September 24, 2015


A yearlong series of “Longreads on Conflict” in the Middle East debuted Thursday.

The online series comes from GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news site that was just purchased by WGBH. The project seeks to focus on “the full extent of the humanitarian toll from major conflicts raging in the Middle East” and the role of governments, including the major powers.

Given recent world attention to a migration crisis, the first opus is painfully timely. “A Daily Hustle to Survive: This is the Life of a Syrian Refugee” opens starkly:

“It is March 2014,” writes Paul Wood, a BBC foreign correspondent. “Two-and-a-half-thousand Syrians are arriving in Lebanon every day. Many end up in the northern city of Tripoli. By 8 a.m. there is a long line outside the grey concrete walls of the UN compound. A tea seller moves up and down, an urn on his back. The line doesn’t move.”

Then a woman starts shouting. She cries out about her frustration in procuring food for her four children and sick husband. “Every time, they promise to help if I come back tomorrow. Those promises are empty.”

She proceeds to pour gasoline over her head and set herself afire.

Mariam al-Khawli did get attention at the time as a symbol of refugee desperation. But her story passed, prompting Wood to return and inspect her family (the mother died months later of infections) and what its fate informed about the overall crisis.

With passion and vivid detail, he puts a human face on staggering numbers:

“Half of all Syrians, more than 11 million people, have left their homes, according to the UNHCR. Many have gone elsewhere within the country — there are 7.6 million ‘internally displaced people,’ as they are called. Four million people…have crossed Syria’s borders, becoming refugees.’

Imagine: one in four people in neighboring Lebanon right now are refugees.

Wood’s is a tale of war, terrorism, government corruption, well-intentioned international relief agencies running out of money, sleazy smugglers, dangerous boat trips to get to Europe and, finally, children losing their childhoods as some turn into hardened beggars.

The opening tale by Wood, who is a Shorenstein Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, obviously took a huge amount of time, passion and diligence and provides a solid opening for an ambitious endeavor.

“Paul Wood’s extraordinary reporting, the first in this series, is emblematic of what we are trying to accomplish with our year-long conflict project,” said GlobalPost Founder and CEO Philip Balboni told me by email Thursday.

“It’s rich in character and detail and at nearly 8,000 words represents the kind of journalism that is very rare today. Wood takes readers deep into the conflict and the humanitarian crisis through the eyes of those living it. The result is a narrative that is revealing and poignant. It’s a look at this terrible conflict that is difficult to find anywhere else.”

Take a look since it might be difficult to disagree. Perhaps unintentionally, it touches the same themes of staggering inequality and immigration challenges struck by Pope Francis already during the early stage of his U.S. visit.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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