Earlier this year, I launched Barbed Wire Fever, a literary project that explores what it means to be a refugee. The project is, in part, an attempt to understand my father’s experience of being a refugee. It is also an attempt to get beyond a story he was frequently required to recite -- the story he used to tell people about how he became a refugee. It was a story he told again and again, as if from a script. But it was also a story he was asked about again and again; people seemed to regard him as an educational resource. And it seemed as if the story of his years as a refugee became his only story.
Ten years after my father’s death, I wanted to not only see if I could find out the other stories my father might have had -- I also wanted to understand the limits that are placed on other refugees’ stories. What stories did refugees want to tell? What did non-refugees expect of them? Barbed Wire Fever made it possible for me to try to answer these questions through conversations with refugees and non-refugees both.
Six months into the project, I’ve found myself surprised by non-refugees’ ideas about who refugees are. One non-refugee said she didn’t think refugees would travel out of their neighbourhoods to attend workshops even if their travel costs were paid. My thought was that anyone resourceful enough to make their way out of a conflict zone and to UK wouldn’t have a problem taking public transport to the other side of town. (I also knew that participants in a previous workshop had done just that.) Another non-refugee helping to promote the writing workshops for refugees chose a graphic that showed a parent huddled around their child. I wondered how I would feel signing up for a writing workshop if my identity was represented by a graphic like this.
The writing workshops that are part of Barbed Wire Fever are for refugees to tell any stories they want to tell; the activities are aimed at discovering the themes you want to focus on by using free writes. ‘What stories do they tell?’ a non-refugee asked, when I explained that the workshops were not focused on narratives about needing to flee. ‘The same stories you and I tell,’ I said. One woman wrote about a trip she took with her grandfather to a beautiful place in her home country. Another wrote about what makes her feel free. Someone else wrote about how happy he was to find a welcoming LGBT community when he finally made it to the UK.
I was asked to write a post about the importance of giving refugees a platform to tell their stories. The most important thing though, if you are not a refugee, is to not assume you know what those stories are. Refugees have usually been required to tell the story of how they became refugees again and again, which of course is often a highly personal story as well as a traumatic one. In the writing workshops, people are welcome to tell a story about how they became a refugee if they want to, but the workshops are really about forgetting the expectations that other people have, about discovering the narratives that are central to the participants, about presenting a view of the world that they want to share with others.
I’m hoping a lot more people who want to provide a platform for refugees telling stories – or even just support a project that does this -- will start by learning more about who asylum seekers and refugees are. Refugee Action, Refugee Council, and Refugee Week all have good resources on their websites.
Reading literature by refugees – both contemporary and historic – will almost certainly help you to better include refugees in your work too. The very best book I know of right now about what it means to be a refugee, and how your identity can be shaped by the ways that non-refugees respond to you, is The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri. Nayeri weaves her own story of becoming a child refugee in the 1980s with the stories of contemporary asylum seekers and refugees in this book that pulls you into the complex experiences of those who have had to flee. Nayeri said she wrote the book for ‘well-meaning native born.’ If that’s you, this book will almost certainly show you things you’ve never seen. If you’re a refugee or from a refugee family, it might make you feel seen.
Other books about refugees’ experiences are: The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy, Other People’s Houses by Lore Segal, and What is the What by Dave Eggers. Lê thi diem thúy’s autobiographical novel is about a girl who fled Vietnam with her father after the War, and the complex relationship she has with her parents when they are reunited in America. Lore Segal’s autobiographical novel tells the story of fleeing Austria on the Kindertransport and becoming an unaccompanied child asylum seeker in England during the Second World War. American fiction writer Dave Eggers tells the non-fiction story of Sudanese child refugee Valentino Achak Deng, who immigrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program, in What is the What; the voice and the narrative belong to Deng. All of these books are very much about what it is like to continue your life when you’ve been uprooted and can’t go home again.
If you are interested in hearing other contemporary stories that refugees want to tell, you can also look at refugee-led groups creating stories, plays, and poetry like Phosphoros Theatre Company, Counterpoint Arts, Platforma, Refugee Tales, and Exiled Writers Ink.
The work that members of these groups are creating, and the books that I mentioned, are important not just because they are about the impact of seismic political change on individuals’ lives, but because they address themes that all of us care about: family life, friendship, separation, uprootedness, belonging, not belonging, and the complex relationships we have with both the places we live and have left behind. Everyone should hear the stories that refugees want to tell. And everyone – even if they or their country have been lucky so far – will benefit from considering what refugees and non-refugees have in common.
About the Author
Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction: Risk, Above Sugar Hill, and This Way to Departures. Her broadcast work has appeared on BBC Witness and KCRW Berlin. She recently launched Barbed Wire Fever, a project that explores what it means to be a refugee through writing and literature. Barbed Wire Fever is supported by Arts Council England. Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin.