The Importance of Oral History for Documenting Life Story Narratives of the Migration Experience

The oral testimonies of refugees document the trauma of displacement and the search for sanctuary, as well as emphasising individual agency and resilience. This blog reflects on a recent event held at the University of East London that explored the value of oral history for documenting the migration experience.

The theme of Refugee Week 2019 was ‘You, me, and those who came before’, and invited us to learn from the stories of refugees and the communities who have welcomed them over multiple generations. Yet who has access to these stories, and how can and should they be preserved? How do we ensure that people can share their stories in ways that are empowering and meaningful to them?

This round-table event, organised by Paul Dudman at the University of East London archives featured invited interventions from community organisations, activists and academics working with oral histories, through which several key themes emerged: creative approaches to collecting and engagement; ethical issues; dissemination and access.

On matters of collection and engagement, Judith Garfield of Eastside Community Heritage explored how reminiscence sessions with migrant and refugee communities in London can create a welcoming space for individuals and groups to share their stories. Louise Wong and Circle Steele of the Wai Yin Society discussed the ‘Crossing the Borders’ project, which preserves the life stories of migrant women from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Vietnam. They described creating ‘Memory Boxes’ prior to beginning individual interviews, in which participants could write down ideas and share them anonymously; this was vital in building trust and enabling participants to reflect on difficult experiences.

Regarding ethical issues, several presenters drew attention to the act of telling stories which can trigger difficult memories about traumatic experiences of displacement. The emotional impact of listening to refugees’ experiences on the researcher also cannot be underestimated; several presenters noted the importance of support for those collecting oral histories and awareness of the risks that undocumented migrants and asylum seekers may be exposed to if their stories are published.

Intertwined with ethical concerns, the importance of language in oral history research featured in several contributions.  Bram Beelaert of the Red Star Line Museum in Belgium discussed a project in which fieldworkers with migration backgrounds and language skills were trained to collect oral histories, generating the trust of refugee participants.  Annabelle Wilkins of the Translating Asylum project explored issues arising in the narratives of Vietnamese refugees who became interpreters in the early phases after arrival in Britain. The dual position of these individuals (refugee/interpreter) that emerges in oral history testimony highlights the way in which telling stories about work activity is intimately tied to the individual’s sense of self and identity during challenging circumstances, again posing ethical issues for the researcher to navigate. The project’s focus on language intermediaries also brings into relief the intersections between oral history and language biography methodology.

The presentations also revealed the innovative ways in which oral histories can be disseminated. Rolf Killius shared the Gujarati Yatra project, which documented the cultural heritage of communities from Gujarat who have migrated to Europe and North America. Their stories were shared through an exhibition involving short films, musical performances and cultural objects collected by the community. Charlotte Angharad of Metro Boulot Dodo introduced the concept of ‘digital heritage storytelling’, which brings together art and digital technology. The ‘Empire Soldiers VR’ project turned the stories of Caribbean soldiers in the First World War into virtual reality films, evoking the feelings and atmospheres of their experiences. Marella Hoffman discussed the approach of ‘applied oral history’, in which oral testimonies are used to influence policy and practice. Oral histories are valuable tools in campaigning, conflict mediation and community integration programmes.

Finally, the event stressed the need to consider issues of access to refugee histories. Rumana Hashem of the University of Warwick introduced collaborative work involving The Refugee Council Archive at UEL, which contains over 35,000 items focusing on the history of refugee reception and resettlement in Britain. However, like most archives, it is dominated by textual material and organisational responses rather than the voices of refugees. The Living Refugee Archive project enabled recently-arrived asylum seekers and refugees to engage with the Refugee Council Archive, as well as documenting their own life narratives. The intervention argued that the co-construction of knowledge with refugees is vital in ensuring the decolonisation of the archive.

These discussions emphasised the power of oral histories in enabling the voices of refugees to be heard, as well as the value of refugees’ stories in creating alternative narratives about migration and asylum. It also raised a number of questions for researchers working on relationships between language and migration:

  • What are the interconnections between language, memory and identity in forced migration, and how can we explore these through oral histories?
  • What can be gained from combining existing oral histories and the collection of new narratives?
  • What are the connections between oral histories and language biographies?
  • How are interpreters/mediators involved in oral history interviews, and what considerations does this raise for researchers collecting oral histories?

Suggested resources for further reading:

British Library collections: Oral histories of migration, ethnicity and post-colonialism

Oral History Society Special Interest Group on Migration

Bailkin, J. (2015) Where Did the Empire Go? Archives and Decolonization in Britain. The American Historical Review 120(3): 884–899.

Hashem, R. and Dudman, P.V. (2016) Paradoxical narratives of transcultural encounters of the ‘other’: Civic engagement with refugees and migrants in London. Transnational Social Review 6(1-2): 192-199.

Temple, B. (1997) Watch Your Tongue: Issues in Translation and Cross-Cultural Research. Sociology 31(3) 607-618.

Temple, B. and Young, A. (2004) Qualitative Research and Translation Dilemmas. Qualitative Research 4(2): 161-178.

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