WASHINGTON - Rajaai Bourhan is trying to make a life for himself in Spain.
Two years ago, he and several other journalists were trapped in southern Syria, as forces loyal to President Bashar Assad moved to take the region. They had a choice: Stay and risk arrest or death or leave in search of safety.
Thanks to the help of international organizations, including the press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, 11 journalists were able to flee to Europe last May.
“It’s like traveling from planet to planet,” Bourhan told VOA. “Everybody’s nice, as well as smiling. It’s very different from my home.”
The Syrians’ experiences are shared in a documentary, “The Last Journalists in Syria,” that CPJ broadcast on June 17.
The documentary recounts how CPJ worked with United Nations ambassadors and several countries to find a way to bring the journalists and their families to safety.
Bourhan said he was happy to be safe but that he’s had trouble finding a job – an issue that is common for refugee journalists.
Only a third of journalists forced to flee are able to continue their work in a new country, Ignacio Miguel Delgado Culebras, the Middle East and North Africa Representative for CPJ, who helped with the relocation of the journalists, told VOA.
He attributed that to factors including language and a lack of connections to news outlets.
In the Syrians’ case, the Spanish journalism advocacy organization porCausa connected those who settled in Spain to other journalists in the country and found them a place to live, the group’s journalism coordinator Jose Bautista told VOA.
“We try to make their lives a little bit easy,” Bautista said. “They’re already our friends, they’re like brothers.”
Delgado said that since relocating, most have had work published in Spanish news outlets or other publications, including The Independent. CPJ is working with Global Voices, an international journalism collective, to run a workshop with the journalists this month to help with decisions about their careers.
Bourhan acknowledged the difficulties in staying in journalism, including low pay and having to learn Spanish in a short amount of time. At the moment, he is not working full time — something he attributed in part to the coronavirus pandemic — and he said some of the other journalists have had to wash dishes to earn money.
“It’s very hard for a journalist to survive here in Spain,” he said.
He and the other journalists experienced many challenges in Syria. They watched as forces led by Assad bombed buildings and killed civilians.
They posted videos and updates from their social media pages and were threatened with arrest and murder, one of the journalists, Moussa al-Jamaat, said in CPJ’s documentary.
Syria in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the media, with at least 137 journalists killed there since the start of the civil war in 2011, according to CPJ.
Now in Spain, the journalists have greater protections. They remain committed to continue telling the stories of what is happening in Syria. Some have freelanced for large publications.
“I didn’t just come to Europe to indulge life,” journalist Mohammad Shubaat said in the documentary, translated from Arabic. “My purpose here is to convey the real events unfolding in Syria through our social networks, Spanish TV, newspapers — by any means that we can convey our voice and our pain and the pain of our people.”
Bourhan said he is also committed to informing others about what is happening in Syria. When he lived there, he freelanced for The Intercept. Now, he continues to read news from Syria every day and hasn’t given up on reporting.
“Journalism is still my world,” he told VOA. “I really couldn’t get out of Syria mentally. My mind’s still in Syria.”
CPJ’s Delgado said he was impressed with how quickly the journalists integrated into Spanish society and by their commitment to journalism.
“This human quality that they have, it's amazing. The desire to continue to learn, to develop their skills,” Delgado said. “I'm still in awe by what they have done not only in Syria, taking the risk of being a journalist, which is not easy. But also, now in Spain in a whole different context.”
PorCausa’s Bautista said: “At the beginning, I thought they would learn a lot from us today. Today, I think we learned much more from them,” he said. “I am super proud of the way they are fighting such a difficult situation.”