Prior to arriving at their first class in Jordan, which was scheduled to begin shortly after a jet-lag-inducing flight across the globe, journalism graduate students Matt Kauffman and Melissa Tabeek received an assignment from journalism lecturer Carlene Hempel.
“She said she wanted something on protests and Syria, so we started reading and absorbing everything we could,” Tabeek explained. In short order, the pair of journalists had plans to attend street protests and visit universities in the capital city of Amman.
Kauffman and Tabeek’s resulting stories were part of a larger collection of work by more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate-level journalism students on a five-week Dialogue of Civilizations program to Jordan. Hempel and Denis Sullivan, a professor of political science and director of Northeastern’s Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development, led the Dialogue.
The program, Hempel said, took on the qualities of a long-term embedded assignment fit for a professional foreign correspondent. Over more than a month, students met with top government officials, built strong ties with community members and produced stories on topics ranging from the Middle East conflict to business and sports.
“I kept saying to them, ‘Your audience is The New York Times readers. That’s who you want to gear this for,” Hempel said. “And the coverage did span the whole newspaper, from the front page to the back.”
Within a few days, Kauffman and Tabeek made connections with local officials and nonprofit organizations with the help of their translator, a university student studying English. The goal of the source gathering, they said, was to find Syrian families who had become refugees in Jordan after fleeing the harsh, oppressive regime and the near-constant threat of violence.
With the help of locals and refugee advocates, Kauffman and Tabeek built close relationships with refugees, many of whom were initially fearful to speak of their experiences even on the condition of anonymity.
“We were able to look at these issues through the eyes of the families affected, not just through stories that might quote one refugee and cite statistics from a government or the United Nations High Commission for Refugees,” Tabeek said. “Because we became someone who could be trusted, they were able to talk to us about their lives.”
Stories by the student-reporters were posted daily to the classroom blog, and The Boston Globe published a story co-authored by Tabeek and Kauffman, which included a corresponding video that ran online. The video, filmed in a small neighborhood with nearly 400 refugee families crammed into their homes, was an especially challenging assignment: The journalists had to press their subjects to tell personal stories while remaining respectful of the trauma they induced.
“I think it was the first time I really felt like I was a journalist, like I was doing something important,” Kauffman said. “When I left I didn’t feel like I was finished there. I want to go back.”
Kauffman and Tabeek will complete their graduate program in journalism this August. To read work from all the students who reported from Jordan, visit http://northeasternuniversityjournalism2012.wordpress.com/.