At an open air warehouse in Hialeah Gardens that is usually used for airsoft battle scenarios, a class of students is learning how not to die overseas. For the last three days they have played out terrorist and hostage scenarios, learned how to help themselves or others with first-aid kits, and got tips on how to navigate through potentially hostile territories.
The course was the first training paid for by the Steven Sotloff Memorial 2LIVES Foundation, founded in the name of the Miami-native freelance journalist who was killed by ISIS militants in Syria in 2014.
"I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to make a difference with freelance journalists, which is what my son was," said Art Sotloff, Steven's father. "I really feel that if he would have had this type of training, that maybe his fate would have maybe turned out a little bit differently, that he would have thought a little differently and not put himself in the situation that he did."
Steven Sotloff, of Pinecrest, was one of the first reporters on the scene for the raid on the United States Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, which left US Ambassador Christopher Stephens and several other American citizens dead. His reporting broke news that there was no protest at the embassy prior to the attack, conflicting the Obama Administration's early statements on the attack and sparking a lengthy congressional investigation. In 2013, Sotloff was kidnapped by ISIS militants in Syria and held captive for over a year before his execution.
Journalists doing work all over the world were flown in to participate - some from far away countries like Afghanistan, Central Africa, Bangladesh and Syria, others from countries in the hemisphere like Brazil and Colombia. Some had already worked in these regions but were glad to get actual training on how to navigate scenarios.
"There's a lot of stuff that I hadn't previously anticipated that I'm gaining awareness about as far as working in foreign environments," said Wudan Yan, a Seattle-based independent journalist reported in Myranmar, Bangladesh and Thailand, among other nations over the last three years.
"Some of the techniques I've been learning here I can definitely apply to wherever I go in the world to work," said Will Worley, a UK native who is currently based in Colombia. "I like that a lot of this course is sort of on grounding, on how to compose yourself when you're in a stressful situation."
The group did active shooter attack scenarios involving terrorist threats and learned first responder basics. On Thursday morning, students learned how to use different apps and services to communicate without being tracked by oppressive governments, and how to keep themselves safe when traveling from point A to point B.
"If you're using encrypted and nobody knows it's encrypted, you're good," explained Frank Smyth, CEO of Global Journalist Security, the group conducting the training. "But if you are one among many that's using encrypted technology, the government can note that and your encrypted messages might stick out of the pack, even if they can't read the contents of the messages."
At one point, armed men who were actually paid actors stormed into an instructional room, demanding to see passports and other personal documents. Later, the group navigated through what looked like a bombed-out village in a mock border crossing scenario, where the armed men demanded bribes. After every scenario, the instructors offered pointers to students, encouraging them on how to best navigate the situation.
"Often with freelancers they don't have the umbrella of a journalist that writes for a publication, as in a permanent position. So they often take a bit more risk to get involved because the only way they can be paid is by getting the story," said Shane Bell, an international trainer with Global Journalist Security. "Having this training to give them an understanding of what they should do and how they should react and what to look for when they go into these areas makes a big difference."
"This is a course that I think is very, very important for every one of these freelance journalists to know," said Art Sotloff. "If I can save one life, I've made a difference."