Maria Sacchetti: Reporting on the International Refugee Crisis

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November 3, 2015 — Maria Sacchetti, who covers immigration for The Boston Globe, shared her experiences reporting on the international refugee crisis in Europe, and discussed the importance of local coverage of international stories.

Without a foreign desk, the Globe had limited resources for international news coverage, said Sacchetti, but still decided to make covering the refugee crisis a priority to “bring it home to our readers.” Sacchetti often begins by finding a local connection in her stories. The metro Boston region has a sizeable Greek population, so Sacchetti and photographer Craig F. Walker traveled to the Greek island of Lesbos to report on the refugees as they arrived onshore. They then traveled north to Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany, following the path of refugees and telling their stories in a recent Boston Globe series.

Sacchetti focuses on “telling the human stories, not just relying on the stories about how many people died today, or what happened overseas today.” Describing “how people live in these countries is really important…it’s increasingly dangerous, if not impossible, to tell these stories now,” she said. Traveling through Europe provided her with an opportunity to tell the stories of refugees and their homelands without venturing into highly dangerous territory, such as Syria.

Sacchetti described some of the harrowing sights she witnessed while reporting, from babies in overcrowded rafts wearing unsafe lifejackets, to people collapsing during journeys that crossed multiple borders. Many refugees who had just landed in Lesbos were afraid and often unwilling to talk, said Sacchetti, as they were focused on getting to their next destination.

Others though, willingly shared their experiences. “A woman came up to me…and wanted to show me her pictures, the life she had just a short time ago,” said Sacchetti. The woman showed Sacchetti photos from her wedding and her house in Syria, saying “all that is gone now.”

“That moment will never leave me – of her trying to show me the life she had and why she was running away,” said Sacchetti.

Sacchetti and Walker witnessed the frustration that refugees faced as they traveled out of Greece and toward Germany. After miles of trekking through the heat, refugees were sometimes turned away or held at the border between Serbia and Croatia, or arrived to find that the expected camps and facilities were not ready. When refugees reached Hungary, they often experienced indifference to their plight from officials. The reception of refugees varied from country to country, said Sacchetti, with a country’s level of diversity and economic situation often being influential. Even arriving in Germany was not without its obstacles, where Sacchetti found families camped out under a bridge as refuges were slowly screened.

Sacchetti described a conversation she had with a man in Lesbos that summed up the need for local reporters to cover international crises. The man, who was sleeping on the street with his family, asked Sacchetti “Don’t the Americans know that this is happening?…Don’t they know we’re getting bombed?”

“I don’t think that it is in the general consciousness,” said Sacchetti. “We have very, very few refugees here in the United States even though our military, our politics, are so deeply involved in these countries – but they’re not our neighbors. That’s one way I think a place like The Boston Globe and local newspapers have this special obligation to try to cover world news in the way we do local news, in a very human, detailed way.”

Hear the full audio recording above.

Article and photo by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.