Updated: Mar 21, 2019
When Stories & Supper was launched it was never going to be just another supper club. As well as delivering delicious food, stories had to be central to the whole experience. But why is it that we care so deeply about stories?
We hear a lot of stories about refugees – in the news, on social media, on TV, in parliament – but we rarely hear refugees telling their own stories on their own terms. We have become accustomed to footage of boats crammed with human misery or young men scaling the fences at Calais’s ferry port. Some reports are sympathetic while many are dehumanising, focussing on sheer numbers rather than individual stories.
We live in an age of misinformation, scaremongering and scapegoating. Refugees and migrants are blamed for everything from housing shortages, unemployment, violent crime, ruining schools, destroying 'our' culture and killing the Queen's swans. These stories have not emerged by accident.
When she was Home Secretary, Teresa May explicitly stated that her aim was 'to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration'. Fair enough, many might say. But consider this: there is no legal route into the UK for people seeking asylum. Other than the minuscule number of Syrian refugees welcomed under the Government's Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, all others looking for sanctuary are forced to hide in lorries, climb aboard leaky boats or, if they are lucky, buy fake passports.
As a nation, we have long been fed a diet of racism and xenophobia in the media, and in political and popular discourse. So, it is not surprising that many people are sympathetic to refugees in general, at the same time as harbouring doubts about why so many are coming, why they are coming from Eritrea or Sudan or Afghanistan as well as Syria, and why they are coming here.
We try to address these doubts and challenge the rhetoric of the hostile environment by providing a space where the people making the journeys can share their stories with others in their community. At the same time, we don’t want to force refugees to tell stories that they would rather keep silent, or stories they are tired of telling.
Most of the storytellers we work with have been through the UK asylum system – a system that is hungry for stories. Asylum seekers know only too well that their story is a kind of currency. It is demanded as proof – proof that they are telling the truth, that they are 'deserving', that they have suffered enough, have lost enough, are fearful enough. The asylum system is built on a culture of disbelief. It treats stories with suspicion rather than compassion, views real-life accounts as fiction. Harrowing details of violence, war, persecution, loss and flight have to be produced and re-produced for an asylum seeker to be in with a chance of winning the golden ticket – Leave to Remain.
We want the stories told at our events to be the ones chosen by refugees themselves. When a storyteller stands up to address a room of guests in an intimate supper setting, connections are made, barriers broken down. Supper guests can appreciate that the storytellers are not only looking through the lens of their refugeeness but have other stories to tell – stories about food, family, religion, a passion for swimming or football. Stories that connect them to their listeners, that demonstrate how much we share.
As well as planning our next supper club in April, this spring we’ll be running a series of global story cafés in Waltham Forest. With a team of refugee storytellers and local volunteers, we aim to start community conversations about migration, food and belonging with women, teenagers and retired residents. We firmly believe that the more stories we share, the more successful we will be at changing the narrative.
So, as we reach the end of National Storytelling Week, we call for a proliferation of stories rooted in real experience – stories that blow the myths about migration out of the water.
Can you help refugee stories reach more people? Can you subsidise a ticket to enable a local resident to come to our next supper club? Even if you can't make the supper yourself, you can 'pay it forward' and help somebody else attend. Pay it forward here
All refugees/asylum seekers (status irrelevant) are welcome to join our Saturday morning story-making workshops at Gnome House (E17 6DS) starting on 9th February from 11am to 1.30pm.
We will also be meeting on Wednesday evenings at 7.30pm at the Hornbeam (E17 9AH) from 27th February to plan our April supper club and improve our storytelling skills.
Plus, we always need local volunteers to help make these things happen. Please get involved and help us change the narrative.
Email for more information: email@example.com