On Sunday 9th September, we attended "The Power of Narrative: Migration, Trauma and the Story of Us", an event which offered a nurturing storytelling space for Syrian refugees.
Hosted by Questscope and Migration Hub Network, and jointly facilitated by #MeWeSyria (a program of #MeWe International Inc.) in partnership with the British Council, this event brought 15 Syrian refugees together for a week-long workshop on strategic storytelling and communication as tools for empowerment and healing, culminating in a public speaking event on Sunday evening. In formulating and sharing their stories with a live audience, the group were able to complete an important journey of personal and collective empowerment. Some of the speeches were forward-looking, others, more nostalgic, and one was extremely funny! What bound all six stories together was a sincere and profound feeling of hope.
Importantly, the evening challenged my preconceptions about the content of the participant's speeches - I had predictably assumed that each speaker would share their flight story - I expected tears, difficult emotions, harrowing accounts of hardship and familial loss. On reflection, this was ignorant of me, and indicative of how narrow refugee discourse can be, and also how important projects like #MeWe really are. None of the Syrian participants are defined by their flight history. The eclectic style and subject matter of their speeches was a testament to their individuality as people, and a wonderful reminder of the unique ways in which human beings adapt, thrive and perceive their own reality.
Syrian participants - image provided by the British Council
I think this is an important point to make, as it is so easy to stereotype the word 'refugee', either by over-sentimentalizing, or worse, demonizing it. Sharing individual stories can help the world see the real people behind the media headlines and political jargon, and crucially, allow the people directly involved to reclaim their narrative.
Aside from the effect their stories had on the audience, how did it effect the participants themselves? The week-long #MeWeSyria workshop and #MeWe International storytelling methodology didn't just prepare them for public speaking. Rather, it sought to empower the participants in a profound way, helping them to not only articulate their story but to redefine the narrative. This was done, explained Mohsin Mohi Ud Din, founder of #MeWe International, through a mixture of speaking, writing, storytelling exercises and group workshops that prioritized internal communication, interpersonal communication, and public communication. Along the way, they learnt about the power of words, a concept which was explained and demonstrated to us at Sunday night's event.
Led by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din and renown psychologist, Justine Hardy, the audience members engaged in some warm-up exercises, including an interactive activity where we had to locate words within our bodies. This may sound rather vague, but there is a great deal of psychological study surrounding this phenomenon, and the results in the room definitely confirmed the theory! We were all divided into six group comprising of a mixture of Syrian participants and members of the audience.
Mohsin Mohi Ud Din and Justine Hardy - image provided by the British Council
We all had to close our eyes while Mohsin and a Syrian youth spoke six words. After each word, we had to open our eyes and draw on a diagram whereabouts in our body we 'felt' the word. The six words were 'mother', 'freedom', 'refugee', 'war', 'integration' and 'Germany'. After each word, we discussed within our groups our reactions to it, and what it meant to us. Needless to say, different words resonated more or less depending on our personal history. The Sudanese man sitting next to me explained that he felt the word 'refugee' in his legs, because he had walked a very long and tiring journey. This feeling in the legs was echoed by other refugees in the room. However, I personally didn't feel this word very much, or 'integration', or even 'Germany' for that matter! This was also the case for a lot of the European audience members with a non-flight history. Yet, despite our different backgrounds, there were 3 words that appeared to unite us all: freedom, war and mother. I felt 'freedom' in my head, as did many other people. 'War' was felt in people's hearts and stomaches. 'Mother', certainly my most visceral reaction (which I also felt partially in my throat), was felt by everybody in their hearts, (and for one person in their belly, because his mother feeds him every day!). Finally, we were asked to combine all our diagrams to form one big diagram - a neat visual reminder of the universality of certain words, and the emotions they evoke.
So, on to the speeches!
BURHAN: "Why can't we be the beginning of change?"
"Why can't we be the beginning of change?" asks Burhan at the very beginning of his speech. What follows is an articulate, quote-heavy speech about empowerment, self-improvement, and making the best of yourself and your situation. My favourite quotation, borrowed from Einstein was, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."Another great reference was Elenor Roosevelt's, "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."
AKRAM: "Why can't I be a Syrian German Muslim Refugee?"
Akram's speech was all about labels. By labeling a person you are reducing them to that stereotype. Akram describes conversations he has had with his family, and his frustration at their resistance to German culture and their belief that it is somehow inferior to theirs. Simultaneously, he encounters resistance from Europeans, recounting how when he mentions he is Muslim, people get a 'strange look in their eyes.' Akram makes the point that these labels are not mutually exclusive, and they can all be embraced and embodied at once! : "Why can't I be a Syrian German Muslim Refugee?"
RASHA: "My brain was frozen."
In contrast with the previous speakers, our next speaker, Rasha, chose to sit on a chair in the center of the room, and spoke without using any notes. Sitting with her hands folded in her lap, she tells us about her life, inspired by the group writing activity, "Brain Story".
Before the war, Rasha obtained a University degree and opened her own pharmacy. Rasha had a bright future; she was happy, and very proud to have her own business. But when the troubles started, it was like 'a rocket hitting everything we had built'. Rasha was left with nothing. To give herself a fresh start, she got married. However, after a few months of marriage, Rasha moved back home to care for her sister, who was suffering from depression. But soon, her husband wanted to leave Syria for Lebanon, so Rasha had to leave her family and follow him to Lebanon. She spent 5 years in Lebanon, where she was very unhappy, living in bad living conditions. Looking back on that time, Rasha says, 'my brain was frozen'. Eventually, they had to flee again. The constant change, loss of stability, and separation from her family caused Rasha to become very depressed. Her daughter, who was now 5 years old, would come to her and ask, "Mother, why are you crying?" This lasted until very recently, when Rasha realized she must be strong for her family, and never give up hope.
During Rasha's speech, there were moments when she cried, but she continued speaking with tears running down her face. This was one of the most moving stories. Rasha's courage in sharing her story, her poise and composure whilst telling it, and her tenacity in trying to re-build her life after losing everything was truly inspiring.
MAYA: "This is the story of a woman in her 60's"
"This is the story of a woman in her 60's", begins Maya. We are never told what relationship this woman has to Maya, but it is very possible that this is Maya's mother. After a whole lifetime spent living in the same place, she is forced to flee her home with her children, in order to protect them from the war. One of her sons became injured and was sent to a hospital in Syria. So, the woman left her children and made the very dangerous journey back to Syria to care for him. Her son was in a wheelchair, and not in a good state. Every day, she would walk miles to and from her house, bringing him fresh clothes and food. She began to take care of the other patients too, who weren't fortunate enough to have their own family there to care for them. She tried to speak with the hospital staff to understand more about her son's condition, but they wouldn't explain to her what was wrong, and the nurses were no help. Eventually, they operated on her son. She waited all night, and in the morning she was informed that her son had died. "It was this woman who was strong", concluded Maya, "It was she who kept us living our life."
REEM: "Hi Reem, how are you?"
Written during the activity, 'A letter to myself in 5 years', Reem talks about her plans for the future. "Hi Reem how are you?", she begins, "You have graduated from University, and you have succeeded!"
Reem congratulates her future self for achieving her dreams of working in Dubai. She ends with some empowering words: "Stay the way you are. Stay listening to your heart. Keep dreaming."
JORAM: "It's complicated."
Joram's speech was inspired by the 'Future to present' writing activity. What distinguished Joram's speech from the rest was not just its humour, but its focus. Joram chose to direct his speech towards his "frenemy": the German language!
Joram recalls the trials and tribulations of trying to learn German. It was difficult at first, but "our relationship grew after A1", he begins. Joram managed to obtain a Visa and moved to Germany, where he had to wait a year, "but", he added, "she (German) was always on my mind." The next year was stressful for Joram as he tried to navigate the complex Germany bureaucracy. He finally reached the B1 course. This was a huge achievement, but Joram was still often frustrated when he didn't understand something fully. This stressful relationship caused him to have a heart attack! He then had to recover from the operation. At B2 he began to have the fear, and ask himself, "is it possible that I will fail?". Joram let the fear inside him grow, until he didn't even want to sit the exam - but, he adds, there was a 100 euro fine, so he couldn't back out! Then... the 'catastrophe' happened - he had failed! Joram broke down, "How dare you betray me!" he screamed. But, after he calmed down, he realised that he still needed her (German). In summary, there is only one way to describe his relationship with German: "It's complicated."
** All the names of the participants have been changed to protect their anonymity **