Helping Refugees Past and Present

The Translating Asylum project team was invited to take part in a discussion-based event hosted by Journeys Festival International and organised by Ria Sunga, PhD Candidate, at the University of Manchester’s History department, on Friday 11 October 2019. This blog post provides a brief overview of key themes and discussion points.

The Helping Refugees Past and Present event brought together academic researchers and practitioners from humanitarian organisations working on refugee-related activities in Manchester. It aimed to trace a broad history of refugee communities in Manchester and the history of refugee assistance and activism in the city, linking this with current practices and campaigns from Manchester-based organisations working with refugees.

On the panel were Annabelle Wilkins (Translating Asylum, University of Manchester), Julia Savage (Asylum Matters), Amir Raki (Caritas Salford), Liz Hibberd (Manchester City of Sanctuary), Dana Sharkas, (Rethink Rebuild Society), Moaz El Sayed (Rethink Rebuild Society), Rubina Jasani (HCRI, University of Manchester), Ruth Wiggans (Medact Manchester) and Piyush Pushkar (Medact Manchester).

The panel discussion highlighted the importance of having public-facing opportunities to reflect on the work that individuals do with refugees in relation to addressing the needs and priorities of people seeking refuge, but also involving refugees as co-producers of knowledge, and making sure organisations work with, rather than for/on behalf of refugees. A video created by researchers at the Humanitarian Conflict Response Institute about participatory ethnographic research with refugees showcases recent work by the Institute with the organisation Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) in Manchester and is an example of such an engaged approach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PiLYdzvowMs

Several contributions helped to place current initiatives into the local historical context, for example, Manchester’s history of receiving refugees and how support for refugees has changed over time. Acknowledgement was given to grassroots organisations such as the Manchester Refugee Support Network and to several aspirational initiatives that have emerged in the city such as the Refugee Charter for Manchester which was launched in 2006 to promote support in areas such as housing and education.

The discussion also focused on ways in which academic research can be used to support practical work and campaigns, that is, the use of research as an evidence base for lobbying politicians and giving legitimacy to the practical work already being done by organisations. In many cases, initiatives in the city, including Manchester City of Sanctuary, are run with minimal staffing which threatens their reach and sustainability in the longer term. This prompted an audience member to comment that despite all of the good work undertaken, the efforts described are but a drop in the ocean and what is needed is greater political change at the higher levels.

Questions around the scale and impact of support initiatives led to reflection on the politics of refugee solidarity in Manchester. The panellists articulated in very concrete ways how different practices of solidarity have emerged in the city and how such practices are sustained in the face of sizable organisational funding obstacles. Representatives from Rethink Rebuild Society, for example, talked about their efforts to support the newly arrived Syrian community and also to leverage their networks in the wider city by encouraging positive cultural engagement across communities through a festival of arts and culture. Amir Raki (Caritas Salford) talked of the Cornerstones initiative, which provides support in English language learning to refugees and asylum seekers as part of services to the wider city community as part of a growing network of grassroots and volunteer-led services to support language learning.

Audience members highlighted various events they had initiated around different cultural and food-related activities, drawing attention to examples in which interpersonal contact between communities in the city can be realised through low-investment initiatives.

Fostering relationships between refugee-related organisations and academics/Universities was another key topic, in particular for representatives of Medact Manchester. Co-chair of the organisation, Ruth Wiggans, spoke of the efforts made to develop networks with organisations that share similar values such as Docs not Cops to support initiatives in refugee and migrant health. Ruth spoke about the impact of a piece of research that Medact Manchester had undertaken with Freedom from Torture, which aimed to identify gaps in knowledge of refugee and migrant health among doctors regardless of their level of training or experience, and of a campaign to raise awareness of the ethical issues facing doctors as a result of new legal requirements to refuse non-urgent care in the NHS to overseas patients unless they can prove they have paid for it.

The Translating Asylum project, represented by Annabelle Wilkins, drew attention to the potential impact of language barriers on refugee and asylum seeker access to services, providing a historical context for evaluating approaches to language support in the city today. Uncertainties over the availability of provisions and how to access them, particularly in the healthcare sector, were raised in the audience Q & A, suggesting more work is needed to make vulnerable residents aware of professional language support services in primary care.

The powerful personal stories recounted by panellists about their motivations for working in refugee and asylum-seeker support initiatives clearly resonated with many members of the audience, many of whom were involved in other support initiatives in the city. The challenges of disseminating information about initiatives were brought home by a current asylum seeker who spoke about the difficulties in finding out what support was available and where. The event therefore provided a timely point for reflection on the University of Manchester’s recently awarded status as a university of sanctuary  and its vision of the socially responsible university.  How such a status can be used to facilitate connections between initiatives and develop understanding of what a politics of refugee solidarity means for the city of Manchester and its residents are questions that a future event might usefully address.

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 https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/oral-histories-of-ethnicity-and-post-colonialism

Oral History Society Special Interest Group on Migration https://www.ohs.org.uk/information-for/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.

Voluntary organisations’ archives and records: Why do they matter?

The Translating Asylum project draws extensively on material from voluntary organisations held in established archives. This presents several challenges, not least how to locate materials relating to translation and interpreting when such terms seldom feature in archive catalogues. At the same time, accessing archival material raises more fundamental questions about how such archives came into being and what value they have for researchers and practitioners. In this blog post, Dr Annabelle Wilkins reports on a one-day event at the British Academy that provided a forum for reflection on these themes.

  • What are the challenges faced by voluntary sector archives in the context of austerity?
  • How can we preserve the records of small and non-traditional organisations?
  • How are archives relevant to the on-going work of voluntary organisations?

These questions were the focus of a conference held at the British Academy on 6th March 2019. The event was organised by the British Academy Research Project (ARP) Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain, led by Dr Georgina Brewis (UCL). Speakers from humanitarian organisations, higher education and public sector archives came together to discuss the value of preserving the past and drawing upon it to inform current practice.

The first part of the conference focused on the ways in which archives can inform current policy, practice and communication. Zoe Abrams, Executive Director of Communications at the British Red Cross, described organisational archives as a form of ‘corporate memory’, and showed how the organisation draws upon stories and images from its archive not only to commemorate anniversaries, but also to influence humanitarian policy on a global scale.

Mike Anson, Archive Manager at the Bank of England, explained why the Bank of England Archive is a valuable resource for contemporary economists and policy-makers researching the 2008 financial crisis, with the Bank’s archives providing vital records of how similar financial crashes were managed in the past.

Kate Burt, of Leonard Cheshire, discussed how the organisation is drawing upon its archive to inform its current work supporting people with disabilities. The archive was established in 1985, and contains the personal stories of people who were supported by the organisation throughout its history. It also reflects broader changes in attitudes towards disability within society. These discussions emphasised the importance not only of preserving the history of an organisation, but also making it relevant to current practice.

Key questions were raised about how organisations can address conflicts in their history, as well as what material should be preserved. Zoe Abrams explained that the British Red Cross is guided by principles of impartiality, meaning that difficult moments must be documented. It can be particularly challenging for small charities to store their material, necessitating tough decisions about what to keep and what to dispose of. Particular concerns were raised around the vulnerability of archives in conditions of uncertainty, as well as the challenges faced by organisations in preserving their history while prioritising front-line work.

The event also addressed issues concerning the governance, rights and responsibilities of organisations. Caroline Sampson, Development Manager at The National Archives, presented on the development of a national strategy for charity archives. Collaboration is of vital importance in this work, as shown in the partnerships that are being developed with the higher education sector, as well as with voluntary sector archives around the country. However, the first step for many organisations is to know what material they have. The National Archives has therefore launched ‘Archives Revealed’: a funding programme that aims to help archives assess and catalogue their collections, making accessible material that would otherwise remain hidden.

While good governance and record keeping are crucial to the development of archives, this session also highlighted the responsibilities of archives towards individuals and public bodies. Justine Rainbow, of the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse, emphasised the crucial importance of voluntary sector archives to the Inquiry’s research. The Inquiry can request to view material from all agencies involved in children’s care. Good record keeping by organisations is therefore essential. Voluntary sector archives not only provide evidence of institutional failures, but also examples of good practice that can inform future work.

The theme of rights and responsibilities was also addressed in relation to the impact of archival material on individuals who have been in contact with organisations.  Darren Coyne, Project Manager at the Care Leavers’ Association, gave a powerful presentation on the vital role of records for people who were in institutional care as children. Many of these young people have few childhood memories, meaning that their records are key to their sense of identity. Despite having the legal right to consult their records, many care leavers face challenges in accessing them. The Association helps people to access their records, as well as providing emotional support to people who have received them.

The final panel of speakers addressed the themes of celebration, commemoration and recognition of the value of voluntary sector archives. Alasdair Brooks, Heritage Manager at the British Red Cross, and Dr Rosemary Cresswell, who is currently writing the history of the British Red Cross, discussed the value of academics and archivists working together. A clear understanding of the objectives, potential ethical issues and roles of all stakeholders involved in a project is key to maintaining a good working relationship. Academics can also act as ‘champions’ for archives, by sharing their research and promoting the organisation to the public. In the context of the 150th anniversary of the organisation, the discussion also raised questions concerning what such anniversaries are for and who decides what topics should be prioritised.

Introducing the Everyday Muslim project, Tanya Muneera Williams argued that ‘if people don’t see themselves represented in the past, they don’t feel they have a place’. The project challenges monolithic representations of Muslims in the UK through oral history projects and exhibitions, enabling people to connect with their heritage and increasing public engagement with diverse Muslim histories. The project ‘Exploring the Diversity of Black British Muslim Heritage in London’ resulted in the first archive collection based on the stories and memories of the Black, African and Afro – Caribbean Muslim community in Britain, now held at the George Padmore Institute and at Brent Museum and Archives.

In addressing the question of ‘whose histories are represented in our archives?’, Jack Latimer shared the work of the Community Archives and Heritage Group, which supports community archives around the UK, and Donna Maughan presented the ‘100 Homes’ project, which recorded the stories of Plymouth residents. Such projects are designed to ensure that diverse voices are preserved. While the project began with a small number of participants, it grew rapidly, with people bringing stories written on scraps of paper or recorded on mobile phones. Through sharing their stories, the project also led participants to re-connect with friends and family members in the local area. It has since been recognised by two awards from the Community Archives and Heritage Group.

The event closed with a public lecture by Sir Stuart Etherington of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who emphasised the value of archives as records of social history.