NETHERLANDS. Terrorism, xenophobia, clash of civilisations… Those are some of the topics one might associate with intercultural dialogue between the West and the East. But the participants of the second edition of the Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalists (EMAJ) have shown that it can also be about simple things like group hugs, salsa dances, bike rides outside of the bike lane and a shared devotion to good journalism.
“Want some halal candy?”, Kim Nordberg, a journalist from Sweden, asked, entering the big hall of the Goethe Institute of Amsterdam.
Open laptops, half-full tea and coffee cups spread out on the tables, on chairs and even on the grand piano. The office of the project coordinator is cramped with people trying to reach NGOs, detention centres for refugees, representatives from political parties, you name it. The young journalists from 18 different countries in the EU, Middle East and Northern Africa, have taken over the old, monumental building of the Goethe Institute in Amsterdam and turned it into a full-fledged news room.
“We come from different regions but we work together perfectly, both as journalists and people, each adding its own special flavour to the project”, a surprised Hossam el Din Hussein from Egypt, said after finishing a project together with Spanish colleague Cristina Rojo.
They all met only a week before, set out to take part in the Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young journalists or EMAJ, a 10-day training course on journalism, intercultural dialogue and migration.
And so it began. The first awkward handshakes. The first session on immigration. The first adventure: dressed in bright yellow rain coats on yellow rental bikes, the EMAJ participants explored Amsterdam together, risking to lose each other on each corner and getting frowned upon by the locals for not staying in the bike lane. The first meals, prepared in the common apartments. The first party, the first heated debate, the first group hug.
Of all the firsts, perhaps the most important one was the first crack in the wall of preconceived ideas about the other region. For Sophia Pfisterer from Germany, getting to know colleagues from the other side of the Mediterranean was an important tool in combating prejudices: “In having personal connections, you could more easily understand a point of view that differs from your own. This experience has really broadened my horizon and made me realize how focused and limited national media sometimes can be.”
Just by his appearance, dark haired Kim Nordberg proved that not all Swedes are blond. Hossam El Din Hussein showed that Egyptians are not only about pyramids and sphinx, but can also dance some mean salsa. Alwin Helmink from the Netherlands impressed everyone by showing the collection of Arabic music he had on his phone and by singing along to the songs without actually speaking Arabic.
As words like “halal candy”, “habibi” and “yalla” became part of the everyday chatter, the stereotypes about the other region did not disappear, but perhaps the picture got slightly more complex.
Or as Sophia Pfisterer puts it: “My perception has changed because of the people I met. They were all different from how I thought they would be and we became friends in a very short time. Therefore, my belief has grown that we might have more in common than we usually assume.”