Notre Dame University-Louaize (NDU) and the Maharat Foundation have recently collaborated on and published two media projects incorporating NDU students in Journalism, Graphic Design, and Computer Science, under the direction and mentorship of the University’s Dr. Maria Bou Zeid, Interim Dean of the Faculty of Humanities (FH), and Brigitta Kassis, Instructor at the Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences (FNAS). The two organizations partnered with the purpose of promoting novel methods and formats of science journalism, the end goal being to introduce younger audiences to subject matters that are often complex in an accessible manner.
The first project covered the matter of Syrian refugees and their experience amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in Lebanon, the displaced peoples attempting to build a safe haven away from their homes. The article tackled several variables, including: rainstorms in refugee camps, witnessing the August 4 blast and the loss of both Lebanese and Syrian lives, and the quarantine measures of the pandemic, all of which created setbacks in the displaced Syrians’ sense of well-being and safety, the dissolution of their homes both old and new increasing the trauma of their circumstances.
The data shed light on the difference in the emotional states of the refugees between July 31 and August 6, 2020, seeing a sharp drop from 18% to 4% of respondents reporting feeling happy post-blast, while feelings of fear, sadness, and anger remaining relatively stable from before and after the explosion, suggesting a prevalence of poor mental health among the displaced Syrians, with positive emotions being situational rather than pervasive. Students involved in developing this first story and their respective roles: Christina Issa and Karma Sabbah (production and editing), John Ammoun and Elcy Habchi (graphic design), and Wajdi Ballout and Maria Kodeih (web development).
Exploring another viewpoint, the second project sought to understand the pandemic’s challenges and its effects on children with special needs in Lebanon via the input of psychologists and parents alike. The pandemic largely disrupted the children’s sense of routine, a key factor in their development of self-regulation suddenly made difficult due to social distancing and quarantining. It is important for those with special needs to be integrated into social circles and have a healthy dose of social interaction to build their cognitive and emotional capacities; with lockdowns and remote learning, however, the pandemic became an obstacle in the children’s progress and subsequently in the parents’ abilities to raise their kids in a safe and stable environment that meets their needs.
These circumstances were exacerbated by the economic crisis, where treatment plans and sessions were either reduced or halted altogether due to the rising costs. In spite of these hindrances, there is hope in the resources made available by non-governmental organizations and independent specialists that provide their services at reduced costs or for free to facilitate the care of children with special needs and supporting their parents as caregivers. Parents and children interviewed additionally found the IDEAL Program at NDU, organized by the SKILD Center, to be a key factor in ensuring that the latter were given quality assistance and routine for their progress. Students who developed this story were Lucia Sakr and Shatabdi Raj (production and editing), Christian Neaimeh and Andrea Khoury (graphic design), and Jessica Abdelmassih and Jessica Chater (web development).
Commenting on the students’ work and the collaboration with Maharat, Dr. Bou Zeid stated that the FH “has always strived to empower youth through curricular and extra-curricular activities, aiming to make a change in the community.” She continued: “This hands-on experience for our journalism students was definitely a life-changing one wherein they learned to experiment with a new format of journalistic work in today’s fast-evolving media landscape.”
Lucia relayed her perspective of the experience, saying “In addition to the skills I gained, what was really prominent from my experience with Maharat is the importance of cooperation in a team.” She provided insight into the typical roles journalists assume within a group project: “As journalists, we are taught not to interfere with the work of the photographers, graphic designers, technical department etc. However, this time, even if some things were not in our line of expertise, we still had the chance to express our opinion.” The involvement of the Journalism students proved to be essential in moving the projects forward: “Our combined efforts is what made us achieve such a great outcome.”
Layal Bahnam, Program Manager at Maharat Foundation, showcased her enthusiasm about this collaborative work, NDU being a partner in furthering their joint missions. She said: “Maharat has always believed in youth capacities and innovation. This project was very important to us as it was the first time we facilitated an innovation lab inside a university with students from diverse backgrounds to further journalism as a field.” The support of the NDU faculty and students allowed Maharat to put into practice this cooperative effort from various fields, yielding a promising result, one that “we will build on and seek ways to take it further in collaboration with NDU.”
The impressive work from each party exemplifies a commitment to progress and establishing an increasingly interdisciplinary journalistic field, one that enriches the issues of the day, deconstructing their complexity while retaining their importance.