term, and most recently he lowered the refugee cap to its lowest in the history of the U.S. at 15,000 for 2021. Tahaddi (‘Challenge’ in Arabic) is an engagement project that seeks to challenge these narratives and policies. Through a long listening process and later a design process, I came up with a model that is not only audience centric but also value geared. Listening The listening process took three forms, in person interviews, zoom meetings, and research. It started with some doing research and trying to reach spaces where the community congregates regularly. I was introduced to Alain Mentha, founder of Welcome Home, a community led organization that helps refugees settle into their new communities in New Jersey. I started having conversations with him and going to the weekly meetings his organization holds for refugee families. This allowed me to meet a lot of children and predominantly women who seemed to be the parent most concerned with coming to such events. The interviews I conducted with him and two of his organization’s clients, as well as with a refugee woman who is a client of a different community led organization informed a lot of my ideas to serve this community. These interviews helped me identify two problems, among many. The first is that the women have a huge difficulty representing themselves using the English language. In light of the aforementioned hostility, this is an important issue for the women who want people to hear their voices and know their stories. The second is that the women have a lot of anxiety around raising their children in a different culture. This again, is due to the representation of refugees in media and in politics, where the women fear their children will feel more distanced from them because their culture is not “western enough”. More research and academic reading confirmed that these are problems that immigrants and refugees to a higher degree face after resettlement. This gave me a problem. So, I wanted to provide a service. Design After researching and listening, I started canvasing the value proposition. This allowed me to look at all the problems and all the solutions I could provide for them. The women admit that they are slow learners but they very enthusiastically want to learn about everything that can make their and their children’s lives easier. For them, it’s definitely a good thing that their children are fast at adapting, but it’s also a pain that they [the children] are faster at adapting than the mothers are. So, there’s an opportunity in learning about how differently they can approach raising their children in order to maintain a strong connection with them. Of course, in all of the learning processes that they’ve had to go through since coming here, the language barrier played a huge role in hindering their learning curve. And so, I’ve identified an opportunity in the fact that I can gather information in either English or Arabic and produce it in a way that is organized, easy to digest, and fast to read. Therefore, the client’s job is to constantly learn, adapt, and apply acquired knowledge to their day to day lives. And since the knowledge that I want to provide is related to the most precious thing in their worlds, it is an extremely valuable service for them. In doing that, the service would also help the women achieve another goal which is to build one of their own communities. Since all the women in the community will have had similar experiences, it would also be a space to share knowledge. The other part of the project relates to the pain of self-expression through language. And since the mothers find that cultural differences are creating a gap between them and their children, I’ve thought of a way to help them express themselves without having to use language. And since the women rarely speak about themselves in the description of their struggles, and since to me they sound like incredibly strong and accomplished mothers, I thought about images as a way for them to self-portray and tell a story. So, the project includes two services: a facebook group where the women post questions and share experiences regarding cultural differences and raising their children and where they receive knowledge that addresses their information needs, and a self-portrait project that will invite women to participate and share their stories and experiences in order to build connections between the women and help them relate to each other. Value Proposition