Updated: Aug 1, 2019
"Through creating these spaces of hope, the Global Story Cafés were by no means an acceptance or approval of the status quo..."
Olivia Sheringham was instrumental in making our Story Cafe project happen - we are so grateful for her research perspective and generous partnership which enabled us to expore a different way of telling stories. In this reflection she explains what we achieved, and what we found out.
As Helen reflects in her recent blogpost, rarely do we hear stories told by refugees on their own terms. Rarely do we get the chance to hear the stories of refugees as people with plural identities that go far beyond their ‘refugee-ness’. And, indeed, rarely does the gaze shift away from the refugee ‘other’ and invite ‘us’ to reflect on our own stories, or to shift focus to processes of listening as well as the telling of stories. What might emerge through this kind of encounter?
In our recent project, Global Story Cafés, we were inspired by the Universum story-sharing project in Finland in which people from diverse backgrounds come together to share stories about universal themes with the goal to ‘reduce prejudices, fear and racism and to promote equality and tolerance (through the art of stories)’. We wanted to emulate this model in the London borough of Waltham Forest, one of the most ethnically diverse in the country (48% of the local population are from a minority ethnic background) to bring refugee stories to a wider audience and to create a series of community conversations.
In partnership with Queen Mary University of London, we held a series of ‘story cafés’, inviting people to come together to share stories and, of course, delicious food cooked by members of the group.
The building blocks for these public (though targeted to particular groups) story cafés, were ten storytelling workshops that were held on Saturday mornings (February to June 2019) and through which we formed a team of refugees/asylum seekers/migrants (status irrelevant) and local volunteers. Six of the sessions were facilitated by storytelling and theatre professionals (and our comrades) Jumana Moon, Sue Mayo, and Kate Duffy and Syed Naijibi from Phosphoros Theatre. Together we created stories using drama, objects, puppets, drawing, prose and poetry.
We all shared stories of childhood games, of childhood stories, of home cooking, and imagined together what superpower we would like to have and how we would use it.
In one workshop, Punch and Judy puppets became Theresa May, Sajid Javid and the Home Office, and everyone took turns to express their anger, their pain, their sense of injustice in this increasingly hostile – or ‘compliant’ (as Javid has strategically renamed yet certainly not revised) - environment. Refugee participants told stories of past and present trauma, of memories and their everyday reverberations. There was space in the workshops to delve into memory boxes to remember, imagine and share stories of distant homes, families, and places, vividly evoking smells, sounds, colours, sensations. But there was also space to keep the box’s lid firmly shut, space to not re-visit a painful past, to not share. We journeyed into our imaginations to create alternative stories. Stories of multiple ‘I’s, stories that reflect the messy patchwork of experiences that make up individual lives, but stories that, in their refusal to be linear or easy to categorize, resist the dominant dehumanizing narratives about migrants and refugees that pervade mainstream media and political discourse.
And as we worked, together we explored ways in which we could transpose these story-sharing activities to our story cafés. We designed flashcards with questions for our guests that would invite stories, memories or thoughts about universal themes.
Where is home? What games did you play as a child? What value would you pass onto the next generation?
We held four cafés in total: with local women in Waltham Forest, sixth-formers from Sir George Monoux College, local residents at Priory Court Community Centre and a grand finale with a wider public at the Migration Museum Project. Like our friends in Finland, during these events, people sat around tables and, when the card was turned over, everyone shared a story. These cafés were about telling and talking. But, just as importantly, they were about listening. During these moments, everyone was guest and host, performer and audience. And, through responding to the same cards, everyone learnt more about each other and found points of connection and commonality despite vastly different life experiences. As one 6th former remarked: ‘I enjoyed hearing other people’s stories and seeing how similar we were to each other.’
Through our weekly workshops, we formed a small team of people and took quiet steps to counter the hostility and exclusions that increasingly permeate the lives of migrants and refugees in the UK and beyond. Through the story-sharing cafés, we extended these steps further which, as Sue Mayo reflected, was ‘like throwing a stone in the water’ whose ‘ripples . . . touch lots and lots of people.‘ To echo Marina Warner’s reflections on her work with forcibly displaced people in Palermo, Stories in Transit, our project did ‘not extend approval, tacitly or otherwise, to conditions that curtail the right to freedom of movement and work for refugees; no man or woman should be made to pay for their survival with their dignity.’ Through creating these spaces of hope, the Global Story Cafés were by no means an acceptance or approval of the status quo – the wider milieu in which the rights and freedoms of refugees and migrants are increasingly curtailed and exclusions and racism prevail. Rather they demonstrate an active and collective resistance to the silencing of refugee voices. We must create more spaces of encounter, conversation and solidarity in which people can share and listen to stories with refugees. And through these quiet acts of welcome and solidarity with refugees we must continue to resist and challenge the overriding narratives about them.
Queen Mary University of London