French nonprofit houses refugee journalists, defends press freedom

The exterior of Maison des Journalistes. Courtesy photo.

The Maison des Journalistes, located on a quiet street in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, is exactly what its name suggests: a home for journalists from around the world, all of whom came to France after fleeing persecution in their countries of origin. The structure, a converted brush factory, offers temporary refuge to 14 journalists at a time, who typically stay for about six months. Current residents come from countries including Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Morocco, and Kazakhstan. They are all trying to forge a new life in France, and facing the daunting process of applying for asylum.

Founded in 2002 by journalist Danièle Ohayon and filmmaker Philippe Spinau, the nonprofit organization has housed almost 400 journalists from some 60 countries since its inception. To be accepted as a resident, candidates must prove that the reason they left their countries was due to persecution based on their work as journalists. The Maison des Journalistes also partners with several journalism schools in France that enable qualified refugee journalists to work toward a French diploma in their field. Residents have a private bedroom with access to a shared library and kitchen, as well as meal vouchers and passes for public transportation. They are also provided free access to legal help and French classes.

“The mission is to welcome, support, and help exiled journalists, as well as to educate youth and the public in general about freedom of the press and freedom of expression; more largely, it is to defend citizens’ rights,” says Director Darline Cothière during a recent interview in her office.

The organization also takes a firm political stance in support of freedom of the press. As Christian Auboyneau, president of the Maison des Journalistes, described in a speech on World Press Freedom Day last year, “The truth for us journalists is talking about corrupt public officials, health scandals, the oppression of citizens, the deprivation of liberty, a planet in danger….But today in populist political programs and speeches, the truth is absent….We, journalists, are bound to this truth. This is our reason for being. We are the keepers [of this truth].” The Maison des Journalistes receives funding from a variety of sources, including the City of Paris, the European Union Fund for Refugees, and various French media organizations. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has described the mission of the Maison des Journalistes as a reflection of the city’s values. “This city was built as a city of refuge—it’s part of the cultural fabric of Paris,” she said at the organization’s annual gala last year.

During their time at the Maison, residents are invited to continue their work as journalists by writing for the organization’s online magazine, L’Oeil de la Maison des Journalistes—the Eye of the House of Journalists. “In France it’s very difficult for a foreigner to integrate into French media. There’s the question of language, but even for francophones it’s hard. This gives residents a way to continue their profession and it also gives visibility,” says Cothière. Residents cover everything from their home countries to general French news, culture, and society. “Our residents have a double competence—a journalistic competence because they know very well their country and region,” says Cothière, “but also a personal competence based on their journey into exile, their human experience.”

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While some residents continue to work in journalism after leaving the Maison des Journalistes, others take new careers—either out of choice, after all they’ve been through in the name of the profession, or out of necessity. “Sometimes people come with a certain idea of France that doesn’t correspond with reality,” Cothière says. “I encourage people to be pragmatic: What’s going to help you in immediate daily life?”

The organization also sends refugee journalists from the Maison des Journalistes to high schools across France to share their professional and personal stories. “The testimonies give insight into the sociopolitical situation of that person’s country, as well as the personal journey they experienced on the road to exile,” says Cothière, adding that the program aims to be a source of both education and healing. “It’s an important aspect of the psychological and social reconstruction of the person.”

The program, called Renvoyé Spécial, takes specific interest in schools outside of France’s major metropolitan areas, where students and communities may have less exposure to different cultures. “Often what we see on television doesn’t represent all the aspects of a country. People have a certain perception of a country or of a person based only on representations they’ve seen,” says Cothière. “This also gives us the opportunity to show the human side of journalism. The people living here have taken a lot of risks to be journalists—they’ve been imprisoned, for example, or tortured.”

Raafat Alghanem, a native of Aleppo and former resident of the Maison des Journalistes, now lives in his own studio in Paris but remains involved in the Renvoyé Spécial program. “It’s an interesting dialogue,” he says, describing the types of questions commonly posed by students, which range from easy (Do you miss your family? How do you like France?) to more difficult (Why does Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons?). The students also sometimes ask questions about torture. “I don’t go into the details because they’re young,” he says. “I try to be careful.”

Alghanem spent more than two years in prison—first in Saudi Arabia, then in Syria—before coming to France in 2013. His problems began in 2009 when he was living as a student in Saudi Arabia; after circulating a petition calling for the liberation of political prisoners, Alghanem was arrested and sent to prison. He was eventually transferred to a prison in Syria, where he spent two additional months. After his release, Alghanem resumed his studies as well as his activism, filming and taking part in protests against the government. Arrested again, this time he was sent to branch 215 of the Military Intelligence Service, a facility that would later become known around the world following the release of photographs depicting torture and abuse in the country’s detention facilities. After two months, during which Alghanem says he suffered beatings and torture, he was released again and fled to Jordan, where he spent a year before coming to France with the help of Reporters Without Borders.

 

I was editing stories about refugees and now I’m one of them,” he says. “Now I, too, am waiting in line at the prefecture, waiting for my papers.

 

It was also thanks to Reporters Without Borders that Alghanem learned of the Maison des Journalistes, where he lived for his first seven months in France. He recalls his arrival at the center vividly: “I went to the cemetery across the street and I watered the roses that were there,” he says. “It’s the first thing I did.”

During his time living at the Maison, Alghanem had his basic needs covered, studied French, and received legal help for his asylum application. He also found a community of friends. There were four other Syrian journalists at the center when he arrived, as well as a broader community of Arabic speakers. “There was a good ambience here, it was beautiful,” he says. After eight months, Alghanem’s asylum application was approved.

When we meet in the library at the Maison des Journalistes, Alghanem is back at the center as an intern rather than a resident—the internship is a required component of his studies at Nanterre University, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Information and Communication. Outside of his studies, Alghanem is  producing stories for Rozana Radio, an independent Syrian broadcast based in Paris, and for Wahed magazine, a bilingual French and Arabic monthly magazine.

Ahmet, a Turkish journalist and onetime resident of the center, asks that I not use his real name or any identifying details out of fear for his safety. After years of tense relations with the government due to his work as a journalist and his activity on social media, Ahmet decided to leave his country in July 2016, the day Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a state of emergency following the country’s failed coup attempt. Arriving in France, Ahmet applied for residency at the Maison des Journalistes. The stress of his situation was exacerbated by the lengthy asylum process he faced in France. “I’m frustrated by the French bureaucracy but I’m happy to be here,” he says, adding that after 16 months of waiting, his application for asylum was finally approved in February.

The irony of his position is not lost on Ahmet. “I was editing stories about refugees and now I’m one of them,” he says. “Now I, too, am waiting in line at the prefecture, waiting for my papers.” He describes the transition from high-profile journalist, flying around the world and staying in expensive hotels, to living in dormitory-style housing and paying for food with subsidized coupons. Despite the jarring change of lifestyle, Ahmet says he has no regrets. “If I was born all over again, I would do the same thing. I am proud. I hope my country will get beyond this Islamist fascism,” he says. “I am still trying to tell the world about what is going on in Turkey and to start a new life here.”

Ahmet describes the Maison des Journalistes not only as a source of housing but as a way to share experiences and stories with journalists from around the world. “Solidarity is important. It’s lonely here and the days are long, in your room without your family, outside of your country. It’s important to share something, which is what the Maison des Journalistes lets us do,” he says.

For now, Ahmet continues to worry about his safety and the future of his country. It’s a situation he never would have imagined, but is now a daily reality. “C’est la vie,” he says. “Life is full of surprises.”

Since its founding more than 15 years ago, the scope of the organization’s work has only expanded. “When the Maison was founded it was a social project, a refuge for journalists. Over time it has come to include projects that work to sensibilize the public about freedom of the press and other fundamental values,” says Cothière. “It’s useful work, especially in the current context, when foreigners are stigmatized and there are more and more problems with freedom of the press, even in France and the United States.”

In a national and global context of increasingly right-wing, xenophobic agendas, the Maison des Journalistes should serve as a beacon, says Cothière. “There is a very diverse community at the Maison—different cultures, religions, and political views—but what everyone has in common is the profession of journalism. Cohesion comes from what they have all experienced,” she says, describing the ideal balance as one that respects both individual identities and common values. “If the world could work like that, there would be a lot fewer problems.”

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Marie Doezema is a Paris correspondent for various international publications. She also serves as the head of the languages department at the Sorbonne's journalism and communications school.