Home Opinion How Yemeni Listening Project reveals lives affected by the civil war
Opinion - June 13, 2024

How Yemeni Listening Project reveals lives affected by the civil war


By Jacob Granger


Nonprofit newsroom The New Humanitarian (TNH) hired a refugee journalist to do a deep reporting project on the impact of the ongoing Yemen civil war.

Described often as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Yemen’s nine-year civil war has caused economic collapse and more than half of the population – 18 million people, including nearly 10 million children – to require lifesaving support, according to UNICEF figures. But the wars in Ukraine and Gaza have turned public attention away from Yemen.

TNH’s response to reminding its audience of this story was the Yemen Listening Project, a participatory outreach project where more than 100 Yemenis ​​– both inside the country and in the wider diaspora – shared how their lives have been affected by the war.

It was pitched and managed by Middle East editor Annie Slemrod, who recruited freelancer Nuha Al-Junaid, a Yemeni refugee who lives in the Netherlands, to coordinate the project.

The pair spoke on an episode of the Journalism.co.uk podcast about the significance of letting Yemenis tell their own stories at a time when their voices are absent in mainstream media, and the logistics of putting a complicated project like this together.

“It made me realize how much we are missing as consumers of media,” says Slemrod.

“When it takes two days to get somewhere that should take a couple hours and that stops you from getting to the hospital or seeing your family. That’s not something that comes through when you think about Yemen, like what people are dealing with in a war. Blocked roads are not one of the first things you think of, but that came up so much.”

Thinking about audiences

Stories were published in English and Arabic as the two main language-speaking audience groups, with select stories in both. Some stories were anonymous, and others were on the record.

The website is purpose-built to work on low-bandwidth and slow internet mobile devices, addressing the specific needs of a large portion of the Arabic-speaking audience. Slemrod thinks of the English-speaking audience as “her mom”: “a person who is interested in the world but maybe doesn’t have a lot of time or energy to devote to a conflict, which is very complicated, like Yemen, which frankly, since it isn’t in the news a lot, you’d have to work pretty hard to find out about it. But that person relates to personal stories.”

This paved the way for a partnership with Al Jazeera to repurpose seven of the stories into illustrated, interactive versions and take them to social media platforms like Instagram.

Another key audience was people working in the aid world – from aid workers to people organizing large-scale responses – who can inform their work through the real pain points of Yemenis on the ground.

“I did a lot of audience mapping from the beginning of how we can reach these different audiences,” explains Slemrod.

“If you look at the website, you can also see that each story has little tags. So if you’re interested in the issue of roads, you can see all the stories that mentioned roads, and it’s a lot. If you just want stories with video or audio, if you want to read about displacement, you can see that too. So we try to make it as easy as possible for people to care and to read.”

Lessons in Participatory Journalism

This is not TNH’s first participatory journalism project. Slemrod was also involved in a similar effort called “WhatsApp Lebanon?” which timelined the events in Lebanon between 2019 and 2022, a period of economic collapse in the country. The team spotlighted the experiences of five young people and what they had been through in those three years, told through their personal WhatsApp messages.

It involved far fewer sources with deeper narrative arcs. But there was one lesson from the Lebanese project taken into the Yemeni one: people need different ways to share their messages.

“We had thought: ‘I’m just going to put a call out on social media and see if people want to share their WhatsApp messages’. I learned very quickly, no, that doesn’t work. Not everyone wants to go through their WhatsApp messages from the most traumatic time in their lives,” says Slemrod.

For that project, she sought the help of Lebanese project coordinator, Zainab Shamoun. And this time around, she brought Al-Junaid on board, having met her at a media conference. Slemrod says newsrooms cannot underestimate the importance of working with people who closely understand the internal contexts of the country.

Al-Junaid set up a WhatsApp and Facebook line for submissions, because these platforms are popular and widely used in the country, and offer the flexibility to send in text, voice notes, videos, poems, or pictures.

She also realized that proactive outreach would be needed to get women’s voices. Al-Junaid says that the island of Socotra or the city of Sa’dah for instance are very conservative areas where it is not socially acceptable for women to speak out.

“It was a really big challenge. But I worked hard to get a voice and it was luckily a female with a wonderful story, a success story that I was really happy with,” she explains.

“I am a Yemeni person. I’m not saying here that they wouldn’t trust a foreign person. But of course, they would be more open to speak to someone who speaks their language, understands their background, and is also one of them.”

Getting sources on the record

Her top tip is to not settle with just one source speaking to you. Ask them if they have friends, family, or neighbors who could also speak on the record. This worked a treat and led to other women’s relatives chipping in with their stories.

Something the team would like to improve next time is getting more voices from foreign workers in the country, but many were reluctant to speak to not jeopardize their working status.

They were quite successful in getting the Yemeni diaspora involved, owing to Slemrod being from Michigan in the U.S., home to one of the biggest Yemeni diasporas in the world. She got her parents to distribute flyers in the local area, with a QR code to send submissions.

“Yemenis are desperate to be heard,” concludes Al-Junaid.


This article was originally published by Jouranlism.co.uk and republished on IJNet with permission

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