The toll of journalists in exile

Two years after fleeing their homes in Syria and resettling in Spain, four exiled journalists recently launched the country’s first refugee-run online magazine, Baynana, dedicated to serving Spain’s growing Arabic-speaking community. Initial features focus on the exploits of Moroccan-born soccer stars; migrants training to be chefs; and efforts to combat Islamophobia in Spain. 

The launch of Baynana, which means “between us”  in Arabic, is a triumph for Muhammad Shubat, Ayham al Ghareeb, Okba Mohamed, and Mousa al Jamaat. It’s also a moment of celebration for the organization I lead, the Committee to Protect Journalists, which helped all four and dozens of other threatened Syrian journalists escape their country and resettle in Europe.“We don’t want to stop our lives, we want to continue,” explained Shubat. “We’re journalists.” 

But the joy is tempered by a recognition of what has been lost: the lives destroyed; the journalism careers cut short; the dearth of the information coming from Syria. It’s also a reminder, as we mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, that while there are triumphs, they come with setbacks, including the record number of journalists imprisoned around the world; the hundreds forced into exile each year; the murder with  impunity of journalists including Jamal Khashoggi.

In the case of Baynana, the story began in 2011, at the start of the Syrian Revolution. Shubat was a psychology student at a university in Damascus. When pro-democracy protests broke out in his hometown of Daraa, in southern Syria, Shubat took to the streets of Damascus to show his support. He was soon arrested. While he was only in prison for a short time and wouldn’t go into the specifics of his mistreatment, Shubat notes that, “a week in a Syrian jail is like three years in a normal jail.” Some of the university friends who were arrested with him never came out.

After he was expelled from college because of his political activity, Shubat returned to Daraa. He worked providing psychological counseling to women and children impacted by the violence but was soon drawn to journalism. A burgeoning press corp had emerged in Daraa and many other cities throughout Syria in which people from all walks of life suddenly found themselves documenting the reality of war. They saw it as their duty to chronicle civilian suffering, and the brutality of the Assad regime. 

The work was hard emotionally, and dangerous physically. In 2016, Shubat suffered a serious shrapnel injury to his leg while covering a battle outside Daraa. It took him a year to recover. He still lives with some pain. 

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By 2018, Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, were besieging Daraa, which would soon fall to the regime. That’s when Shubat, along with dozens of other journalists in Daraa, reached out to CPJ’s Beirut-based Middle East representative, Ignacio Delgado Culebras, to ask for emergency assistance. They all feared they would be hunted down and murdered if Syrian forces entered the city. “Assad hates cameras more than guns,” Shubat said. 

Working with a Syrian press freedom group, Delgado was able to verify the names and identities of 75 journalists in Daraa whose lives were under threat and required immediate evacuation to a safe country (four other journalists decided to stay in Dara and take their chances, bringing the total to 79). After an unsuccessful attempt to cross the southern border to Jordan and Israel, Shubat, along with other at-risk journalists, decided to board a “green bus” which afforded safe passage from Daraa to the last rebel stronghold of Idlib. 

Over the next few months, along with the CPJ team in New York and international partners including Reporters Without Borders, Delgado secured safe havens for the Syrian journalists. This involved lobbying with senior officials at the UN and high-level Turkish diplomats, who needed to allow safe passage through their country. Initial efforts to send some journalists to Qatar, Mexico, and Ecuador all collapsed, but eventually about 40 journalists received visas to travel to Europe, including 11 who were granted permission to move to Spain, along with their families. After Shubat and the others managed to cross the border into Turkey, Delgado raced to Ankara to secure their visas, and then to Istanbul to put them on a plane to Spain, literally dragging a Turkish immigration official by the sleeve through the airport to get the final approval. 

The 11 journalists and six family members arrived in Spain in May 2019. Though they were gratified by the kindness and support they received in Spain, they found life exceedingly hard. Six of the 11 journalists eventually left Spain to find work elsewhere in Europe. Shubat and his three colleagues who stayed and founded Baynana all struggle to make ends meet. The magazine, supported by donations from CPJ and a Spanish foundation called porCausa, barely covers its costs. 

Shubat spent the COVID lockdown alone in his small apartment in Madrid. Because he does not have permanent residency, he was not been able to leave the country to visit his elderly father, who recently passed away in Syria, or his sister in Egypt, or brother in Turkey.  He is desperately worried about his mother. He is alone for Ramadan.  

Of the more than 60 journalists that CPJ and RSF helped evacuate from Daraa, only about half a dozen remain in journalism: the four founders of Baynana, a journalist who freelances for the website, and another based in Germany who is a correspondent for Turkey-based broadcaster Syria TV. 

For Shubat, his own struggles give him insight into the refugee experience, and immense empathy for the millions of the migrants who have come to Spain and are seeking to rebuild their lives. He wants to tell positive stories, stories of struggle and triumph. But he can never forget the terrible price that he has paid, or turn away from the suffering of his country, as journalists have left and the world forgets. He finds no meaning in any of this other than to recognize and acknowledge his own fate and plan for a brighter future some day. “That’s war,” Shubat says. “Although I’m no longer in Syria, that’s where my heart remains.”

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Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the author of We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom.