They came by plane and by train and by foot, a dozen and a half of them, carrying bundles and suitcases and keepsakes, looking tired but relieved to have arrived in Berlin. No, these are not refugees, they are UM Journalism students, 18 of them, here on a study-abroad trip for the next three weeks. The disorientation many of them feel will be helpful as they begin to meet and study the challenges facing thousands upon thousands of refugees who made their way to Germany. The refugees’ goal is to escape war and find peace. The students’ task, a bit simpler, is to produce a series of articles about how the refugees adjust to their new situation.
The students are staying in a neighborhood called Kreuzberg, which has long been a crossroads for immigrants to this country. For decades, it was home to the Turks who came here during a big labor shortage in the 1960’s and 70’s, and helped Germany recover from war and become Europe’s strongest economy. Once Kreuzberg was a ghetto, but it has turned into a multicultural experiment, a mixing bowl where no one stands out as an outsider. As students are learning, many new refugees are finding their way back to this neighborhood. Kreuzberg has resisted the commercialization that has seized much of Berlin since the reunification of Germany in 1990.
Since the refugee crisis spiked last year, things have calmed down quite a bit, and the number of new arrivals has dropped dramatically. But as one pro-refugee activist told students today, refugees face months or years of adjustment as they come to grips with their new lives in Germany, and learn whether or not they can stay and prosper. Our students will begin to chronicle that adjustment, with articles appearing in this space and elsewhere in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.
Shane McMillan is a native of western Montana and graduated from the School of Journalism in 2010, at which point he moved to Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship. He interned as a photographer with the Associated Press, and worked as an English translator for German film projects. It was this second gig that helped push him into a career as a freelancer, landing him a spot on the production crew of “Can’t Be Silent,” a documentary film about a group of refugee musicians in Germany.
Since first moving to Berlin McMillan has been working as a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker, with work published in the New York Times, the Guardian and PRI’s The World, among other places.
I asked McMillan if he had advice for any journalism students who might hope to make it as freelancers abroad. “Just, like, make it,” he said laughing. “Just work hard and do good work and keep in touch with people who you’ve done good work for.” McMillan focuses his work on human rights because it’s what he calls the thing he’s most likely to get in a bar fight about. “Try to make things that people want to see or care about,” he counsels.
McMillan says he highly values the many facets of his education at the School of Journalism, he says, believing it was one of the reasons he landed a job in documentary film making. “I could write, I could do TV, I could do radio and I could take photos,” he said.
A WITNESS IN PARIS
Friday, November 13th, McMillan was editing work in an apartment he says practically touched the Bataclan concert hall in Paris as the terrorist attacks began. He was in town for a photography festival, part of his work as studio manager for celebrated fine art photographer Nan Goldin.
As it became clear that they were not hearing fireworks but instead sustained gunfire, Goldin and McMillan tried to figure out what was going on and debated leaving the building. “I really didn’t want to go outside that much,” McMillan said, but eventually he followed Goldin down the stairs.
They walked into a triage center. Police officers had been breaking into courtyards along their block to set up casualty centers for the injured, many of whom were severely hurt. McMillan said he found out the next day that three people died in their courtyard alone.
The two photographers began shooting photos once they got outside, but police forced them to stop. McMillan was sent out into the street, while Goldin was made to return inside.
On the street, McMillan said, his “natural instinct to shoot” as a journalist quickly faded. “People were very opposed to me taking photographs or even having my camera there,” he said.
He decided they were right. McMillan said he didn’t feel like his photography could accurately portray the scene, and didn’t end up taking very many pictures on Friday. “I didn’t feel like photographing that night because I really just wanted to talk to people,” he said.
Instead, he received a text from Anne Bailey at Public Radio International’s The World program. A former adjunct professor and fellow graduate of the School of Journalism, Bailey asked McMillan if he was in Paris. He then started reporting for PRI via phone and text message, describing what he was seeing, which he called a surreal experience.
Far from providing a scoop, this proximity tested McMillan’s training as a journalist. He didn’t want to ask the trademark questions a breaking news journalist would, like asking people to describe their experiences and how they were feeling inside and outside the concert hall. “In that moment it was just too much of a violation of their need to process what just happened,” he said.
Instead he helped people. He asked simple questions and talked with those he thought were ready to do so. If someone was ready to talk, he said, you could see it in their face.
“That may or may not be what they would tell you to do in journalism school but I strongly believe that you have to come to situations like this as a person first,” McMillan says.
While answering my questions via video, and remembering Friday night, McMillan was visibly upset. However he said he was strangely calm at the time. Bailey, from PRI, helped a lot by talking him through the reporting via text.
McMillan described a man he spoke with who was looking for his girlfriend. The couple had been separated during the concert, and the man was unsure if she was alive or not. There was blood on the man, and by now, McMillan would like to know if she was all right. At the time, he said, it was very hard to know whether he should share that kind of story or not.
“It was a lot of really intense decisions made in a very quick turnaround,” McMillan says. He did not give the man’s story to media at the time.
“It’s tough to be there when people’s lives are changing in such a fundamental way, and to feel both a responsibility to them and to telling the story,” McMillan said. There’s a tension that he said he feels even more conscious of now after some time to reflect. “I was in this very strange position of being both a journalist and a bystander at the same time.”
At first he was being called by a lot of big media outlets, with whom he has now stopped talking, having tired of giving eyewitness accounts. He answered my questions from a hotel room in Geneva, Switzerland.
In return for what he called “a more personal slice” of his mind, I was asked to treat his story with respect and also to deliver the following message:
“I ask you to credit the University for what I’ve learned. Because I did learn a lot at school and I’ve learned a lot in life following that and I learned a lot this weekend.”
Much of what he does, McMillan said, “is based upon an education from a collection of people who are really amazing journalists and really amazing teachers, who forged me as a professional.”
McMillan will be working with the School of Journalism as their local facilitator and trainer in Berlin for a study abroad trip this summer. Students will be reporting stories from the influx of refugees to Germany and Europe. The documentary McMillan worked on will be showing at 6:30 pm on November 18th in The Payne Family Native American Center.
In 1959 over a hundred thousand Tibetans left behind a homeland occupied by the Chinese military. After countless twists and turns some of them ended up in Montana. Now, years later, a few are sharing their stories with graduate student Matt Roberts.
The interviews Roberts is conducting are part of a project by the School of Journalism’s Advanced Photojournalism and Multimedia Storytelling. Roberts is producing a video piece along with fellow graduate student Jayme Dittmar, and they’ve interviewed families in both Missoula and Butte.
The subjects Roberts and Dittmar are focusing on for their story were either young or not born yet when they left Tibet, but today, they still keep their culture alive. “You go in their houses and you would know it’s a Tibetan house,” Roberts said. He’s visited a family in Missoula and one in Butte.
The Tibetans are just one part of a multifaceted project that has sent journalism students, in pairs or on their own, out to find and interview refugees and immigrants from Cuba, Belarus, Iraq and Palestine, as well as countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Jeremy Lurgio, an associate professor at the School of Journalism, may teach the class, but it was his students who designed and continue to shape the project’s theme. Last year’s class did a multimedia project on Montana centenarians – those residents of the state who were still alive at age 100. Portraits from that project ran in the Montana Quarterly; an award-winning magazine out of Livingston.
“I like making my class all real-world if I can,” Lurgio said, noting that he’d enjoyed watching his students be challenged tracking down centenarians, and had hoped to push this fall’s class equally.
For 2015 his students decided to try and find a Montana based project that could reflect the global story of refugee crises in Europe and beyond.
As Lurgio notes however, Montana is not New York City, and is in fact one of the states with the least number of refugees in the country. As opposed to running out of time while trying to find recent refugees, the class decided instead to apply a wider lens. They’re examining the idea of Montana as a refuge, and exploring global diversity in the state. With the semester well into its second half students are now compiling the material they need for a compelling project. “There’s a rich diversity of stories you may find,” Lurgio said, even if they’re not as close to the surface in Montana as in areas more renowned for their cosmopolitanism.
For Roberts, tracking down and contacting those who treat Montana as a refuge was a challenge. Even once they did so, Roberts said they had to proceed slowly with their subjects, being aware that for some refugees the story of leaving their own country and arriving in Montana, as well as the obstacles they faced in assimilating here, is a sensitive one. Lurgio named this challenge as one reflective of the difficulties of reporting his students will face throughout their careers.
Roberts said that for their first interview they chose to show up without cameras or a microphone, and focus instead on getting to know their subjects and raising their comfort level.
“Once you get the ball rolling they have really interesting stories to share,” he said.
Bekah Welch, age 24, is another student in the class. As an undergraduate she double majors in journalism and Russian, and for her portion of the project decided to seek out a member of Missoula’s Belorussian population.
Belarus is an Eastern European country that shares aspects of language and culture with Russia, and was once a part of the Soviet Union. During the 1990s large numbers of Belorussians emigrated to the United States, and Missoula developed what Welch called a surprising subculture.
For her story, Welch has been spending time with the 20-year-old daughter of parents who fled Belarus to escape religious persecution. Finding her subject was also a challenge, Welch said, and she ended up spending a lot of time in the University’s Russian department, spreading her contact information around and looking for someone who could plug her in to the Belarus culture. Since then her reporting has brought her to a traditional Russian wedding, where she put her double major to work reporting and speaking Russian.
“Getting to exercise both of my interests and learning more about their culture was interesting,” Welch said. She takes inspiration from her subject’s parents’ long and often trying road to Missoula.
For both Welch and Roberts finding and getting to know their subjects, their respective cultures and stories was just the beginning. They still have more interviews to conduct and material to gather, and the long road of multimedia editing and production looming ahead of them.
For all members of the class, Lurgio noted, the end of the semester will be a busy time. But, he said, that’s also kind of the point: “Long form projects are really hard to do well, and it takes a lot of reporting.”