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Medill Project Documents Crackdown in Syria

Syrian refugees in Jordan give poignant accounts of violence back home

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February 8, 2012 | by Storer H. Rowley

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University journalism professors and students, chronicling one of the world’s biggest breaking stories, interviewed Syrian refugees who fled the crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad against the pro-democracy movement in Syria.

Documentarian Brent E. Huffman, an assistant professor of journalism at Medill, and Medill junior Lorraine Ma interviewed the refugees recently in Jordan during their work on a project called RefugeeLives to document the plight of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees there. Huffman was accompanied and assisted on the Syrian refugee video by journalist and co-reporter Nadim Audi, an adjunct lecturer at Medill.

Huffman’s five-minute video is the first in a series of short documentaries titled RefugeeLives, emerging from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

They were produced during a trip to Amman, Jordan, over winter break. Huffman’s video can be seen at Syrian Refugees in Jordan on Time Video.

Ma’s personal account of her exchange with a Syrian family was published by The Huffington Post: “On The Syrian Border, Refugees Show Boldness and Passion.”

Jordan is home and way station to a few million Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. In December 2011, at a time when the Arab Spring was reshaping the contours of the Middle East and when U.S. troops were withdrawing from Iraq, Northwestern University students from the U.S. and Qatar converged on Amman to report on their lives and expectations.

For more on their work, go to RefugeeLives, or visit their Facebook page.

During this project, Huffman, Audi, Ma and two other students traveled to Ar Ramtha, Jordan, on the border with Syria, where refugees have fled the violence in Syria. While being housed for their protection by UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency), the refugees were eager to tell the Northwestern crew about their harrowing stories in Syria.

The refugees Huffman interviewed included a teacher, a farmer and a construction worker from Daraa, Syria, who had participated in the pro-democracy movement there and had eyewitness accounts of the revolution against the Assad regime.

They also shared their own mobile phone videos of the conflict, which are rare because Syria has tried hard to keep most foreign journalists out of the country. The videos give an inside look at the uprising in which civilian protesters and rebels have faced off against live fire, tanks and the Syrian Army.

Huffman is an award-winning director, writer and cinematographer of documentaries and television programs. His work ranges from documentaries aired on The Discovery Channel, The National Geographic Channel, NBC, PBS and Al Jazeera to Sundance Film Festival premieres to films made for the China Exploration and Research Society. Huffman has been making social issue documentaries and environmental films for more than a decade in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Audi has been reporting for the New York Times since 2007. While covering Egypt and the Middle East, he has contributed to “Generation Faithful,” a series that explored the intersection of youth culture and religiosity in the Middle East. He covered the war from Gaza in 2009, before joining the Times Paris Bureau for two years. He has also extensively covered the crushed uprisings of Bahrain and Syria as well as the tumultuous politics of post-revolutionary Egypt.

Ma is working on a short documentary on graffiti artists in Amman, as part of the RefugeeLives reporting project.

Huffman and Audi were assisted on logistics by Medill Journalism Professor Jack Doppelt, who led the RefugeeLives team, and by a new colleague, Craig Duff, former director of multimedia and chief video journalist at TIME, who joined the Medill faculty this month as a clinical professor. The video is also featured in a Huffington Post news story.

In Jordan, Huffman oversaw five student-produced documentaries about refugee life to be published online, on TV and screened at the Talking Pictures Film Festival in March.  He sent students out to create short character-based documentaries that break the negative stereotypes Western audiences think about when they think "refugee.” Subjects range from Jordanian graffiti culture to a refugee gladiator performance to Palestinian experimental filmmakers.

Huffman, now teaching the post-production part of the project back in Evanston, said he is “thrilled by the work these passionate students have done.”

Andrew Mills, an assistant professor at Medill at Northwestern University in Qatar, is teaching a similar post-production class in Doha, where students are finishing a short documentary on two Syrian sisters seeking medical treatment in Amman.

Mills noted that in Doha he and his students have been collaborating on this project with Yasir Khan, who is Senior Programmes Producer at Al Jazeera English.

In addition to Medill, sponsors of the refugee project and the journalism work included the AT&T Foundation and AT&T, RIM-Blackberry, the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies and Northwestern University.

Huffman’s and Audi’s video report and Ma’s personal account from Jordan were posted online at a time when the United States just closed its embassy in Damascus because of concerns over the deteriorating security situation. Moreover, the Arab League withdrew its observer mission from Syria amid intensifying violence in recent days.

The situation is deteriorating and the United Nations has estimated that at least 5,400 Syrian civilians have been killed in the uprising that began last March and the subsequent crackdown by the Assad regime.

In the video, the Syrian refugees talk about the harsh conditions they faced back in Syria and expressed concern for their friends and families remaining behind. But they predicted the eventual downfall of the Assad regime.

“I think the fall of the regime is a certainty at this point,” said one of the refugees, identified only as Nidal. “The regime is like a drowning man in his last moments. It’s moving frantically just before it drowns.”
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