Hussam Al Zaher on Journalism and kohero Magazine

“For me, even the air is political”: In an interview, Hussam Al Zaher talks about the founding of kohero Magazine, an online magazine for topics related to migration and flight, and the importance that journalism has for him.

Hussam Al Zaher © Miguel Ferraz
Hussam Al Zaher © Miguel Ferraz

When I was in Hamburg in the initial reception center, I asked myself why the media reports on refugees and why it’s not us reporting on ourselves. I thought: “Yes, I am a refugee, but I am also a journalist. Maybe I can do something there, with both things: As a journalist and as a refugee.”

And I met several people and the idea developed. We had the idea to make an online format where refugees can introduce themselves and talk about their opinions and culture. We definitely wanted to do it in German so that the Germans could read us and get to know and understand us. Because we knew what would happen on New Year’s Eve 2016 in Cologne and Hamburg. And that Syrians were attacked afterwards. The fear on both sides is strong. And then there are a lot of prejudices against each other – on both sides, but in any case there are more prejudices from the Germans against refugees. And then we thought: We need this channel, where we as refugees talk to the Germans, so that they get to know us, we contact and discuss with each other and then on both sides get to know each other and try to live together in one society. Together. Because I also noticed that the integration in Germany is not going well – then and now – this is due to mistakes and different reasons, we don’t have the time to talk about it now. But one of these reasons is that the society, the people have not got to know each other. Each group lives alone, for different reasons, including political reasons, but also cultural reasons. They fear the prejudices of others. There is not only one society in Germany, but several.

The culture of welcome as well as Germans with a migration background are strong and their voices are loud. They talk a lot about it and that can change everything. And my opinion is that new migrants in Germany should be integrated into our society. We should discuss with the Germans in order to reduce this fear and prejudices against the others.

And then I met some friends and developed the idea further. Today, we are not only online, but also produce two print editions per year. Now we also produce a podcast: We publish one episode per month. And we still publish about four articles or reports per week. Now we are trying to build up our own editorial department. We have already built up a large network, with about 120 authors, and we are trying to continue working with each and every one of them.

Flüchtling Magazin becomes kohero Magazin

The most current topic we have been working on for about a year is that we no longer want to work under the title “Flüchtling Magazin” (Refugee Magazine), but rather rename ourselves. Therefore we are now doing a relaunch. We wanted a new name for many different reasons. One reason is that many refugees themselves have asked: “Until when will we remain refugees? We have been here for five or four years, we speak German, we work, we do an apprenticeship or study. In one or two years we will have a German passport. So until when will we stay refugees?”

That was the first question. And we definitely want to be a voice of refugees. I am a refugee myself, but we want to accept the opinions of all refugees and make their opinions strong. That is one reason.

The second reason is that unfortunately we have received criticism from both sides – from the left and the right. For different reasons, but also only because of our name. The [German] left side has criticized that we make people into a closed group with this name. And our idea was that we are all refugees, but that does not mean that we are all the same. We are totally different. That was the misunderstanding among left-wing people.

The third reason is that our idea has developed a lot over the last three years. We are no longer only refugees, but we also work with Germans. We would like to write more about the topic of migration in general, which then no longer quite fits the name. This has developed over time and now it no longer fits.

The fourth reason is that we wish to create a start-up in the coming years. And that can’t happen with the name FlüchtlingMagazin, because it started as a voluntary social project and we want to develop a real journalistic start-up. These are the reasons why we decided to give ourselves a new name. We will change our name.

Our new name, Kohero, means “solidarity” in Esperanto. You can also read the word hero in it, but we mean the Esperanto word.

The target group of the magazine

Our main target group is the Germans, but that has developed a lot. We understood that it is not just about the six million volunteers who have been or are still involved in the ‘welcome culture’. We also want to make journalists our target group and be a specialized newspaper on the topic of migration and flight. We are also trying to reach more refugees, because the refugees can now speak German after five years. So you can say that the target group has changed. At that time the refugees could not speak German, but now they do.

From the beginning we have published only in German. With a few friends I founded a proofreading department. The volunteers who work in this department edit linguistic mistakes and put the texts into a nicer format so that our German readers would like to read and continue reading the texts. For us, it is not only the content that is important – of course it is also very important – but also that the readers appreciate our texts.

The importance of journalism

I was already a journalist in Damascus. But of course it was totally different. Firstly, being a journalist in a dictatorial system is very different from being a journalist in a democratic system. Secondly, I was a small journalist then, now I am a media-maker, to put it correctly. That is a bit different. Back then I reported what was happening, and now I not only report, but I also focus on my problems and the problems of my circle of friends and acquaintances and all minorities. For an understanding between us – migrants, Muslims, refugees – and the majority of Germans. That is why it is totally different.

At that time journalism meant to me: What can you publish if you can’t publish everything? But now journalism means freedom for me. Journalism means to draw attention to problems. Journalism means finding solutions, opening a social discussion.

What is also important is: What does it mean to me to do journalism in German? In any case, it is very difficult. All my articles have to be read and edited again by someone. But I have learned a lot because of this language. German and Syrian society are very different. We don’t have many topics [in Syria] that we can think about in public or open up discussions in society. But in Germany there are many different topics and problems that I think about: What does that mean? How are they related to each other? And I like doing that, I observe as a journalist. And for me even the air is political. Everything is politics. And as a journalist I observe everything. I found all these things with my new language. I have not experienced this in Arabic. I have only experienced this in German. I like the language very much, although I can’t express my thoughts very well. Language is very deep. You can play a lot with language and express interesting content very well. Unfortunately I miss that. But content is very good for me and these thoughts about new discussions that I have experienced here and that I have thought about. This is very good for me and I have not experienced this in my mother tongue Arabic.

The role of the media in debates about migration and flight

Media do everything. The media are very strong, they influence politics and draw public attention to certain issues. But unfortunately the media are not entirely positive towards migrants and refugees. There is a new study of the university [Macromedia], which analyzed German media. It found out many of the reports on crime in a newspaper focus on reports of crimes committed by migrants, although the majority of crimes are not committed by migrants. Moreover, they have given very little space to voices of refugees. 11Hestermann, Thomas, 2020: Die Unsichtbaren. Eine Expertise für den Mediendienst Integration, in: Mediendienst Integration, July 2020, https://www.macromedia-fachhochschule.de/uploads/media/Hestermann_2020__Die_Unsichtbaren_-_Berichterstattung_ueber_Eingewanderte_und_Gefluechtete.pdf [17.11.2020]. This study shows that there is still a lot to be done with regard to refugees and migrants in the German media. And it shows that a project like our kohero magazine is very, very needed in our society.

What could the media do better? The media should create more jobs for refugees and migrants in their editorial offices.

    Footnotes

  • 1Hestermann, Thomas, 2020: Die Unsichtbaren. Eine Expertise für den Mediendienst Integration, in: Mediendienst Integration, July 2020, https://www.macromedia-fachhochschule.de/uploads/media/Hestermann_2020__Die_Unsichtbaren_-_Berichterstattung_ueber_Eingewanderte_und_Gefluechtete.pdf [17.11.2020].

Hussam Al Zaher came from Syria to Hamburg in 2016, where he lives today.

Hussam studied political science in Damascus and began working as a journalist in Syria. Once in Germany, he founded kohero Magazine (originally: Flüchtling Magazin), an online magazine with two print issues per year. There is also a podcast. Kohero (“solidartiy” in Esperanto) gives refugees in Germany a platform to introduce themselves and discuss their opinions on socio-political issues.

In the article, Hussam deals with the question of what journalism means to him comparing working in Syria and Germany, and retells the story of how he founded kohero Magazine under the name FlüchtlingMagazin shortly after his arrival in Hamburg in 2016. Al Zaher refers to the societal reactions to criminal, including many sexual assaults on women primarily by men with an alleged North African migrant background on New Year’s Eve 2015-16, which triggered a debate about criminal acts committed by refugees and migrants in Germany. New Year’s Eve is perceived as a turning point in the debate on migration, although political measures against the admission of refugees had already been initiated earlier. 11Werthschulte, Christian: “Nach” Köln ist wie “vor” Köln. Die Silvesternacht und ihre Folgen, 06.01.2017, in: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, https://www.bpb.de/apuz/239696/die-silvesternacht-und-ihre-folgen.

The magazine has since changed its name, which he explains was a decision made for several reasons, one of them being that contributors themselves have criticized that after having spent years in Germany and having learned the language, they can’t identify with the title anymore: “Until when will we remain refugees?”

    Footnotes

  • 1Werthschulte, Christian: “Nach” Köln ist wie “vor” Köln. Die Silvesternacht und ihre Folgen, 06.01.2017, in: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, https://www.bpb.de/apuz/239696/die-silvesternacht-und-ihre-folgen.

The interview with Hussam Al Zaher was conducted on July 22, 2020 via Skype.

Read more on kohero Magazine here.