Halabja, Iraq – As the Sulaimania skyline fades and the snow-capped mountains separating Iraq and Iran draw nearer, the signal of Iraq’s first radio broadcast made by and for refugees emerges from static.
“This is Dange Nwe Radio, refugee-to-refugee segment, from 8am to 12 noon, broadcast in Kurmanji and Arabic,” a female broadcaster announces in a southern Iraqi accent. The early-morning programme includes Kurdish poetry, classic love songs by a Christian Lebanese singer, and pop music more familiar to listeners in Baghdad than in northern Iraq.
The new refugee radio programme on Dange Nwe (New Voice) Radio is staffed exclusively by Syrian and Iraqi women displaced by the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and the war in Syria.
The four DJs tailor their programming to the thousands of families who have fled the ongoing violence and sought refuge in this rural corner of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
“All the programmes we air – whether they are news, politics, health, or music – have an audience within the refugee community,” Hevy Izat Ahmed, who is originally from Kobane, told Al Jazeera. “We know what news refugees need to hear, about aid deliveries, or about what’s happening at home.”
Ahmed, 27, was living in Aleppo when war broke out in Syria. She studied philosophy at a university in Beirut before returning to Syria. Though she is new to radio, she is confident in front of a microphone: “Being a refugee and knowing what our listeners have gone through makes me able to do this job. Another broadcaster might not understand what it means to be a refugee in a foreign country.”
The eastern Iraqi city of Halabja, nestled in the foothills of the sprawling mountain range that delineates the border with Iran, is better known as the site of a massacre nearly three decades ago, when the Iraqi air force dropped sarin and nerve gas during the Iran-Iraq war, killing thousands.
|‘We know what news refugees need to hear, about aid deliveries, or about what’s happening at home,’ says Hevy Izat Ahmed [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]|
Since ISIL fighters overran swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014, millions of people have been displaced, including around 5,000 families who have been drawn to the region surrounding Halabja for a variety of reasons, for example the relatively low cost of living and employment opportunities in the agricultural sector.
Dange Nwe’s five-room station, plastered with fading posters of Kurdish singers, is housed in a women’s centre in Halabja, originally established to offer vocational training. In the small studio, Fallujah native Hanine Hassan, 19, reads the day’s technology news, including a report on a newly launched mobile app that can estimate the moment of a user’s death and set a countdown timer to that moment. But Hassan told Al Jazeera she prefers interviewing refugees in nearby camps, and hearing about the challenges they face while adjusting to life in Halabja.
“I hope that having these interviews with refugee families, who are talking about their suffering, is comforting for others in the same position, so they know that other people are also suffering or experiencing the same problems,” Hassan said.
Although the station’s refugee programming began airing at the end of 2015, Dange Nwe has been a liberal voice in the Halabja region since 2004. The community-oriented station strives for independence from political and religious factions while tackling socially sensitive issues, including female genital mutilation and polygamy.
Before the new refugee-to-refugee segments began, “the station was in a bit of a crisis”, said Falah Muradkhin, the coordinator for Wadi, an Iraqi-German NGO that supports the broadcasts. “We were exploring new ideas. We needed new ideas for the station.”
When Muradkhin suggested that Dange Nwe staff train newly arrived refugees to broadcast programmes that would address the needs of the displaced community, “they weren’t convinced at first”, he said.
But today, tens of thousands of listeners are tuning in to the four hours of refugee-to-refugee programming, including news, celebrity gossip, and health and technology updates, according to data from the station.
Shadan Habeb Fathullah, a 28-year-old from Halabja, is the manager of Dange Nwe. She mentor the new recruits, while also producing and editing most of the segments. When a traditional Kurdish pop song abruptly cuts out amid a routine power outage, Fathullah runs to the backup generator outside to keep the broadcast on air.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, but I love what I do, and I want to do my best for the girls,” she told Al Jazeera in the station’s editing room.
Some of Dange Nwe’s long-time listeners from Halabja, however – including city officials – have expressed concern over the new programmes broadcast in Arabic and the northern dialect of Kurdish, which are not spoken by most of the population.
“My brother works in the market,” Fathullah said. “Until recently, most of the people working there listened to our radio in the morning. But since we began broadcasting in Arabic and Kurmanji [the northern dialect of Kurdish], people have been tuning to other stations, because they don’t understand the broadcasts.”
Despite the station’s tight budget, Muradkhin says these broadcasts will continue until the displaced people are able to return to their homes in Iraq and Syria.
“The refugee radio will last for as there are refugees here, and after that, we will adapt to whatever the needs of the community are,” Muradkhin said.
Dange Nwe even hopes to grow its programming and frequency range to encompass the entire area of the community of refugees and displaced people in Iraq’s Kurdish region.
“We’d like to be doing even more than we are now,” Hevy said. “We’d like to be able to expand our coverage to reach more refugees in Erbil, Dohuk and the entire refugee community in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.”
Follow Jonathan Brown on Twitter: @jonathaneebrown