Refugee Wales: Syrian Voices
Taking part in the Refugee Wales’s project and in working on Refugee Wales: Syrian Voices with two of my colleagues, grew out of my experience as a war survivor and a refugee in the UK. In Iraq I witnessed the first two decades of wars and sanctions in person. Later, I witnessed the occupation of my country in 2003 from afar. These experiences strengthened my knowledge of the way my position as a primary witness of wars and violence enabled an identification with the stories of the Syrian refugees who participated in my interviews. This suggests that personal pain can turn into communal pain when a group of victims/survivors share a history of suffering in a way that induces the burden of the witness which involves a responsibility for bearing witness to trauma.
“[They] handed me scraps of paper with their stories which I added to my papers… I collected the fragments to reshape the ruined city and its people… to make a mosaic image that looks like us” (al-Dulaymi 13)
Towards the end of 2019, I began working as a Research Associate at the AHRC funded project “Refugee Wales: The Aftermath of Violence.” The project is a partnership between Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. The project’s aim is to record the stories of refugees in Wales, inform Welsh government of what we’ve learnt from them, and archive the interviews as part of the national collections of Wales. My role is to conduct oral history interviews with the Syrian refugees, who have been resettled in Wales since 2011, translate the interviews, and edit a book based on the interviews with two other female colleagues. In June 2022 our book Refugee Wales: Syrian Voices was published.
The book revolves around the oral testimonies of Syrians who have found refuge in Wales. Moving away from their country has resulted in a rupture from their lives, histories, and cultures. Their stories show how Syrians in Wales manage to create identities and a sense of community as refugees, as ex-patriot Syrians and as new Welsh citizens. These competing identities are integrated into the host society in different ways and to different degrees. Both remembering and forgetting the past play crucial roles (Abdullah et al 225).
My initial interest in taking part in the Refugee Wales’s project grew out of my experience as a war survivor and a refugee in the UK. In Iraq I witnessed the first two decades of wars and sanctions in person. Later, I witnessed the occupation of my country in 2003 from afar. These experiences strengthened my knowledge of the way my position as a primary witness of wars and violence enabled an identification with the stories of the Syrian refugees who participated in my interviews. This suggests that personal pain can turn into communal pain when a group of victims/survivors share a history of suffering in a way that induces the burden of the witness which involves a responsibility for bearing witness to trauma.
Witnessing this shared grief has enabled me, in Hartman’s words, “to read the wound” (8) in a way that has engendered sympathy with the victims/survivors. Listening to the stories, translating, analysing, and selecting them for the book have helped me gaining a deeper understanding of the way narration shapes our lives by connecting these lives to broader aspects of humanity. Morton suggests that feminist research is conducted to improve women’s lives who start to encounter their own stories and to produce a “new speech that has never been spoken before” (205). Despite the difference between my experience of seeking refuge in the UK and that of my interviewees I couldn’t help but identify with some aspects of their narratives especially those related to belonging, the meaning of home and resilience against an uncertain future. However, my position as a researcher and interviewer has also placed me as a helpless onlooker at my interviewees’ traumatic memories and the present challenges they have been facing in their journey to resettle in a foreign country. As an academic who has been struggling to find a place in the western academia, I was so helpless when I listened to the stories of Syrian academics who have been experiencing huge hurdles with the recognition of their former degrees and skills.
The narratives of war my participants justify the urgency of keeping a live record of them. In this sense our book Refugee Wales: Syrian Voices becomes an informer that participates in creating a collective memory of the Syrian refugees which offers an alternative articulation of their history. In their narratives the story tellers “establish a testimonial pact and [do] justice to the collective memory of all those [killed].” (12) In Munté’s view the act of narrating the unspeakable particularities of individual trauma involves a testimony that encompasses the memory of all those who are silenced by violence as is the case with the central character of al -Dulaimy’s novel Women of Saturn:
In the novel Hayat the central character and narrator, tells the story of Baghdad’s survival throughout history by using many stories. “[They] handed me scraps of paper with their stories which I added to my papers […] I collected the fragments to reshape the ruined city and its people […] to make a mosaic image that looks like us” (al-Dulaymi 13). Hayat’s position as a secondary witness to the calamities of others who handed her “scraps” of their stories resembles my position as a secondary witness to the stories of my participants. In both cases we are presenting a historical truth of survival while creating a “mosaic that looks like us” to do “justice” to all the men and the women who were crushed by dictatorship and war.
By providing testimonies to survival we, writers, oral historians, editors, and participants are trying to reconstruct the emotional wounds along with the woes of history to create a different narrative about that history. In so doing we are disrupting certain versions of official history and defying the ideology of the ruling governments which propagated wars and violence.
The interviews in Refugee Wales: Syrian Voices strongly suggest that traces of the past impact on the present and that challenging pasts are rarely just simply past. This means that the past almost always impinges on and has implications for the present. Both Syrian and other refugees would be helped to participate in the life of Wales if members of the host community were to acquire greater knowledge and empathetic understanding of their former and current lives (Abdullah et al 226).
Ronahi Hassan, a British-Syrian Kurd who took part in the interviews, suggests that refugees are a positive addition to British society. “Diversity and accepting diversity will benefit society. Refugees are great people. They risk their lives, head to the unknown and do their best to build their lives.” This country should be proud of any refugee who succeeds in “building a life from scratch”. Some interviewees stress integration must be a two-way process in which the host society must make some ‘effort to get to know us better’. This is something that we hope our book has helped to provide (Ibid).
Abdullah, Angham. Contemporary Iraqi Women’s Fiction of War. PhD Thesis, University of York, UK]. https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/11414/ 2015.
Abdullah, Angham, Beth Thomas and Chris Weedon. Refugee Wales: Syrian Voices. Eds. Wales: Parthian Books, 2022.
Al-Dulaymi, Lutfiyya. Sayyidat Zuhal: Sirat Nas wa Madina [Women of Saturn: Biography of a People and a City]. Amman: Fadaaʾt Publishers, 2010.
Hartman, Geoffrey H. “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies.” New Literary History. Vol. 26, No. 3, 1995: 537-563.
Morton, N. The Journey is home. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1985.
Munté, Rosa-Auria. “The Convergence of Historical Facts and Literary Fiction: Jorge Semprun’s Autofiction on the Holocaust.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research. 2011, 12, 3, 34-45.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- *Material should not be published in another periodical before at least one year has elapsed since publication in Whispering Dialogue. *أن لا يكون النص قد تم نشره في أي صحيفة أو موقع أليكتروني على الأقل (لمدة سنة) من تاريخ النشر. *All content © 2021 Whispering Dialogue or respective authors and publishers, and may not be used elsewhere without written permission. جميع الحقوق محفوظة للناشر الرسمي لدورية (هَمْس الحِوار) Whispering Dialogue ولا يجوز إعادة النشر في أيّة دورية أخرى دون أخذ الإذن من الناشر مع الشكر الجزيل