It’s July, and writers and storytellers walk across south-east England, telling the tales of those who fled to this country to escape war and persecution and tyranny. A journey about journeys, Refugee Tales is a pilgrimage of sorts, all about migration and detention, a welcome mat laid at every stop, a salt-circle safe-space established against tabloid hysteria in which people can sit and listen to the stories of refugees and those who work with them, can sit and think about movement.
Because we need to think about movement. As long as the bombs fall and the tyrants rage and the planet warms, we need to think about movement.
Storytelling is at once a spiritual and a tangible practice. How we use words and language and sentences and punctuation shapes our narratives and defines and moulds the stories we live by. There are ‘big’ stories that drive nations for good or ill, manifest destinies or cries of ‘two world wars and one world cup’; there are also smaller stories, quieter stories, stories that emerges from the margins to supplement our uber-narratives, or to challenge them, David standing before Goliath armed only with a sling and the hope of justice.
Sometimes those quieter, rarely heard stories are an inoculation against terrible things and furious words. That’s why we need to listen to them. That’s why we need organisations like Migrant Voice, an organisation that helps promote the voice of refugees and migrants, or the Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields.
Wait, an inoculation? Maybe, or a shield:
“At the core, what we’re involved in when we’re trying to make positive changes in our communities and in the world is a battle of narratives or a battle of stories, and that the corporations and different parts of the government tell us are stories that they use to cement their power and legitimise their power. Those of us who are angling for positive change need to tell another story rooted in our lives, and that’s the core of social change movements, it’s fighting between stories.”
So said organiser and writer David Solnit on the Iconoclast podcast in June, and he’s got a pretty good idea of what’s going on. That’s why it’s important to leverage whatever influence we’ve got to allow refugee tales to be heard, and to make the time to sit and listen to those tales.
But how we listen is important too; we should first listen not to fix but to understand. It’s through understanding that we will be formed by these stories, and recognise the humanity of those behind them; that’s not to be underestimated in a media landscape that routinely uses words like ‘swarm’ and ‘horde’ to describe refuges or migrants. Through listening we also learn, and one of the most important lessons we can learn is that we’re not so different.
A while back, the New Yorker published a piece entitled ‘The Refugee as Cassandra in the Shining City’, which highlighted the importance of hearing the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers because they can see and recognise things that the rest of us often can’t. We like to think that It Can’t Happen Here; refugees know that it can happen here, and by the way, here are all the warning signs you’re missing.
(So often Western countries see themselves as cities on a hill to which people flee to, but we can’t picture ourselves as places people could end up fleeing from. That’s a failure of imagination that leaves us vulnerable to authoritarianism.)
(Maybe this is also why people who leave, say, Pakistan or Mexico are called ‘immigrants’, while people who leave the UK are called ‘ex pats’.)
But perhaps most important, refugee stories are an assertion not just of humanity but of identity and individuality.
And amidst all these unique stories, there will be shared experiences and flashes of recognition, and through those moments of familiarity relationships can start to emerge, and with them community and appreciation; through moments like this, we make ourselves neighbours, find ourselves family.