Finding humanity in dangerous places – a reporter's story
If you’ve been a Monitor reader for a while, you are probably aware that spinning through the heart of this organization is the pursuit of stories that find hope and humanity even in seemingly hopeless places – such as war-torn Syria where Dominique Soguel has found ways to penetrate the violence to discover people who possess boundless resilience and strength of spirit.
Dominique Soguel, who reports for the Monitor from her current base in Basel, Switzerland, is one of those journalists who possesses the knack and the energy to find people and organizations who can spark hope. And if there is any place in the world where hope, empathy, and compassion are needed it is Syria. Dominique, who is now also the mother of a toddler, has spent much of her career covering Syria, Northern Iraq, Turkey, and Libya.
Before we dive into an interview with Dominique, I want to share some of the must-read stories she has recently filed for the Monitor:
View the slideshow “Syria through a reporter’s eyes” on Youtube.
Reflecting on Dominique’s work, Ken Kaplan, the Monitor’s editor for Middle East coverage, said “illustrating and explaining the human condition is a hallmark of all of Dominique’s work, perhaps nowhere more so than in Syria. Her great network of contacts, her ability to reach real people at the heart of events, and her personal empathy for the Syrian people have helped the Monitor penetrate the dry and horrifying statistics associated with Syria’s conflict.”
Though based in Switzerland, Dominique focuses much of her reporting in some of the most dangerous places on the globe. I asked her what draws her to these conflict areas.
People have the distinct capacity to be at their best, as well as their worst, in the context of war. I have been struck by the incredible resilience of the human spirit ever since I met a Liberian refugee woman in Ghana who had the capacity to greet every person and day with the warmest smile, one that concealed the awful experience of witnessing her children and other relatives hacked to death. In a nutshell, I am drawn by that most – the ingenious ways people find to survive, support each other, love, and even steal joy amid the most difficult of circumstances. She found the strength of mind and spirit to open a business, build new relationships, and carry on despite limited resources and the absence of dependents to galvanize her into action.
What makes a good story for you when you are faced with all of the violence and hardship in these areas?
A story that gives you a sense of place through the careful selection of a compelling character – or range of characters – that helps shed light on the bigger picture. One that demystifies conflict and other forms of hardship allowing people on the other side of the world to connect mentally and emotionally with those who are experiencing adverse circumstances. A key element for that is context. I am in awe of the journalists who manage to distill decades, centuries of history into a few sharp sentences without sacrificing details. My approach is to find the microcosms that reflect the broader reality.
In January you reported on a woman who opened up her apartment to other women in a rebel-held region of Syria for a bit of relief from the routine bombings and food shortages. How do you find stories like these?
I lived in Syria and have reported on the country with different degrees of regularity and intensity since 2008. This has given me a much-treasured network of Syrian friends as well as professional contacts who have helped nuance my understanding of different regions, moments, and actors in the conflict.
Even in places like Ghouta much of which now lies in rubble?
I spoke to many people trapped in Ghouta who also showed incredible resilience, resourcefulness, and kindness towards others, risking their lives to help in basic ways.
You’ve also explored the lives of refugees who have fled Syria for Europe and other regions. What special challenges do these refugees face when they arrive?
Culture shock – which anyone can experience but is all the more challenging when coupled with trauma. Syrians typically have a very strong culture of hospitality, a powerful sense of family, and close relations with their neighbors. Arriving in societies of advanced atomized individualism is extremely tough, even tougher when communities turn to bullying, stereotyping, and projecting the label of “terrorist” on individuals who have experienced the true meaning of terror both under President Bashar al-Assad and all the jihadist groups that run amok in the country. Nations that boast freedom and human rights can deliver bitter disappointment for those who do not land in communities that demonstrate solidarity with the refugees' plight.
As part of the Monitor’s On the Move series, you reported that a surprising number of Syrian refugees have returned home despite little change in the risk they face there. Why are they returning?
Many European countries are moving towards more restrictive asylum and refugee policies. This means many Syrian refugees have found themselves waiting for years in vain in the hope of a family reunification that never materializes or a path to citizenship that doesn’t open. In many cases, the experience is aggravated by negative encounters with state bureaucracy. The stress and uncertainty for those with temporary refugee status create major hurdles to integration. Unlike peers who have arrived earlier, received full status, and achieved family reunification, they have no real opportunity to invest themselves in building a future. Homesickness, in that case, becomes even more acute. Some fall into a depression so deep that they would rather go home and risk being bombed, detained, or killed. Returns can also be triggered by a desire to see aging surviving relatives or bury the dead.
You first visited Syria as a reporter a little more than 10 years ago. What were your impressions then, and have they changed any since this very destructive war?
The first time I landed in Syria was in the middle of the night, armed with enough knowledge of formal Arabic to get by, but not enough to follow all the ins and outs of conversations in Syrian dialect. My stilted “how is the weather” got no cheer out of my taxi driver who dropped me off in stony silence at the top of a tiny dark alleyway leading to a backpackers hostel. The only familiar sight on the road there was a poster of Julio Iglesias, my mother’s favorite singer who had recently given a concert. The next day I got the ball rolling on reporting on Iraqi refugees but made a point of reading up about tourist sights on Lonely Planet before heading back to the hotel, where I knew that friendly chatter of “what did you do today?” would be diligently relayed to the secret police. Since I was talking to Iraqis who had survived awful sectarian violence, I was curious whether the Sunni-Shia split was a major point of tension for people in Syria. Efforts to touch that tricky topic were often rebuffed with speeches on an all-encompassing, tolerant Syrian identity. Over time I discovered an extremely wide spectrum of Syrian identities.
One of my happiest memories is celebrating Christmas in Syria with friends from almost every community – Druze, Alawite, Palestinian – except the Christian (as they were with their own families). There is still a ‘Syrian first’ attitude and sentiment that gives me hope for the future of the country although the conflict has brought to the fore sectarian attitudes and violence akin to the ones that Iraq experienced.
What do you think would surprise most readers about Syria today?
The dramatic differences between and diversity within different geographies of the country. All the spoken and unspoken deals made to define areas of influence between external and internal actors. The extent of Western involvement for both intelligence gathering and military goals that largely focused on ISIS, as well as power struggles with Russia and Iran, but did little to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.
On a personal level, what challenges do you face as a reporter trying to cover this region?
My challenge is an inability to shut off. I am focused mostly on Europe and Switzerland now, but I will always keep an eye on these countries and often check what is going on there first. Safe access has been a challenge in Syria and I was happy to go back this year for reporting. The other challenge is geography – these countries are big! My commitment to shoe-leather reporting quickly translates into roadrunner reporting to accurately tell more complex stories.
A newer challenge that may be familiar for many readers is motherhood. As a mother in the field, I have found myself shamelessly asking for Wi-Fi in Kurdish military bases while waiting for an interview just so I could quickly WhatsApp my toddler at a carefully calculated moment of the day to avoid triggering the full “I miss Mamma” crisis. When in Switzerland, I find myself moving up bedtime or extending bath time so I can create a decent window of opportunity to focus on Syrian sources who are easier to catch at night.
Got a question for Dominique Soguel or comments on her stories? We’d love to hear your feedback. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.