How A Prison Radio Show Has Changed Women’s Lives

> Two Families Who Fled War-Torn Syria Face A New Challenge: Resettling In The U.S.

 How A Prison Radio Show Has Changed Women’s Lives

The anchor’s raspy voice is distinctly Colombian. She pauses for a brief second and continues in Spanish.

“In a world where bureaucracy keeps growing and there is an excess of information, we also run the risk that our voices drown. The great challenge is to find out a way to respect other people’s projects, in a critical way, allowing all voices to be heard. Otherwise we run the risk, like Maggie, where a specific group in society looks for more destructive ways to be heard.”

The woman speaking, 34-year-old Diana Rojas, isn’t referring to some great philosopher or activist icon. She’s talking about Maggie, the baby on The Simpsons. And Rojas isn’t a traditional radio journalist — she’s an inmate at a women’s prison in Ecuador.

This was the 67th episode of the award-winning radio series Palabra Libre, hosted and produced by female inmates from a studio inside the Center for Social Rehabilitation. The prison, which holds approximately 700 inmates, is in Latacunga, nestled close to Cotopaxi, the world’s most monitored volcano.

The episode, titled “The Simpsons’ Philosophy,” aired in March 2015 and became the most popular one since the series began in September 2011. After the episode was uploaded online, it had more than 1,500 downloads.

Rojas’s voice fades and another anchor, Andrea Carates, jumps in. The handover sounds professional and practiced. “Silence is a sign of complex thinking, silence is gold,” says Carates, in a Latin American accent distinct from Rojas’s. “As Heidegger, one of the biggest philosophers on the pre-Socrates era said, ‘Silence is essential to live a truly authentic experience.’”

In the United States, popular podcasts like Serial can bring in more than a million listeners per episode. But in a country like Ecuador, where mainstream shows like Desde Mi Visión and Buenos Dias, Buenas Tardes had a few thousand downloads per episode weekly, Palabra Libre’s reach is significant. What’s truly extraordinary, however, aren’t the listener numbers: it’s where the program is broadcast from.

Palabra Libre — translated it means “free word” — began as a way to humanize those in the nation’s penal system and nurture inmates’ life skills. The program is a collaboration between Ecuador’s Ministry of Justice and provincial government of Pichincha to help “personas privadas de libertad” — people deprived of physical liberty — to reintegrate into society by participating in the arts. The program first began at a men’s prison in Ibarra; based on its success there, a similar program was incorporated into the women’s prison in El Inca in 2011.

Palabra Libre has defied its creators’ expectations. In October 2014, Palabra Libre won first place in the category “programs produced by students” at the10th International Radio Biennial Competition in Mexico, which included 980 programs hailing from 19 countries across the world. Given by the Secretariat of Public Education and the National Council for Culture and the Arts in Mexico, the award recognizes new developments in radio and communication in Latin America.

But its greatest impact may be on the participants themselves, approximately 40 of whom have been through the program. “Even if I am here in a sea of sadness, my soul rejoices with everlasting happiness, because I can communicate the value of the word ‘freedom’ throughout this radio program,” 49-year-old Alejandra Tamariz said in another episode. “I can express what I think, what I believe, what I feel, because I have the opportunity to raise emotions and expressions.” Even though she is incarcerated, she said the program makes her feel “without limits.”


Sitting outside the winding monochrome corridors of Ecuador’s Ministry of Justice, Human Rights and Religious Affairs in Quito, Tamariz’s round wooden earrings swayed in the wind as she reached into an oversize bag of K-chitos, her breakfast on that foggy morning. As she picked out a bright orange crisp, she laughed heartily and exclaimed, “I hate this color. No more orange, please!”

The color, she said, reminds her of the uniforms in Latacunga. It’s been five months since her pre-release from the facility, yet small things often take her back to the time where sitting outdoors and relishing junk food would not be possible without a surrounding fence or a guard watching.

Tamariz is from Guadalajara in Mexico, but she hasn’t been home or seen her family in almost five years. Involved in a petty drug smuggling act, she was caught at the Quito airport with a small quantity of cocaine in her bag, enough to get her implicated for seven years under Ecuador’s stringent drug-trafficking laws. While she has been released on probationary grounds for good behavior, she is unable to leave Ecuador until the completion of her formal sentence.

Her dark eyes, thickly outlined with green and blue eyeliner, light up when she talks about her former role as producer and coordinator of Palabra Libre.

“The radio show gives me hope,” she said. “It provides me with a vision for my future, because I messed up the past.”

Sitting next to Tamariz is her former cellmate and friend, Rojas, a Colombian with fiery red hair. Like Tamariz, she had been released for good behavior but was stuck in Ecuador until her formal sentence came to an end. She’d been quiet, but at the mention of the show, she becomes emotional, saying, “You return to your routine in the prison afterward, but at least for a few moments you thought about other things.”

The show began as a vocational training workshop. Tamariz and Rojas were taken through all the elements of production, from scriptwriting, recording, and editing segments to voice modulation, linguistics, and sound. These classes were the rare respite they had been craving. “I made a stupid mistake and landed up in prison and missed my son’s entire childhood,” said Tamariz as she fidgeted with the shoelaces of her worn canvas shoes.

Before the show, Tamariz threw herself into the few recreational activities offered in Latacunga, like aerobics and basic computer training. They were much-needed distractions to help the time pass until Sundays, when she’d be granted five minutes to Skype with her now-11-year-old son. (“He thinks I am working in radio in Ecuador,” she said. “He doesn’t know that I have done something wrong.”) By the time she became the coordinator for the radio program, she was already teaching a computer class to other inmates.

Since its inception, the program hit on themes of free expression and was aimed at not just other incarcerated people, but also those outside the prison. “It is not only for us, but for the people outside to make a connection with us,” said Tamariz.

Radio has a rich history in Latin America, acting like the old town square, where civil complaints could be aired.

For decades, radio has given a “voice to the speechless,” said Catalina Valenzuela, a contributor and partner at TECHcetera, an independent digital platform targeted at Spanish-speaking, non-tech-savvy audiences. “Through various shows people, citizens, have been able to air their problems — personal and political — and to discuss them with other listeners or with the shows’ anchors. Radio shows are still today a key political place for citizens, policymakers, and opposition leaders alike.”

The traditional format is especially important in regions where digital literacy levels are low. “Radio signals can travel across the Andes more efficiently than TV signals, and while television became popular much later, radio accompanies our life because it runs 24/7 like internet access in the First World: It is ubiquitous,” Valenzuela added.

Eric Samson, coordinator of multimedia journalism at the University of San Francisco in Quito (USFQ), Ecuador’s capital city, has studied the evolution of Palabra Libre. He explained that the concept was first tested with female inmates at El Inca Prison, which was an older, less strict facility north of Latacunga that has now closed. (There were no uniforms and inmates were free to access the internet, use the phone, and see visitors.)

“It was all about conveying a message of humanity from the imprisoned women to the outside world, that even though we have made mistakes, we are not beasts and have a voice and want a chance,” Samson said. “It’s a clear-cut example of democratizing freedom of expression and incentivizing artistic aptitudes.”

When the show began in 2011, a team of 14 women devoted themselves to the production. Complete autonomy was given to the radio team when it came to choosing themes and topics, conducting research and interviews, writing scripts, and subsequently presenting. “We wanted to deliver a product that was informative, created conversation and reflection, and made listeners aware that there is neutral communication coming from within the prison,” said Tamariz.

All the necessary infrastructure and equipment to make radio was provided by the Ministry of Justice, and a mini radio booth and studio were set up with its help and resources. Local Ecuadorian inmates got paid for their work, while non-Ecuadorians like Tamariz didn’t. “For me, it was purely my passion that made me put my heart and soul into this,” she said.

A concerted effort was made to veer away from personal stories and anecdotes and toward broader concepts. “It’s a program for society, and not for the inmates. It helps our own learning and also we don’t want any pity; we want respect,” Rojas said. Still, during Christmas, when everyone is homesick, the radio show incorporates audio snippets from telenovelas to lighten the mood and lift spirits.

The 60-minute segments have covered topics from freedom of speech and LGBT rights to football, sex, and the history of the Galapagos Islands. Tamariz said that they research topics at the library. “We still prefer the Mills & Boon [British romance] novels and [Gabriel García] Márquez romance novels and Harry Potter series in prison,” Rojas added with a smile.

The segments can vary widely. “I created this section called ‘The Time Capsule’ where we take listeners through time to historical figures like Al Capone and Leonardo da Vinci,” said Tamariz. Sometimes they even host debates between themselves and 22 Mil Voices, a program broadcast from a men’s prison.

Listeners send feedback to the prison. Some criticize the lack of spontaneity in the program, complaining that inmates sound too scripted, but most laud their efforts. In particular, female listeners have called or written in thanking inmates for covering controversial topics like abortion, which is prohibited under Ecuador’s criminal code.


After Tamariz’s probationary release, the legacy of Palabra Libre has continued, but with some challenges. There are now only eight people inside the prison who are producing the show. Some of those involved behind the scenes think the prison should take the program in a new direction.

Luisa Pluas Orozco has been the program’s coordinator since Tamariz’s release in mid-2015. Prior to becoming the coordinator, she used to be involved in the radio program’s research and narration. Over email, she explained that current inmates are experimenting with a show called When Science Transgresses Reason, a debate show. “It’s a big responsibility because I am a guide who has taken the reins and am creating a path for future producers,” Orozco wrote.

Meanwhile, USFQ is finalizing an agreement with the Ministry of Justice that will allow inmates to take university classes from within the prison. “The initiative is very healthy and I am hoping we can soon provide classes on packaging at the centers,” Samson said. He said that bringing students into the prison to teach the inmates will, in turn, benefit students themselves. “I want them to know what it’s like inside a prison and how it’s important to empower inmates.”

Tamariz and Rojas both say their time in radio is far from over. As part of the process of social and professional reintegration of detainees promoted by the ministry, inmates on probation will air a new radio program called Pata Llucha (“bare feet”). The focus will be on indigenous groups in Ecuador.

Pata Llucha will be recorded in Quito at the offices of Radio Pichincha. Tamariz and Rojas said they were looking forward to working in a professional radio studio and going out into the field to report. “We don’t have to rely on people coming to the studio in the prison,” said Rojas excitedly. “Here we can actually go to them.”

“My journey will not end when I walk free,” said Tamariz, referring to the end of her probation, as she finished her last K-chito and licked her fingers. She hopes to continue pursuing radio, whether teaching the skill to other inmates back home in Mexico or trying her luck at becoming an independent radio entrepreneur. Her dream project is to start a program aimed at Ecuadorians abroad.

“I want to focus on Ecuadorians who live away from home in other parts of the world. If I can take that to jails in Mexico and offer a support network, I will really come full circle,” she said.

As the clock struck 11, she stood up. It was time for her to do her weekly probationary signing at the ministry.

“Even though I got stuck in Ecuador, I made some good friends and have done some rewarding work,” she said, wiping her fingers on her black spandex pants. “Now it’s time to continue and give back.”

This article was supported by the International Reporting Project with translation and assistance from Carolina Loza Leon.

Published on BuzzFeed News,  April 25th, 2016

Two Families Who Fled War-Torn Syria Face A New Challenge: Resettling In The U.S

For 33-year-old Soha Hossam, it’s the small things — like watching her son and daughter squabble over an iPad — that reassure her that her family’s grueling, two-year long journey from war-torn Syria to the United States was worthwhile.

Soha lives with her family — Wesam, age 6; Mayesa, 3; and her husband, Hossam Alroustom Maen — in a dilapidated Jersey City walk-up apartment, where no two chairs match. According to data collected by the Church World Service (CWS), a federal government contractor that helps refugees resettle, they are four of just twenty Syrians who have been legally admitted for resettlement in New Jersey since June 2015 — more than a month before the world’s consciousness was suddenly and sharply turned to the heartrending refugee crisis that has seen thousands of Syrians flee their war-torn country for Europe.

“Wesam is autistic,” Soha said as she fiddles with her headscarf and keeps an eye on the children, who are absorbed in an episode of Koky Kids on TV. “The sounds from the incessant bombs and explosions used to make him very anxious.” The very building they lived in, in Homs — one of the focal points of a civil war between the government and armed rebels — was often attacked, she said.

So in the summer of 2013, she and her husband — who worked as a laborer and owned a market in Homs — decided they would be better off, and safer, making a long and dangerous journey out of their home country to seek refuge elsewhere. They packed up their bags with a few basic clothing items and left. The only thing that survived the journey is a long black coat. It’s what Soha wears when she steps outdoors.

Nearly 4 million refugees registered with the United Nations have fled Syria since the outbreak of the war in 2011, according to the UNHCR. Soha’s family members are part of the 1,500 refugees that have been resettled into the U.S. since then — though the number will likely increase after President Obama on Thursday instructed the State Department to take in an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees in the upcoming fiscal year. For the families that have managed to flee, the journey is not an easy one. And while Soha and other families who have resettled are grateful, they also have to encounter new struggles: rebuilding their lives in a completely new country while constantly worrying about family and friends they left behind.

Soha and Hossam and their children first boarded a two-hour bus to Ratain village in the north near Aleppo, crossed the desert between the Syrian-Jordan border at night with the help of a bedouin, and finally arrived at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which is currently home to nearly 80,000 people, according to UNHCR.

“The camp was very crowded and there was no electricity or bathrooms,” said Soha. “The kids even fell sick because of the unclean water.” The conditions at the camp were detrimental to the children’s health – at one point, Jordanian forces fired tear gas into the camp to reportedly quell a protest over the living situation – triggered anxiety attacks in Wesam. The family cobbled together the funds to pay off a few locals who moved them to a house in Irbid, about an hour’s drive away.

They lived in Irbid for a year, until the Jordanian army caught Hossam working on a non-working visa. They ordered him and his family to either go back to the refugee camp with his family or return to Syria. Hossam and Soha boarded a bus to the UNHCR office, where their application for resettlement was approved due to Wesam’s medical condition. About two years later, they made it to the United States in June 2015 without even a pair of shoes from Syria.


Another Syrian family lives about a 10-minute drive from Soha and Hossam’s Jersey City apartment. This family — a father, his wife, and three children — arrived barely three weeks ago from Homs. They requested anonymity because, the father said, “my brothers are in Homs and if anyone sees our pictures, [the Assad regime] will torture them and kill them.” he said.

He calls out to his son to bring in a standing fan and begins describing in vivid detail the atrocities and reality of Homs, which he refers to as “the cradle of the revolution” against President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s security forces.

A mechanic back home, his family home was destroyed by a random missile, and most of his extended family was tortured, injured, or killed by barrel bombs, tanks, and rockets. “The government forces are the real deal and the real threat. Da’esh (ISIS) is simply a sitcom,” he said, adding that he knows of mosques blown up by the government during Ramadan prayers.

The father remembers dates, names, and specific episodes that finally led him to pack two bags in June 2013 and bring his family through Alexandria in Egypt, then Italy, then to the U.S. At one point, he said, he saw neighbors and children from his street losing limbs and being buried alive in the rubble of their homes after 2012. “That’s when we realized we had to flee for the future of our children,” he said.

He recounts his journey to Egypt via Al-Waar in June 2013. Five of them were often given refuge in tiny rooms by locals until constantly moving from one neighborhood to another became a struggle. They made their way to Egypt and spent two years and three months there. He was finally told by UNHCR and the International Center of Migration that the family was being resettled to America. They were given passports and flight tickets to Italy. The father said his family was told, “If you like it, you like it, otherwise too bad, we are moving to the next family.” (Other families were being resettled in New Zealand and Sweden.) They arrived in Jersey City on Aug. 18, 2015.


Now safely in the U.S., both families have had to overhaul their lives. Language continues to be the biggest barrier — as all of them speak little or no English. CWS, which helps resettle refugees in the United States, helped them settle into their new homes by getting basic furniture and clothing, procuring an I-94 work permit, and getting food stamps and some money. The organization has also helped men from both families find work according to their skill set: Hossam works as a mover at a nearby warehouse and the other father has found work as a mechanic.

Their wives raise the children and work keeping the home together. “I wasn’t very happy the first week when we got here,” said Soha. “But things are getting better now.” She even enjoys going out and taking the children to a park on their block.

The children from the second family have enrolled in an English language learning school. Wesam still doesn’t have a school to go to — CWS is helping the family find a special needs school in the area. Both families’ social interaction is limited to the handful of other Syrians who have been resettled in New Jersey — just last week, they all toured New York city together — but once a week they make it a point to talk to their relatives in Homs.

Whatsapp calls and messages are the easiest mode of communication, but conversations always end on a depressing note. Soha’s messages with her sister — who is still trapped with her children in the heavily barricaded Al- Waar neighborhood in Homs — are a reminder that home as they remember it does not exist anymore. “The government’s security forces are making them live like chickens in their own city,” said the second family’s father, emphasizing that those who haven’t been able to escape Homs by air or sea are like prisoners trapped in their own country.

The images earlier this month of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned on a Turkish beach while fleeing the war in Syria, shocked the world into awareness and, in some ways, action. But these families said they are well aware that there are many more children suffering the same fate. “We have lived through the war, so we understand the suffering,” said Soha.

The father of the second family said that up until the picture surfaced, the world had chosen to close its eyes. “We asked the international community for help six months after the conflict started. It’s been five years and they still haven’t done anything to help,” he said. He’s also cognizant of the ongoing refugee crisis and feels that the EU is definitely more accepting than the United States. But he is at a loss for words when asked about the Syrian people as a whole. “I don’t know what will change,” he said, shaking his head in despair.

Despite being grateful for the safety of their families and for not having to ford the Mediterranean with smugglers — a route that claims lives every week — there is a looming sense of yearning from both families when asked if they would like to return to Syria.

“There is no human being who would not love to return to his homeland,” said the second father, remembering his group of friends and community who have been split up due to the war.

It’s not just the adults who seem to have left a piece of their heart back home. As soon as they hear the word Homs or Syria, the children scuffle to show off as many pictures of their ravaged hometown on their Samsung tablets. When asked about the one item they wished they had brought with them to America, the second family’s 11-year-old daughter answers without a second thought. “A Syrian flag. The free one.”

By Purvi Thacker and Sarah Munir

Published on BuzzFeed News  September 14th, 2015