Columbia Journalism Review

Seeing Refugees Through American Blinders

When illustrating the very real dangers that refugees, asylum seekers, and other forced migrants have faced, how do journalists avoid propagating racist caricatures?

Read the full piece in the Columbia Journalism Review

ON THE AFTERNOON OF AUGUST 6, I received an email informing me that one of my sources had died. His name was Jimmy Aldaoud, age 41. Two months earlier, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement had nabbed him from the streets of a Detroit suburb and deported him to Iraq.

When word of Aldaoud’s death became public, it made national headlines, as his story presented a damning portrait of ICE. Though he was an Iraqi national, Aldaoud was born to refugee parents in Greece and he moved to Michigan as a baby; he had never set foot in Iraq, had no known family there, and spoke no Arabic. He was also severely mentally ill, chronically homeless, and diabetic—this last condition being the apparent cause of his untimely passing.

As Aldaoud’s story spread, US news consumers came to learn that his deportation was part of a two-year ICE crackdown on Iraqi immigrants—many of whom, like Aldaoud, were members of a Christian minority who came to the US as refugees decades ago, and who feared persecution if forced to return to their native country.

Public outcry ensued. Even though it was illness that ultimately killed Aldaoud, his death called attention to the violence other Iraqis could face if deported. Lawyers and advocates for prospective Iraqi deportees, hoping to compel Congress and the White House to intervene, gave quotes to media playing up the dangers. In turn, news outlets further highlighted the victimization of Iraqi Christians—to the point where press reports (including, to an extent, my own) limited context about Iraq to a set of keywords: “persecution,” “violence,” “tortured,” “death.” Iraq, in all its complexity, was reduced to the projections of those who feared it.

Given ICE’s history of careless deportations, the media’s portrayals of Iraq as a threat to deportees were warranted. Many parts of Iraq are hazardous for religious minorities—since 2003, as many as four-fifths of Iraqi Christians have fled or been killed—and it’s newsworthy that ICE is zealous enough to deport people to such conditions. Yet the press’s facile depictions of Iraq—as socially backward and beset by relentless sectarian violence—rang eerily close to some of the most pernicious stereotypes of Arab and Muslim societies.

The Aldaoud episode highlighted a concern common to refugee journalism, especially in the United States: When illustrating the very real dangers that refugees, asylum seekers, and other forced migrants have faced, how do journalists avoid propagating racist caricatures of the places from which they’ve fled?


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