People huddled together in makeshift shelters in Germany. Long lines of people waiting for food at a camp in Italy. Bright rubber boats filled to the brim with masses of people. The body of a Syrian refugee boy washed up on the shore of Greece. As familiar – albeit heartbreaking – as these images have become to us, a different set of images have become familiar to the thousands of refugees currently living half-lives across Europe. Cameramen lurking in the background, waiting for the perfect shot. Microphones shoved in people’s faces as they are walking across the continent. Western journalists, well-fed and over-paid, asking questions about hunger and suffering.
In Idomeni, a refugee camp located at the Greek border to FYR Macedonia, a group of young refugees who were fed up with this second set of images decided to do something about it. In a stroke of satirical genius, Syrian refugees Mustafa Alhamoud, Basel Yatakan and Mahmoud Abdalrahim began their own news station: Refugees.tv. While reporters combed the camps looking for palatable stories for Western audiences, Yatakan, Alhamoud, and Abdalrahim followed their lead, carrying a fake camera (a block of wood with a water bottle for a lens) and microphone (a plastic cup on a stick) and mimicking the grave tone of the journalists. Their interviews, recorded on cell phone cameras, went viral on Facebook and soon some generous fans donated real camera equipment to their cause.
Their goal was simple: to show the reality of trying to build a life in a temporary refugee camp. “We know these interviews are fake, but we ask serious questions, and when we do we get serious answers,” Abdalrahim, the man in front of the Refugees.tv camera, told Voice of America in an interview earlier this year. And, in surprisingly in-depth and insightful interviews, the team does just that. They interviewed a family whose son was dying because he is in need of a serious heart operation. Another family introduces their baby girl, born just a few days prior in the camp. In a different video, a young Syrian girl sings Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” for the cameramen.
The videos are at once more and less dire than what we are used to seeing on the news. There is an air of authenticity to Refugees.tv that is lacking in much of the coverage of the refugee crisis, and a feeling that the message of these videos is purely human. “We want to give voice to refugees, let them describe the reality. Media does not show the reality, they just show the bad images, the fights,” Alhamoud told ECRE & AIRE Center. “They don’t show how hard life is in the camp for children and families, how life changes when the weather changes.”
Still, there is undoubtedly a tone of frustration to many of the “reports.” In one memorable episode, the men enlist the help of a few other refugees to reenact a scene from a fake UN Office, the “Office of No Information and No Help For Refugees.” At one point, one of the men on screen explains the new refugee solution of the UN. When you seek asylum, he says, “we will choose a country for you! Syria or Iraq. Or Palestine, if you want!” This is the perfect solution, he reasons. “There, you will die one time, very fast. Here you die every day, very slowly.” It’s impossible to watch without flinching, just the way satire should be.
When Greek authorities cleared the unofficial Idomeni refugee camp in May, Refugees.tv moved to Oreokastro camp. The team told This American Life reporter Sean Cole that they were warned against continuing with Refugees.tv. Yet they did continue, because what can the Greek authorities really do to them in terms of punishment? Alhamoud joked to Cole, “Maybe they arrest us, put us in a jail that’s better than this one.” When punishment isn’t much worse than reality, the arguments against speaking out are nullified.
Nine months after the Refugees.tv experiment began, Alhamoud, Yatakan and Abdalrahim are still posting videos, and it is just was much of a hodgepodge as it was in the beginning. As the media interest in the refugee crisis has faded, the Refugees.tv reports offer some of the only glimpses into the everyday life at the camps. Episodes of “Refugees got Talent” are peppered with images of riots, heartbreaking stories of injured children, and sometimes sessions of good old-fashioned satirical commentary.
Despite having more polished videos, complete with a Refugees.tv watermark in the top left screen, the crew still carries around the block of wood and fake microphone – a fitting tribute to the absurdity of their situation.
Since they began their experiment, the Refugees.tv team has expanded. They have now done reports at the Softex, Oreokastro, and Idomeni camps in Greece. According to their Facebook page, old members of the team have left, but there is no word on whether any of them have been granted asylum in Europe.
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