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Interview with Ramy Alasheq, Editor of Germany's First Refugee Newspaper in Arabic

10 August, 2016
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Abwab ("Doors") launched at the end of 2015, is a volunteer-driven Arabic newspaper addressing the refugee community of Germany. Initially printed for a limited run, the second issue had a print run of 45,000 and has been welcomed by refugees across the country. With over 45 contributing writers, journalists and translators based around the region, the newspaper now on its seventh issue covers relevant issues such as foreign policy, integration and social questions for the country's newcomers.

BECAUSE corresponded with its editor-in-chief, the poet, journalist and activist Ramy Alasheq.

What drove you to start Abwab?
As I always say, Abwab was needed more than it was wanted. I came to Germany, and like every person who has a profession, I recognized that there was no local Arabic newspaper in Germany. Apart from that, I faced a lot of stereotypes because there is no knowledge about others. I was thinking of making a website in two languages as a bridge between the two communities: those who arrived lately, and the local community.

During this time, the publisher NEW GERMAN MEDIA contacted me because they had an idea to produce a print newspaper in Arabic for "newcomers." So, it started out with two ideas, and then many additional ideas made Abwab.

What obstacles did you face establishing it?
We are still facing a lot of obstacles but normally I don't like to talk about them, because I see them as normal obstacles. For example, we have no money, no salaries, no office, no cameras, and some of us did not get their asylum yet, but still I see all of these factors as normal issues that face any new project. 

What topics do you usually cover? How many languages do you write in?
We cover international and local news, the Arabic-speaking community, Information and articles about life in Germany, such as the law, the system and education; women's issues and feminism; literature and culture. We like to print positive stories as well as news. We also translate articles into German and English.

How do you think the written word can help with the current crisis?
As a writer, poet and journalist who works and lives with words, I should say it absolutely does, because this is my instrument, my voice and the way I describe everything around me. But to be honest, not all written words are helpful or useful, it depends on what these words say, mean, and want.

I cannot talk about my project and say whether it is good and helpful or not! This is the task of  our readers. 

But I think it is useful for many reasons: it was initiated by a big group of professionals who believe in democracy, human rights and freedom, and who want to do a good job. The work comes from Arab, German, European perspectives, and the contributors have a mix of experiences. We wanted to open doors for dialogue and discussion, and to find a voice against any hate speech, discrimination, racism, and so on. I see it as useful because the newspaper is delivered to the readers in their locality, for free, and it tries to tackle a lot of important issues; many of which even I did not know about before my colleagues wrote about them. But still, this is what I see and the feedback I received. It is an opinion, not a fact. However, Abwab is our brainchild, and we believe in it.

What reaction have you had from the German press?
I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming reaction we received. Many of them wrote about us, we have a translation-publishing cooperation with [German TV channel] WDR and I hope to open more doors. 

Lately we had a big discussion about an article that focused on integration, and there was an article in response, and another article responding to it between myself and the WDR journalist and editor Isabel Shayani. I saw it as very important and useful to start to talk to each other and discuss, and perhaps fight (peacefully). Otherwise everyone will stay in his place and talk to his reflection.

You use the term 'newcomers'. Can you explain your use of this term in relation to the use of the word 'refugee' and in relation to the word 'guest worker' (which is what have Germans called foreign workers). How does this name shift reflect your ideas? And do you believe it will change people's perspective on the long run?
If it were up to me, I don't care! I am a refugee. I was born as a refugee, I lived more than twenty-seven years of my life and I will continue at least for more seven years as a refugee. My father now is a refugee and had been so for 53 years. He was born a refugee, and my grandfather was a refugee. All my family members are refugees no matter where they are. They are refugees in Syria, Jordan, UAE and Europe. Our identification documents have borne the word 'refugee' for 70 years. 

So for me I am very familiar with it, and I believe it is an extraordinary situation caused by circumstances that I did not choose, but had to live. It is not an identity, and it does not define me.

But when we see how this word is being used to discriminate against people and create walls between humans, and how it is used to put a large number of people of many different backgrounds, nationalities, religions, ideologies, levels of education, and generations in one box called "refugees," I don't believe it makes sense. It does not make sense for me to create a team of refugees to participate in the 2016 Olympics. In fact, it is shame! It is not something to celebrate! To be a refugee is not shameful, but to be in a world that has 65.3 million refugees is a big shame!

As for economic migrants, this classification is also part of a discriminatory mindset. Just to say they have fewer rights than war refugees, that they come to takeor 'steal'the European opportunities and money, is discriminatory. I see it as a normal right for everyone to look for a better opportunity in life. I say it again, to be born poor is not a shame, but to live in a world that gives the "normal" rights to some people and proscribes others from those same rights, is the shame.

We are not 'guest workers'. Germany used this term with the Turkish community, which came to Germany after the war, and this term still as an instrument of discrimination even against the third generation of Germans from a Turkish background. We are not guests. Guests don't have to give something back or to be integrated. A guest is someone who visits me for a short time, enjoys good hospitality, and leaves. So it depends on what Germany wants from the newcomers. If they should leave, it does not make sense to force them to be integrated. If Germany wants them to stay, then we can talk about how we can do it together.

What does it mean to you to address the newcomer community as a whole? Has this been done before?
Actually we address the German Arabic speaking community as well, but as much as we can we are also trying to communicate with other people who have just arrived. I believe it is our aim to find our voices, otherwise we will be invisible in German society or will remain as alien people who have their own boxes and don’t belong to this country, which I don't think is healthy. We would like to take part, to build bridges, and to share life, knowledge, culture and experiences.

Refugees and migrants have been treated as temporary and fragmented. Do you think that a newspaper addressing them implies they are a distinct and vocal entity within German society, as deserving of a voice as any other?
We are trying, it is not easy. Even to talk about the newcomers community is not something that exists yet. The Arab community does not exist, the Syrian community also. 

These people need to feel safe and settled now, to discovers their new home, new friends, their new language, and we should not forget that we, the people who came from countries under dictatorship, need to discover the meaning of that freedom. 

We came full of fear. We had no normal life in relation to the police, with others. We had a lot of taboos, it was not easy to talk politics, we had many bad experiences both in our countries, on the way and even when we got here. 

All of that needs time. The newspaper is one thing. We need many more things. We need to talk to each other, get to know each other, discover the identity of exile. We need to get to know the local communities without stereotype and with an open will to live together.

How do you see the future of Abwab? What plans do you have for it?

We now have the website, and we are planning to work more on the translation. We are planning to expand to Europe, not only Germany. 

I hope it will grow, and that we became a source for many stories. We areas I said beforetrying to open doors and communicate with everyone. As we grow, our experience in the new society matures, and our responsibilities are becoming bigger.

Can you tell us a story of someone you have impacted, changed their perspective, or helped in any manner?
I have received many e-mails from German people I never met, they said some good things.

I could share this quote from one e-mail I received:
I would love to make a little documentary film about you and other refugees to make the INTEGRATION process more visible and to get away from the general abstract idea of "DIE Flüchtlinge" and instead make the individual people, their story, their fate more visible and more "feel-able". This is my personal and emotional priority, because I get very sad whenever I hear Germans talking about "DIE Flüchtlinge" [refugees] as a general mass without recognizing that 1 Million refugees means 1 Million individual fates.

Hence, I would love to hear your about your story, your current work and your vision on how integration could work (must work?) - your article on integration fortified my [own projects]* to bring people together and let them create hopefully positive experiences and memories together ... I would also love to interview people at different stages of the integration process: "Erstaufnahmelager" [initial refugee camps], "Flüchtlingsunterkünften" [refugee accommodation], "Eigene Wohnung" [one's own home] ... and give an idea about how they came to Germany, who and what they left, how they are living now...."

I am not exaggerating if I say that there are dozens of messages that I feel very proud and hope because of them, as well as I can say that all the Germans who I met were positive and friendly, maybe I'm lucky as my German friends told me, but I think the goodness percentage is always greater than the percentage of wickedness everywhere.

Image courtesy of Abwab
*Information removed to protect author's identity

Tags MENA Because NGO CSR social enterprise volunteering freedom of expression Germany Arabic Ramy Alasheq Abwab guest workers migration economic migrants refugees immigration publishing newcomers