TACOMA, Washington — In a world of social media and search engines where anyone with a smartphone and internet access can find answers to any question, what is the role of the modern-day journalist?
Unlimited information is not the same as meaningful information. For example, in Egypt, the statistics on the refugee crisis comprise of:
- 129,159 Syrians
- 46,723 Sudanese
- 18,373 South Sudanese
- 17,786 Eritreans
- 16,245 Ethiopians
- 9,132 Yemenis
- 6,805 Somalis
- 6,722 Iraqis
These demographic group numbers, among others, total to more than 250,000 people affected by the refugee crisis. However, statistics often lack the impact they may have once had on desensitized readers.
The Feuchtwanger Fellowship Supports the Impact of Journalists
Journalists abroad have been integral to putting faces to the thousands of displaced peoples. “They are able to tell these very personal stories,” says Michaela Ullmann in an interview with The Borgen Project. “Oftentimes it’s more significant or it touches us more to hear a story about one mother than hearing ‘This is the situation in Egypt.’”
Ullmann is the Exile Studies Librarian at the University of Southern California, and a key organizer of the Feuchtwanger Fellowship. The fellowship, which is awarded by USC Libraries and the artist residency Villa Aurora, was inspired by Lion and Marta Feuchwanger, a couple who was exiled from Germany in the 1930s for their resistance to the Nazi regime. Since 1995, the Feuchtwanger Fellowship commemorates Lion Feuchtwanger’s resistance writing by annually sponsoring a modern-day journalist in their own resistance work.
Internationally, journalists face censorship and perils similar to those that the Feuchtwangers faced. In countries where freedom of the press is not a right, journalists risk their income and are subject to threats from the government or terrorist organizations, putting themselves, friends and family in harm’s way.
Journalism in Egypt tells Refugees’ Stories
Hadeer El-Mahdawy is a journalist from Egypt and was the 2019 Feuchtwanger Fellow. Her writing focuses on domestically sensitive topics, including the refugee crisis, sexual assault against women, political detentions, the treatment of religious minorities and censorship of the press. El-Mahdawy works at great risk to herself as outspoken journalists often face police violence due to state-censorship. Through her major publication in Mada Masr, El-Mahdawy’s personable articles humanize the situation in Egypt.
In an especially moving piece, El-Mahdawy interviewed a mother of seven children from Sudan on how her struggles as a refugee were made dire by the COVID-19 crisis. The mother spoke of the shortage of food rations and allowances from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as how her son with a neurological illness has been unable to receive the surgery he needs. Amid the pandemic, the NGO hospital in her community had closed and her landlord was threatening to evict her family.
El-Mahdawy also interviewed a widowed asylum seeker from Eritrea whose wife died a few months after giving birth in a hospital located in one of Egypt’s slums. During delivery, his wife’s incision had not been cleaned properly, likely triggering an infection. However, in their returning hospital visits, the couple was only given painkillers or turned away. Only after his wife was near death were they admitted to a government hospital, where she soon died. The widower received sparse aid from the UNHCR and was left to raise their three children alone and with no prospects of work.
During the novel coronavirus pandemic, amplifying the voices of people in vulnerable situations is critical. Ullmann shares that the pandemic, “enables governments to do other things because the spotlight isn’t on those issues.”
Freedom of the Press Impacts Everyone
Other Feuchtwanger Fellows include artists, bloggers, videographers or writers like El-Mahdawy. All have the opportunity to live in Los Angeles at Villa Aurora, the former home of the Feuchtwangers. “Many of these writers work in situations where their lives are threatened, where they’re constantly being scared for their families, for their own lives,” explains Ullmann. “[The fellowship] gives them these eight months, where they don’t have to have that many sorrows and can refocus on their work.”
Fellows have used the time to finish creating books or movies while gaining the strength they need to continue their work in their home countries. They can also take advantage of their official J-1 scholar status through USC, gaining access to the research institution’s resources and sitting in on lectures. Often, the fellows go the extra mile to engage with university students, sharing their experiences with censorship and international perspectives on free speech.
“It’s so easy for us today to get on the phone, social media platforms or online, but there are also all these algorithms that basically cater the news to what we want to see,” reflects Ullmann about the Feuchtwanger Fellowship. “[The program] is an enrichment for us, I learn every time a new fellow comes. The greatest benefit is really acknowledging the privilege we have. We see all the countries who don’t have freedom of speech or where people get tortured or harassed for speaking out and sharing the news, or no real news outlets exist because they’re all government-controlled.”
The Feuchtwanger Fellowship is essential in highlighting the importance of free speech and depicting extreme poverty and injustices around the world. As Ullmann states, “It’s important for us to realize that we need to fight for that.”
—Tricia Lim Castro