Photo by Ryan Lowe, 90.5 WESA
Stories about refugees can slide into neat, pat narrative arcs: a family leaves a war-torn country, struggles, and ultimately triumphs in the United States.
But reporters like Erika Beras at public radio station 90.5 WESA in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Beth Macy, the families beat reporter at the Roanoke Times in Virginia, infuse refugee coverage with real body and depth. They write about the challenges refugees face with honesty and grit.
Through a Reporting on Health fellowship from USC Annenberg, Beras reported on the health care experiences of Bhutanese-Nepali refugees. Beras, who primarily covers mental and behavior health issues, looked at the high suicide rates among Bhutanese-Nepali refugees – around 20 percent compared to 12 percent for the general public – their lack of access to health care and mental health care, and the dietary problems they face coming to a new part of the world.
“[These issues] are something I’ve been hearing about from different providers and social workers,” Beras explained as the source of her story ideas. “New populations have been coming into Pittsburgh, and the biggest group is the Bhutanese-Nepali refugees.”
There are four resettlement agencies based in Pittsburgh, said Beras, who also noted that many of the refugees are secondary migrants.
“People who have a friend or relative here and have heard from them that Pittsburgh is cheaper to live in than wherever they were resettled,” said Beras.
More than 60,000 Bhutanese refugees have been resettled in the United States since 2008. A few thousand of those refugees are in Pittsburgh, as a result of Bhutan’s “ethnic cleansing,” which drove hundreds of thousands of people with Nepali ethnicity out of Bhutan and into refugee camps in Nepal.
The fellowship, part of a bigger project called Living in the Shadows, included reporters across the country and focused on the interplay of health care and immigration. Beras was drawn to refugees because of her interest in seeing how trauma survivors cope with additional challenges like language barriers.
“It’s easy to see that gloss-over happy ending refugee story, but I think it’s important to look at the specifics,” she said. “There’s a lot of holes in the [health care] system, and one is not being able to help vulnerable people – in this case, refugees.”
When it comes to her reporting process, Beras said patience was key. It took weeks to get acquainted and for subjects to feel comfortable enough for Beras to record an interview for the radio station.
“[Problems with health care] aren’t the first things refugees will tell you, they’ll say life is good, they have a job and their family is safe,” she said. “But it takes time to understand that there’s a lot more going on.”
Beras said community leaders were an important resource in her reporting, helping guide her to sources and provide translation.
"I found out early on that these sorts of community leaders know a lot of people and are trusted in their communities, they’re like the ‘mini-mayors,’” said Beras. “Since people trusted them they were more likely to trust me.”
And social workers (speaking off the record) were critical in helping her navigate the things refugees wouldn’t tell her.
“[Social workers] are the first people refugees have any connection with and maintain a relationship with,” she said.
Throughout her reporting, Beras found there was “so much more out there,” and encourages journalists to dig deep in every community.
“It starts a different kind of dialogue,” she said.
Similarly, Beth Macy, a Casey Medal winner and Roanoke Times reporter, reported the three-part series, “Unlikely Refuge,” on African refugees from two warring factions and their cultural assimilation in one of the most segregated cities in the South, Roanoke, and addressed the importance of giving each community a voice.
The series, which received the APME Online Convergence Award and a Casey Medal honorable mention for a project/series in 2006, was published June 2005. Years later, the series reverberates as an example of stellar reporting on refugees who fled genocide to start their new lives in Virginia.
“I’m always looking for the group whose story hasn’t been told,” she said. “When you look at the paper today, about 75 to 80 [percent of the] people in it are white men, stories like [refugee stories] are something fresh and new for the reader, too.”
Macy was attracted to this series when she mentored a family of Liberian refugees in Roanoke, Va., and ended up helping them navigate the foreign land--from helping them use a vending machine, to taking them to Walmart.
“The bigger story here was that a large number of Somali-Bantu refugees were arriving,” she said. “So I started looking into the refugee office, found out who the caseworkers were, and found families looking to answer the questions of how they are assimilating or not assimilating.”
Roanoke is one of three resettlement cities in Virginia. Today, many of the Somali-Bantu have moved on to Columbus, Ohio, and Minneapolis, where larger settlements are established, according to Macy. These refugees come from an entirely different world, where the majority lighter-skinned Somalis persecuted the darker-skinned Bantu, but are now coexisting in a world where they are no longer dependent on the United Nations for housing and food.
Overall, the multimedia project, which consisted of original photos, videos and a novel-like format, took about 10 months, but most of the time was spent getting to know families before the reporting process really began, said Macy, who said getting families to talk to and trust her was the biggest challenge.
“It took a lot of time, you really had to show them you were serious,” she said. “One woman I interviewed wouldn’t even look at me at first, she was constantly focused on the floor, so I got up and sat on the floor where she was looking.”
Both Macy and Beras used translators when needed, whether it was a family member who spoke English or a refugee office caseworker. Macy noted that she found the use of interpreters more common among the adults than the children, who were mostly already fluent in English, which made some of them the most responsible members of the family.
"You have 13-year-old kids like Sabtow, who was the interpreter of the family […] he did the grocery shopping and wrote rent checks for his mother,” said Macy. “But on the other hand, these kids are getting in fights at school, being picked on for being 'too black.'”
And like Beras, Macy advised reporters to dig past the “happy refugee” story and understand the complications they face, especially among the children.
“Spend time with them and develop story beacons,” she said. “See how you can find your storytellers in different communities and show them you’re not just reporting, but you’re really trying to understand.”
Macy is releasing a book, “Factory Man,” this July. The book, focusing on the effect of globalization on the Southwest Virginia furniture manufacturing industry, is just one example of her continued reporting on diverse communities. She thinks journalists should strive to represent beyond the “white guys in ties,” and continue to dig deep.
“It’s our job to look at the census numbers and see what’s different, what's happening in our culture today,” she said. “But also, we have other growing communities; they deserve to be reported on, too.”
- Visit the Reporting on Health special series, Living in the Shadows
- Listen to Erika Beras' work at 90.5 WESA
- Get ready for the launch of Beth Macy's book, "Factory Man"
- Check out Dart Center's guide to reporting on refugees