Okba Mohammad reported from Daraa al-Balad in Syria before he fled to Spain. (YouTube/CPJ)

‘Be patient and prevent despair’: An exiled Syrian journalist’s advice for fleeing Afghan reporters

Syrian journalist Okba Mohammad was 20 years old when he arrived in Spain after fleeing the Syrian civil war with CPJ’s help in May 2019.

“I felt that everything around me was strange: the people, the country, religion, culture,” he told CPJ in a recent interview via messaging app. But he also felt a sense of security: “I was in a place that was safer than the one I had been living in.”

Amid the difficulties of starting over, many exiled journalists end up leaving the profession. Mohammad is among those who been able to continue working in the field: he covers Syria for Spanish media outlets and collaborated with CPJ and the Spanish foundation Por Causa to found Baynana, the first refugee-led media outlet in Spain. He now speaks Spanish with a Madrid accent and is fluent in the local slang.

CPJ spoke with Mohammad about the ambivalence of exile, his own experience pursuing his career after his relocation, and what advice he would give to newly evacuated Afghan journalists who are now being resettled abroad after the Taliban takeover last month.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the challenges of starting a new life abroad?

Learning the language of the new country and integrating into it, adapting to the culture of the new country, and continuing to work as journalist amid many challenges and difficulties.  

How do you cover events in Syria from Spain?

I keep in constant communication with many contacts inside Syria and haven’t stopped doing so since I left. I also closely follow what’s going on in Syria so perhaps that makes it easier for me to cover Syria, but the challenge is to cover it from the country where I live and to publish in local media. That is very difficult because of the language [barrier], which makes communication with local media difficult. This difficulty is overcome with time.

I also work with a foundation that is interested in Syria and I work on that constantly in my mother tongue. I try to monitor important topics in Syria and write about them for Spanish newspapers. I wrote a piece on the assassination of journalists in northern Syria for the news website Publico and another one about the [Syrian regime] siege on Daraa al-Balad for the news website El Diario.es.

Based on your personal experience, do you have any advice for Afghan journalists who are now leaving their country? 

Being forced to leave your country is one of the most difficult moments in life, so my advice to Afghan colleagues is to be patient and prevent despair from taking hold of them.

If they wish to continue to cover Afghanistan from abroad, I would also recommend that they stay in touch with their country, especially with civilians who are always the biggest losers in any war. There are stereotypes about Afghanistan in the West and nobody but journalists can clarify them or change them. Journalists understand that they have a major role to play in this. They have to keep working and start over again and again with all their strength.