Engaging Refugee Narratives

Perspectives from Academia and the Arts III

Dissemination/Archived, Live and Graphic NonFiction

16-17 June 2017 – Anthropology Department, University College London 

Abstracts and Descriptions of Talks and Workshops


This session examines the notion of the digital archive; a virtual record tracing life as lived, as well as a culturally, politically, and epistemologically (a)live space in which narratives, identities and social relations are (re-)produced, contested and affirmed. We consider, in particular, the roles played by social media and digital technologies in the everyday lives and storytelling practices of refugees and migrants, and in academic research and applied/artistic work that seeks to engage with these issues.

Living Digital Archives: Out of Place in Cyberspace
Dr. Shireen Walton

In the digital landscape, notions of place loom large, though many people engaging with/in cyberspace are physically out of their place of origin. In this presentation, I will examine the capacity of the Internet and digital media to emplace. In particular, I will explore the popular social media album as a ‘living digital archive’; a virtual space which provides occasions for (re-)viewing digitised material (photographs, stories, objects, artefacts…), for cross-generational storytelling, and for (re-)connecting with others. These digital archives, I suggest, are ‘contact zones’ of sorts; providing access points to people, things, and landscapes lost, and to collective pasts, presents and futures. Many people go to the digital archive to travel back, to bear witness, and to be with themselves and/or each other. Others do not. An ethnographic understanding, I suggest, can help extrapolate the social dimensions of these practices and desires. As such, this paper presents a digital-anthropological case study of social media pages and digital platforms created by and predominantly for people from the city of Abadan in South-West Iran, who fled during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s to make new lives elsewhere. Through the case study, I will examine how popular digital archives, and practices of digital archiving on the Internet form a significant part of what people want digital technology to do – i.e. to virtually re-emplace in the absence of physical presence and material things. I conclude by reflecting on the paper’s broader relevance for thinking about physically uprooted peoples, living digitally, out of place.


Researching Young Connected Migrants Differently. The Smartphone as Personal Pocket Archive
Dr. Koen Leurs

During the height of the so-called “European refugee crisis,’ news and social media narratives commonly ‘othered’ Syrian refugees who arrived in Europe carrying smart phones as economic migrants and bogus asylum seekers. There was little interest in learning from refugees why they were carrying smart-phones, or why they were taking selfies upon arrival on European soil. Generally, so far the relationships between media and migration are mostly addressed through studies of news framing, representation and meaning making. However, digital media use provides a timely entry-point to explore migration on the basis of self-representations of migrants themselves. Drawing from an ongoing participatory action research project on ‘Young connected migrants’ (2016-2019) this presentation focusses on experiences of young forced migrants – particularly young Syrians – living in the Netherlands. Taking the smartphone as an entry point, participants are invited to narrate their experiences of identification, human rights, affectivity, and literacy by reflecting upon their own phone pocket archives consisting of messages, photos, videos, music play-list and app preferences.

Provoking Peace – Some Lessons from Indonesia
Prof. Patricia Spyer

This presentation focuses on the provocations of a loose, interreligious group of ordinary citizens and activists in the Malukan city of Ambon on Indonesia’s eastern fringe that formed spontaneously during an incident in September 2011 of religiously inflected violence. In naming themselves “Peace Provocateur” the group calls up the specter of the shadowy provocateur credited by many with inciting much of the violence that engulfed Ambon in a ‘Muslim-Christian’ war from early 1999 until the official 2002 peace, with sporadic outbreaks thereafter. Countering incitements to violence and distortion of facts by rapidly posting photographs and video clips on social media and firing tweets to mainstream media--especially television--the group’s ‘provocations’ aim to arrest the kind of fear-mongering and nefarious circulation of rumors that were central to the outbreak, spread, and sedimentation of violence in the early 2000s.


Another Country. Art and Archivism
Dr. Cathrine Bublatsky

Migration, trauma and loss are essential themes in the work by artists and visual story-tellers Parastou Forouhar (Germany), photographer Mitra Tabrizian (UK), or German-based photo-journalist Kaveh Rostamkhani. Whereas all of them were born in Iran and migrated to Europe, their engagement with migration and flight follow very different routes. Their strong commitment to research, visualization and sharing does not only turn the artistic projects as such into archives about people and life-stories of migration - even more important, for communicating the knowledge beyond exhibition and publication contexts, digital platforms and social communication via blogs, email networks, Instagram and homepages are crucial sites of what become then a ‘lived artistic archive’. 


Conflicting Performance: Afghan Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Europe
Prof. Alessandro Monsutti

In 1990, Afghans were the largest displaced group falling under UNHCR’s mandate, with more than 6 million persons. Today, they still constitute the second-largest refugee population after Syrians. As they are no longer welcome in Pakistan and Iran, Afghans are forced to look for new destinations and have been increasingly coming to Europe. There is a thin path on which young men in Europe have to walk. They have to stage their journey for their family back home. If they give a rosy picture of their life (which certainly does not correspond to their everyday experience), they will be under pressure to remit something back. If they give a gloomy picture, they will be under pressure to return and/or be seen as having failed their mission


Storytelling includes “true stories told live” within formal and informal settings, faction and fiction stories created with a purpose, a moral, a parableHere we explore the impact of live presentations of narratives, both on the teller and the audiences. This impact is sometimes multiplied by being later broadcast via social or other media but our focus here is on the shared event of performing and listening in person“Presentation” is broadly understood to include those who call themselves storytellers but also poets, teachers, singers, actors, puppeteers, clowns, and others.


Olivebranch Arts Sahrawi Refugee Project
Becky Hall, David Stothard and Emma Brown

In our talk Olive Branch will share ways in which it has has been creatively engaging with the Sahrawi refugee community since 2010. We currently deliver annual theatre-training programmes to young people between the ages of 16 – 30, as well as working creatively and therapeutically with elders from the Landmine Victim Centre and offering training and support to teachers working in special needs schools on the camps. In 2014/15 Olive Branch received funding from Arts Council England to run an exchange project between this community and a group of young people from Enfield, North London.

Our yearly residencies offer participants an opportunity to devise and perform an original piece of theatre, empowering the community to tell their stories and celebrate their culture. Historically, these performances have explored narrative testimony and personal response to the participant’s status as refugees, local myths and traditional tales shared with us by local elders and, more recently, the use of western stories as a framework for the group to build upon and place in a relevant cultural context.

We are constantly striving to find the most effective platforms for participants to tell their stories, celebrate their culture, and speak to an audience through creative learning. Our aim is to provide a space for groups and individuals to position themselves at the centre of their own stories, thereby defining their own realities, cultures and identity. This has proved all too important in a community where much of its history is an oral history and whose cultural identity is being lost through the systemic denial of their right to self-determination and daily violations of their civil and political rights.


Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa and the site of a protracted territorial dispute between the Moroccan Kingdom, which claims sovereignty and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi liberation movement that seeks independence. The majority of Sahrawis are refugees today, living in one of the harshest deserts in the world. Despite extreme hardships, the community has managed to build a democratically run nation-in-exile where women play a prominent role, defying Western preconceptions of Arab-Muslim societies.


Listening for Stories
Prof. Lindsay French

If much can be made of the stories that get told live, much can be learned from the stories that don’t get told as well.  This paper looks at the different ways stories DON’T get told live and why, and the way untold stories evolve over time.  It invites an attentiveness to the silences, the evasions, the refusals to speak, the tall tales that sometimes answer the call for stories, and the way that hidden stories emerge, sometimes violently, and sometimes gently, years after the fact.

Drawing on 30 years of fieldwork with Cambodians, I focus especially on the relationship between the listener -- the receiver – and the person with something to say

Graphic memoir, graphic nonfiction, cartooning

Illustrated storytelling on paper is also a powerful form of expressionWhether used to educate and share information or to bare one’s soul through an exploration of a life in progress, graphic nonfiction reaches a broad audience. It has the advantage of the images going beyond “illustration” of the words and working themselves to add multiple layers of meaning to be discerned and interpreted by the reader/viewer. Presenters will show varied forms of graphic nonfiction and discuss the impact and implications of this increasingly popular form of communicating.


Crossing Borders, Bridging Boundaries: Reconstructing the Rights of the Refugee in Comics
Dominic Davies

In this short talk I will do three things. First, I will briefly explain what ‘comics journalism’ is and offer some thoughts on why comics have become increasingly used toward journalistic ends in recent years. Second, I will discuss the ways in which the formal architecture of comics, when applied to journalism and testimony, might generate empathy in its readerships, and consider how this might be connected to issues of human rights. And third and finally, I will give some specific examples of how these processes work through a discussion of comics that have documented the Syrian refugee crisis, including those by the PositiveNegatives project.

Crossing Boundaries: The Power of comics in spreading the stories of refugees
Karrie Fransman

Comic creator Karrie Fransman discusses the power and potential of the comic medium in travelling across borders and boundaries to reach new audiences and create empathy during the refugee crisis. 


Noon talk

Archive of struggles
Oren Ziv

This talk focuses on the work of Activestills, the online archive of the Collective and its use by activists, community members and researchers. Through this work Oren will discuss the question of what is the importance of activist photography in a time when anyone can be a photographer. Two recent projects of Activestills will be presented: the Bedouin community in the Negev desert and Palestinians arrested for social media activity. 




The Poetry of Life
Anthony Anaxagorou

Participants will explore how to express life experiences through poetry, looking for original imagery and ways to extend metaphor without descending into clichés.  What effects does such symbolism have on the reader/listeners and how can poetry be encouraged among refugees and migrants today who come from countries where it remains a highly prized art form and common form of communication?


Sides to a Story
Jojo Hynes

A storytelling workshop where participants will play with characterisation through movement, voice work and sound.  We will explore a story through collaboration, reinterpreting different agendas and exploration of the first person perspective.  In the showcase of our storytelling we will experiment with live digital direct feed footage to highlight the first person perspective. 


Migration Swatch Book
Dr. Rachel Lehr

A swatch book is a traditional textile sample book, often used in the carpet or upholstery trades. The Migration Swatch Book is a collection of pages created by participants in “Engaging Refugee Narratives", a sampling of stories and swatches of fabric and other artifacts that illustrate our varied immigrant pasts. Participants will create their own page of photos, scraps of cloth and other mementos and write a short narrative that tells their own or their ancestors’ story about migration. Participants can bring materials from home, or use the supplementary materials provided. This guided activity is open to all teens, adults, and families - no need for craft or art experience!  Participants will bring their creations home and have the option of scanning their pages into the online Migration Swatch Book.


Migration & Theatre
Tom Bailey

Migration and Theatre will comprise fun, practice-led exercises borne from theatre-making with refugees at the Calais Jungle migrant camp. Across 2016, Tom was working at the Good Chance theatre at The Jungle.

Across the Migration and Theatre workshop participants will be gently guided through a series of practical and hands-on exercises, working with partners and in groups. This will be combined with insight on how and why these exercises were used, and what it was like to make theatre in the Jungle. It’s designed for those without a prior performing background, and anyone who is simply curious.



A creative Cartoon workshop on the theme of Loss and displacement
Rachael Ball

Participants will use poetic and literary sources on the theme of loss to create their own 

individual, emotive and creative cartoon strips. Cartoonist Rachael Ball will use her own and other cartoonist's work to explore the devices artists use to connect with their audience and to convey feelings of loss and alienation.  http://rachaelball.tumblr.com 


From script to story
Gabi Frödén

In this workshop we will look at a story based on true events and create a storyboard. We will discuss how to visually convey the emotions of the lead character and gain a basic understanding of how to turn a script into an illustrated story. www.gabifroden.com