I See Myself in Ukrainian Refugees. Why Doesn't the Media? | Opinion

As I sit and watch the heartbreaking scenes in Ukraine, I am hit with a flashback: my husband and I quickly packing to escape the terror in Iraq. In 2008, my husband was threatened to be killed for working for an American company. Every day, he had to take a different route to work in Baghdad to avoid confrontation. When some of our closest friends were killed, we understood there was no other choice—we had to flee.

I grew up in the shadow of war in Iraq. I finished school in engineering and started working for Iraq's Department of Oil. Leaving our life behind was not easy—it meant leaving our family, friends, jobs, language and the small joys of our daily routines. But in the end, we had to go and sought refuge in the United States.

It is painful to see people in Ukraine go through what my family went through. I know the thoughts running through the heads of Ukrainian mothers this very moment because the same thoughts ran through mine. War is ugly anywhere. And it is us, ordinary people, who suffer the most.

As a refugee from Iraq, I see my own story playing out in Ukraine. But the media has not seen it as the same.

With more than 3 million people fleeing for their lives, the displacement of Ukrainians is the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Shock and horror is appropriate, and we must stand in solidarity with Ukrainians fleeing for their lives. But prominent reporters have also expressed shock that Europeans could be in such circumstances—people who "are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East ... or North Africa. They look like any European family that you'd live next door to." Reporting that "this isn't a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city," and adding, "to put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine [...] These are Christians, they're white. They're very similar [to us]."

This narrative normalizes tragedies for people in non-European countries and dehumanizes their suffering. It portrays the suffering of people like me as "expected." It implies that Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Nigerians, Hondurans, Yemenis, Haitians and others are all used to suffering, and therefore, what happens to them is somehow more acceptable.

 People who fled the war in Ukraine
People who fled the war in Ukraine walk toward a humanitarian train which is relocating refugees to Berlin on March 18, 2022, in Krakow, Poland. Omar Marques/Getty Images

So, how can reporters and newsrooms do a better job of representing people like me who have been forced to flee from their homes due to war and conflict?

First, reporters should speak directly to people who have experienced displacement when covering a given crisis rather than relying heavily on external observers. People with lived experience know best what needs to be said about their own experience and what must be done. If you talk directly to a displaced father from Syria or Yemen or Ukraine, you will find that they have much more in common than you might think: a hope for a safe future for their family, dreams of restarting their career, or a desire to educate their children. These perspectives are often underrepresented in the media, but a long-term investment in working with affected individuals and sharing their perspectives will ultimately help to bridge these divides we are seeing play out now.

Second, avoid making unhelpful and divisive comparisons between groups of displaced people. In an environment when public discourse is highly polarized and disinformation is rampant and weaponized, media has a greater responsibility to have a united message that all people are deserving of safety amid war, oppression and rising authoritarianism. Likewise, the media should avoid using dehumanizing language such as "floods," "flows," or "streams" to describe the movements of displaced people.

Third, make long-term investments in local reporters in areas of the world that are affected by displacement. As newsrooms shrink, foreign correspondents are often sent in to cover countries affected by crisis only at inflection points, thus painting a picture of crisis as normal. As journalist Stephania Taladrid wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, "With fewer correspondents on the ground, news organizations are left to rely on what's known as 'safari' or 'swat' journalism, which is quick, reactive, and more heavily reliant on government sources than independent observation." This leads to a media portrayal of countries only at times of misery.

How we talk about crises can impact our response to them—and we are seeing this play out today. Media framing can influence public thinking on which refugees we should welcome and which ones we do not. We can and must do better. All refugees need our understanding and compassion, no matter where they come from.

Basma Alawee is the executive director and co-founder of WeaveTales and campaign manager at We Are All America. She is a mother, an activist and a former refugee living in Jacksonville, Fla.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.