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Amal, Berlin! Helps Refugees Find Their Way in Germany

BERLIN—The flow of newcomers to Germany from the Middle East and North Africa has slowed to a trickle since the height of the nation’s so-called refugee crisis in 2015, but one wouldn’t know that by reading the German media.

Debates over asylum policy, tougher borders, deportations and the fate of traditional German culture continue to dominate the headlines, instead of reporting about societal barriers facing the nation’s approximately one million newcomers, said Khalid Al Aboud, 33, a journalist from Daraa, Syria, who’s lived in Berlin since 2014.

Even those articles that attempt to tackle the day-to-day issues that refugees face are either inaccessible to the newcomers because they’re written in German, or flat out condescending, he said.

“Before 2016, you couldn’t find an Arabic page in the newspaper, and even if you did, it would be about how to use the bathroom, or the toilet, or public pools, and this really hurt people,” he said. “I’m not coming straight out of the desert—I’m from Syria.”

It was that lack of journalism geared toward Germany’s swelling non-native population that led to the creation of Amal, Berlin!, an Arabic, Farsi and German-language digital newspaper that covers local news in Berlin and Germany.

Founded in 2016—and already reaching tens of thousands of readers—the paper has 10 refugee journalists whose articles serve as a powerful integration and educational tool for newcomers, while also helping to dismantle false perceptions about refugees within German society, said the paper’s co-founder, Cornelia Gerlach.

“It helps make people feel comfortable in finding their way in the city,” said Gerlach, who worked as a freelance journalist for German media before starting Amal, Berlin! with her sister, Julia, who’s also a journalist.

“We are no longer a country of only German-speaking people,” she said. “Our society is becoming increasingly diverse, and that includes those people living here for whom Persian or Arabic is their first language.”

Gerlach and her sister began the project with a simple idea: a publication that allows professional and citizen journalists in exile to practice their craft.

But after securing funding from Germany’s Protestant church and staffing the newsroom with 10 journalists newly resettled in Berlin, the sisters quickly learned that their project also provided a much-needed educational service for the city’s newcomers.

“There’s no reliable medium in this city that reports about what’s going on here” in newcomers’ native languages, said Gerlach. News outlets that do have Farsi or Arabic channels, like the BBC and the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, often cater to global audiences, she said.

“Our target group lives here and is busy every day just trying to get by,” she said.

That’s why the newspaper’s daily content not only covers cultural events in the city, but also offers reported features, for example, about the pitfalls refugees face in searching for housing.

The newspaper’s journalists even write explainers about how Germany’s rightwing, anti-immigrant political party Alternative for Germany stacks up against the Syrian Ba’ath Party of President Bashar al-Assad, so readers can better grasp the shifting political scene in Germany.

Countering Stereotypes

There are no better journalists to tell such stories than those who have lived the issues firsthand, said Abdolrahman Omaren, 39, a journalist from Damascus who has worked at Amal, Berlin! since its inception.

His journey from television producer for Orient TV in Syria and Dubai to journalist in exile isn’t one he likes to rehash, but it’s provided him with the mental framework needed to tell the stories of others with similar experiences.

“What we need from the media here is not to talk about us, but to talk with us,” he said. “I can reach our refugee readers because I have the same mind-set. I can understand them more than German journalists because we’re sons of the same culture.”

Journalism with such insight into the issues refugees truly face in Germany can serve as a counterweight to stereotypical portrayals of newcomers that persist throughout German media, said Joachim Trebbe, a professor of communications studies at Berlin’s Free University, who studies the German media’s representation of immigrants.

“Whenever there’s violence, theft or break-ins, more often than not, there’s speculation about whether the perpetrator was an immigrant or not,” he said. “That’s a syndrome of media reporting here that’s always present.”

Critics often dismiss ethnic, foreign-language media outlets operating outside of a hegemonic culture as running at loggerheads with integration efforts.

But Trebbe says research shows that such endeavors are actually “extremely helpful” to newcomers’ cultural education, especially shortly after their arrival.

“One sees scientifically that at the beginning, when the language barrier is still high, that these outlets are extremely helpful in explaining life, or describing another world,” he said. “It’s a way of bridging both cultures.”

While there is a risk that long-term readers could isolate themselves within their own media bubble, “our findings actually suggest an optimistic view” of such outlets because the media isn’t the sole factor to integration, Trebbe added.

Readers of Amal, Berlin! report that the outlet has indeed helped them to better understand the nagging mysteries of German society, said Gerlach.

One reader, for example, wrote in after being rejected from over 70 apartments in Berlin. After some digging, the newspaper’s reporters found out that it was likely due to the fact that the man’s first name was “jihad.”

Such stories that are particularly telling of how Germans perceive refugees are pitched to larger German outlets so they can have a bigger impact, said Gerlach.

“Germany is changing,” she said. “It would be a wonder if one million people came to this country and it remained just as it had always been. That would be nonsense.”

The newspaper’s content not only helps alter Germans’ warped perceptions about refugees, it also helps communities of newcomers to do the same with their views about Germans, said Al Aboud, who has been with Amal, Berlin! since its founding, after working stints at the public broadcaster Radio Brandenburg Berlin and the newspaper Tagesspiegel.

“The message is for the German community as well as for the newcomers,” he said. “If the Arab community only follows German media, they wouldn’t understand Germans, and would start to form an image about this community that they don’t like us, that they don’t accept us, that they’re racist.”

“Until now, there have been some doors that are closed,” he added. “You just have to find out what’s happening behind this door.”


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