Author: BBC Media Action's Executive Director Caroline Nursey, originally post on March 15 2017 - On the sixth anniversary of the Syrian war, Caroline Nursey, our Executive Director explores how a radio drama is helping bring communities together despite years of conflict.
The war in Syria has raged for six years. We have all seen the harrowing images on the news of cities under siege and children pulled from the rubble of bomb-damaged buildings. But even for people who aren’t being shelled – the conflict touches every part of their lives.
Infrastructure has broken down, water and electricity is unreliable, the proportion of Syrian children attending school has dropped from almost 100% to 50% and people do not trust each other anymore.
People need all sorts of practical assistance, but they also need help in looking forward to a better future and considering how they themselves need to change to make that happen. And this is one area where media can help.
At BBC Media Action we carry out extensive audience research to establish which media format can best reach people in need.
Sometimes it’s a television debate, at other times an ad campaign. And sometimes – as you’ll see in this film – it’s a drama.
Hay El Matar (Airport District) has all the hallmarks of a classic soap opera; romance, personal ambition and revenge. “It’s about love and war, it’s about leaving or staying, it’s a question of life,” says the drama’s executive editor, Hozan Akko.
Each episode is scripted by a team of Syrian writers and touches on a different issue relevant to life in Syria today; the ongoing civil war, domestic violence, education and migration – to name a few.
“Syria’s conflict has divided neighbourhoods, gone through the centre of families, destroyed friendships, pitted neighbour against neighbour…the whole fabric of society has been shredded,” says Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent, who has reported extensively on the conflict.
Fuelling this division is a media that supports one side or the other.
That’s where drama can have an impact. It has a unique power to get people thinking and talking about their differences and what unites them.
The writers have a variety of political points of view so their characters and stories help listeners break the stereotypical view they might have about people with different beliefs.
Hay el Matar has been on air - and online - since last September and listeners told us they found it positive and humanising - portraying how Syrian people come together in times of need. Many focused on the character Nidal who offers assistance to a displaced family, saying this reflects the helpful nature of the Syrian people, and that “every house has a Nidal.”
The power of drama to change attitudes and help people take action is well established in the UK. For many years soap operas have been bringing important social issues into our homes. From the reality of living with HIV on EastEnders to the fight for trans rights on Coronation Street.
Just last year The Archers explored emotional abuse in relationships with Rob’s treatment of Helen. The story had such an impact that the National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw a 20% increase in calls, largely attributed to the 'Archers' effect'.
At BBC Media Action we’ve recognised the importance of drama as a tool to aid social change in developing countries since our early days.
In Afghanistan our radio drama New Home, New Life - sometimes known as the Afghan Archers - began in 1994 and continued uninterrupted through the war, tackling issues like child health and education as well as mine awareness and the Taliban’s restrictions on women. A rapid decline in land mine injuries is just one example of the impact directly attributed to the programme.
In Nigeria, our radio soap Story Story highlights the effects of corruption or a lack of government accountability on ordinary people. And it’s incredibly popular - reaching an audience of over 13 million. Our research shows that more than half of listeners said the drama made them think differently about some of the issues featured.
Drama works because we can relate to characters on all sides as we follow them through, often difficult, storylines. Sometimes the characters change their minds - and sometimes we change ours with them. For Syria, as we’ve seen in other conflicts, greater understanding is the vital first step towards a lasting peace.
Hay El-Matar is produced in partnership with Batoota Films and broadcast on BBC Arabic in Lebanon on 93.6 FM and in Syria on 720 MW. It is also available to listen in Arabic on the programme website and SoundCloud.
Image credit: BBC Media Action
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