Covering Family Separation on the Education Beat: Q&A with Sharon Lurye, '18 M.S. | Columbia Journalism School

Covering Family Separation on the Education Beat: Q&A with Sharon Lurye, '18 M.S.

The Beat interview series offers aspiring Columbia Journalism School students insight into what it’s like to produce deeply reported stories for the Journalism School’s postgraduate fellowship program

In this edition, we highlight the latest story by Sharon Lurye, ’18 M.S., a recent postgraduate fellow with The Teacher Project. Lurye's audio story tackles the topic of family separation — not at the U.S.-Mexico border, but as a result of the Trump administration's 2017 travel ban — and the roles educators are playing in supporting students separated from their parents.

Here's what she had to say.

As a postgraduate fellow, you cover stories at the intersection of immigration and education. What have you found to be an underreported story on this beat? 

There has rightfully been a lot of focus on family separations that are happening at the border right now. However, there are other kinds of family separations as well. Sometimes families are forcibly separated. Sometimes it's because a member of the family is denied a visa. Sometimes it's just an economic reality that not everyone can afford to move to the U.S.

Hugo Lanchipa is a teacher at International Community High School in the Bronx, where all the kids are recent immigrants. He told me that all of the students feel the effects of family separation to at least some degree. "All of them, they have somebody left in their home countries," he said. "There are really few students who have both their parents over here."

This has a big impact on the child's education. How can you focus on school when you're worried about your mom or your little brother or sister? Why bother applying yourself when your future seems hopeless? So teachers have to give their students a reason to focus on their studies instead of on their worries. For this story, I wanted to both show the impact of the travel ban on one student, an 18-year-old Yemeni-American boy named Hisham, but I also wanted to show how his relationship with his teachers was helping him keep up hope.

I've always been interested in telling stories about the teacher-student relationship. This fall, I did another audio story for the Teacher Project's "What My Students Taught Me" series. Each episode really dives deep into the story of one student and one teacher and what they learned from each other. I was really excited to be able to tell that kind of powerful audio narrative again for WNYC.

How did the partnership with WNYC come about?

Originally, I intended this to be a written rather than an audio story. But when I recorded all my interviews on my phone, I realized that the audio was very powerful. There was such a mix of frustration, exhaustion, hope, acceptance and anguish in the character's voices, and I noticed so many touching, small details in the interactions between Hisham [the subject of the story] and one of his teachers, Nassira Hamdi. So I asked my editor, Sarah Carr, if we could pitch this as an audio story to WNYC. She agreed, although she warned me that this would mean a lot more work – I had to go back and do all my interviews again, this time on proper recording equipment.

I edited the initial script with Sarah and then we gave it to Patricia Willens, the editor at WNYC. She helped me a lot in clarifying the focus of my story and bringing out the best audio to grab a listener's attention from the beginning. And the quality of the sound mixing at WNYC was amazing. When I heard it on air, it truly felt like I was there in the classroom sitting next to Hisham and Nassira.


What were the biggest reporting challenges you encountered and how did you overcome them?

The biggest reporting challenge I had was an ethical challenge. Rashad, Hisham's father, agreed to let his son be in this story because he hopes that the media coverage will help his wife get a visa to come to America. The story took a long time to finish, because I had to do a lot of work over again when I decided to make it an audio story. Rashad was really anxious for the story to be published and kept on asking me why I couldn't just send it over to him early. I felt terrible when I had to ask him to be patient, because the theme of the story is that this family is constantly asked to be patient as they wait for the mother to get a visa that may never come. So I deeply felt that irony. One thing that was helpful in dealing with this challenge is that professor Bruce Shapiro had done a workshop for all of the fellows on how to write stories about trauma without re-traumatizing the people in your stories. He advised being very clear with our sources upfront about the journalism promise and said to never make any promise we cannot keep.

Another reporting challenge, especially for an audio story, was the fact that Hisham speaks very little English and I speak no Arabic. I didn't have any access to professional translators, so all the interviews are translated by his teacher or his dad. However, this challenge actually made my story far richer. I wouldn’t have met Nassira or Rashad if I didn't need a translator. No doubt there was a lot that got lost in translation, since they're not professionals, but a lot more was gained in translation because they know Hisham personally. They added their own observations and insights to what he was saying. I also got to observe their relationships more closely; even when Nassira and Hisham talked to each other in Arabic, I often could understand what they were saying based just on context and vocal tone. There's one scene, for example, where Nassira and Hisham are talking to his mom over the phone. Both women start chiding him to eat more because he's too skinny. He responds with loving exasperation. Even though half the conversation was in Arabic, the meaning of the interaction was clear because that kind of scene is universal.

What do you hope the people reading Hisham's story will take away about the travel ban?

Since the travel ban went into effect two years ago, most news organizations are not talking about it much any more. But the effects of this travel ban are still being felt today. There are still children who are separated from their mothers and spouses who are separated from their fiances. There are still schools who have to help their students process that trauma. Recently, President Trump threatened to put another travel ban into place for Guatemala. It's important for people to realize exactly what that means, what kind of impact that would have on thousands of families right here in the U.S. That includes both documented and undocumented families. Rashad himself has been a U.S. citizen for 17 years, but his wife still hasn't been able to get a visa because of the travel ban.

How did your J-School education prepare you to cover this beat?

I had no audio experience prior to J-School, so taking an audio class there helped lay a good foundation for radio skills. I discovered that I really love it. It takes so much creativity to produce a story for radio, and it teaches you to observe tiny details in every setting, down to the sound of a spoon clinking against the side of a tea cup. For audio scripts, you have to write as simply and concisely as possible and you have to cut out everything that's not essential. This is helpful practice for me, as I tend to want to stuff as much information as I can into my stories.

One useful piece of advice that I got was from Daniel Alarcón, who leads the Writing for the Ear class. I didn't take his class in J-school but he led a workshop for the fellows. He advised that if we want good tape, we should ask our characters to list things. For example, ask a character to go through a drawer and describe everything they find. I asked Rashad to go through the camera roll on his phone – he had a lot of pictures of his wife and kids, which he talked about with great emotion. Hisham went through the videos he had watched about Yemen on YouTube, which demonstrated what life was like there before and after the war and what he missed about his home country.