WILLIAMSTOWN — A little less than a year ago, Joanna Slater was rumbling through the Hungarian countryside huddled in a train with several hundred Syrian refugees.
She did not know where the train was going, or how she would get back. She would wind up being forcibly removed by riot police.
Last week, Slater was sitting in Tunnel City on Spring Street sipping coffee and chatting with an acquaintance, having recently been named 2015 Journalist of the Year by the Canadian National Newspaper Awards for her hands-on coverage of the Syrian Refugee Crisis for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto daily newspaper. She was also named in the International awards category.
Slater is a new resident of Williamstown, where her husband, Joel Lee, started work as an assistant professor of anthropology at Williams College in January.
At 40 years old and the mother of two, she is now covering the U.S. business beat for the Globe and Mail from New York City and from the Northern Berkshires in her rented office space at Cloud 85 on Main Street in North Adams.
Working in North Adams is a bit of karmic dazzle for Slater, as she was once good friends with Daniel Pearl, the former reporter for the North Adams Transcript and The Berkshire Eagle. She and Pearl were good friends while they were both working for the Wall Street Journal in Mumbai, India.
Pearl was assassinated in 2002 after being kidnapped by Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan.
Slater's work in Europe began in 2014 while her husband was advancing his post-graduate education in Berlin, where Slater joined him to cover Europe for the Globe and Mail. When the refugee crisis exploded in 2015, Slater was in a perfect spot to document the historic massive migration of refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East into Eastern and Central Europe.
In the fall of 2015, Slater told The Eagle, she knew the eye of this particular storm would be in Budapest, so on Sept. 1, she headed there and went straight to the Keleti railway station. She found thousands and thousands of refugees there, sitting and sleeping on steps, sidewalks and anywhere else there was a flat surface.
"It was a mess," Slater recalled. "It was filthy and packed. And there were some amazing people there — not only among the refugees, but local volunteers handing out food and water."
From there began a series of articles describing the personal struggles of individual travelers desperate to escape the deadly environs of their home towns and start anew where simple safety is not a daily struggle.
She followed the refugees as they navigated a confusing, frustrating and dangerous path on trains and on foot as they haltingly made their way through the Balkans, into Austria and finally to Germany. Obstacles included governments, razor wire fences, riot police and angry nationalists fearful of outsiders.
Allies turned up in surprising places, almost all of them volunteers, offering refugees solace, food, supplies, shelter, and sometimes money or work.
At one point, Slater noted, she found herself on a train the Hungarian officials told the refugees would take them to Austria, but was actually bound for internment camps where the refugees were to be housed.
The train was stopped an hour later in Bicske to transfer the refugees. It was surrounded by riot police. Although she was determined to stay with the refugees for as long as she could in order to recount their experience, the authorities discovered there was a journalist among the passengers, and the police escorted Slater off the train.
"When I think about the panic I saw on the faces of the people that were trapped there, it was terrible," Slater said.
She didn't know where she was, or have any transportation. She was able to catch a ride and continue on with her coverage. Her friends on the train refused to leave, and shortly thereafter the government changed its strategy. Rather than try to hold the travelers for processing, they would encourage the refugees to proceed out of the country and opened the border to Austria.
It was a fast-moving, ever-changing scenario, and Slater had to stay on her toes to keep up with the story. But her work, along with a flood of work coming from other journalists around Europe and the Mediterranean, allowed the public to see in close detail the experiences of the refugees and the human catastrophe unfolding across Europe as a direct result of the destabilization of Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With those details having become a part of the public and governmental understanding, it became influential in the formulation of policies to deal with the crisis. The reporting also, some have said, had an effect on Stephen Harper's failed re-election bid for prime minister of Canada and the victory of Justin Trudeau, who has since opened the doors of the country to 25,000 more Syrian refugees.
"Canadians were disturbed by (the Syrian refugee crisis)," Slater said. "Under Harper, in the midst of an election, he was closing the door to refugees. Canada of all countries was standing with its arms folded — it was very un-Canadian."
In comments issued by the awards judges, Slater's work was cited as influential.
"Her writing allowed us to smell the fear of the dispossessed, to experience the uncertainty and heartbreak of a continent in turmoil," according to the judges' statement. "Her reporting also played out against the backdrop of a Canadian election in which refugee issues featured prominently. In short, Slater's reporting was timely, significant, deeply moving and memorable — the exemplars of great journalism."
The letter from the Globe and Mail nominating Slater's work explains that "she immersed herself in the refugee experience in Europe. Over repeated journeys, she recounted the uncertainty, setbacks and triumphs of refugees and migrants as they sought safety and a new life. The result was an unparalleled perspective on the story which defined 2015. It included exceptional reporting on breaking news and deeply reported original features that required earning the trust of their subjects, all written in prose that reached into readers' hearts."
Slater's husband Joel Lee said he was surprised and delighted when he heard about the honors awarded to his wife.
"It's good to see deep work get recognized," he said. "There's been a trend against long form journalism. I see this as kind of a push back against the Twitterization of society."
In her new assignment, Slater had the opportunity to cover a Donald Trump campaign rally in Albany recently.
After spending all that time travelling with the refugees desperately trying to find a new life, she said, "to hear Donald Trump say those things about Syrian refugees was disconcerting. Then he started calling the press liars and dishonest. I hadn't heard those kinds of things since the right-wing protests in Dresden."
At one point on the train, Slater had asked a fellow traveler, Khaled Allak, an engineering student and refugee of Syria who crossed the Mediterranean on a smuggling ship, why he would take such a risk with his life.
His answer was true for all the refugees trying to escape their homelands.
"It's quite simple," she recalls Allak saying. "The chances of me dying in that boat are less than the chances of me dying at home."