In the spring of 2015, Yuliaa Bozhko, a journalist for Ukrainian television, was on the verge of burnout and depression. She had been covering the sudden conflict in her hometown of Donetsk and faced danger every day until she had to flee the region with only her daughter and a suitcase.
Feeling lonely in the city of Kiev, where her employer had moved her, she struggled to find satisfaction in her work and cope with the trauma she’d experienced.
“I had lost of lot of people close to me and it was difficult to see this disaster,” she said, three years later. “Everything had turned into wreck.”
A colleague advised her to apply to the Rest and Refuge Scholarship organized by Reporters without Borders Germany and taz-Panter-foundation, a nonprofit organization linked to the German daily newspaper die tageszeitung.
The scholarship is open to journalists covering countries in crisis or at war, and offers them three months of rest and psychological support in Berlin.
“We developed the idea because we saw that very often, journalists who approach us for help don’t want to leave their country permanently but want to rest because they come from critical circumstances,” said Christian Mihr, director of Reporters Without Borders Germany.
The scholarship program began in 2016 and has already helped seven fellows from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Turkey, Burundi and Ukraine. Most, like Bozhko, take the opportunity to take a break, recharge, visit Berlin and enjoy the downtime, while some choose to do research and light work.
“Very often, short-term breaks really give strength and empower journalists who can go on working after,” said Mihr, who has received positive feedback from the fellows.
Bozhko traveled to Berlin with her daughter who attended an international school in the city during the program. Twice weekly Bozhko met with a psychologist to overcome the trauma of being threatened and rebuilding a new life after fleeing her hometown, relatives and friends.
“Seeing a psychologist helped me a lot to recover from my psychological trauma,” she said. “It was [also] a little pause to think about what I should do when I get back.”
Last year, 260 journalists from all over the world applied to the scholarship. Encrypted applications enable journalists in particularly repressive countries to apply.
Every year, Mihr selects two journalists. Last year, one-third of the applications were journalists who were looking to flee their country, according to him.
When the cases are serious but don’t fit the requirements for the Rest and Refuge Scholarship, the team at Reporters Without Borders tries to find other programs or individual solutions with partner organizations.
For some journalists, even three months away from a repressive country doesn’t put an end to the dangers they face when they return. Turkish photojournalist Uygar Önder Simsek, a recent Rest and Refuge fellow, was arrested in the airport upon his return to Turkey in February 2018 and sent to prison.
Simsek had been covering conflicts and following Kurdish troops in Syria for publications including Time, The Washington Post and The New York Times. While in Berlin, he received an award for his work.
Reporters Without Borders immediately began advocating for Simsek. Originally sentenced to two and a half years in prison for using social media to disseminate propaganda for a terrorist organization, he appealed his conviction and was released.
Bozhko’s return to Ukraine was smoother. She couldn’t go back to Donetsk — where she learned that her name is on a blacklist of forbidden journalists — but she feels better and has realized she wants to continue being a journalist. She received a scholarship to attend the an investigative journalism conference, is working on stories about displaced people in Ukraine and is writing a book about the conflict in Donetsk.
Bozhko said she will always be grateful for the scholarship, which allowed her to take a step back from her daily life.
“It was so great,” she said. “I was reborn not only as a journalist but as a person.”