Centring Unheard Voices

White badge with Fight Racism in black lettering curving around a black raised fist

Using oral histories to centre the voices of refugee and asylum seekers whilst working with young people

For Refugee Week 2021 we launch a series of blogs, focusing on how to center the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers when exploring refugeeism with young people. These blogs are aimed primarily at teachers and people working with young people, but will be of interest to anyone who wants to understand the refugee experience a little more, and in particular to encounter some of the oral histories we hold at the RACE Centre.

This first blog sets out the context, touching on terminology, and how to create a positive environment for exploring refugeeism with young people.

The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre is home to a unique set of archives that document the experiences of global majority communities.

These are communities whose roots lie outside the UK and who came as migrants and refugees, often due to British colonialism and imperialism. Some of these communities have been relatively recently established in Greater Manchester; others have been here for many generations.

Our archives document the lives and histories of Black, Brown and global majority people, in many cases in their own words and researched and collected by themselves. We often work with community organisations to support the development of their own heritage projects, allowing them to define what aspects of their histories are explored and documented. Our library collection, whilst including traditional academic titles, also includes books, magazines, reports and so on created by the communities we work with and their organisations.

At the heart of many of these archives are oral history interviews that capture the experiences of people who have come to the UK as refugees and asylum seekers. These interviews are all deeply individual but many speak about their reasons for leaving their countries, experiences of coming to the UK from elsewhere, and experiences of the UK asylum system.

Our oral history archives are stories of resilience and resistance in the face of interpersonal and institutional racism, and of fighting for the right not only to stay safe in the UK but also to thrive here. There are also stories of making space for celebration, joy, and creativity.

Stack of bound oral histories in various colours

We know that many educators are keen to teach about refugeeism and in the face of much negative and racist media coverage to encourage young people to form their own opinions about why people become refugees, what it’s like to become a refugee, and how the UK asylum system works.

Using the oral histories of refugees and asylum seekers in your classrooms and spaces is vital for allowing people whose voices are often unheard, ignored, or actively marginalised to speak for themselves.

Through our engagement work with young people, we know that they are excited, energised by real people’s stories and experiences, and particularly interested in hearing from those who lack a collective power and voice.

We hope that our oral histories and suggested activities will enable you to explore, with the young people you work with, the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in a way that encourages curiosity, empathy and identification. We also hope that, in turn, this will counter some of the many stereotypes and myths that are commonly held about refugees and asylum seekers.

Yusuf Bagail reflects on the importance of recording the oral histories of elder generations.

Words Matter

In order to talk confidently about refugees and their experiences, it’s important to start with a clear understanding of the different terms that are often used interchangeably and incorrectly.

Whilst there can be some agreement on terminology from international organisations such as the United Nations, the reality is often far more complex. People may come to the UK on a work or student visa, for example, and then seek asylum. People’s reasons for leaving their country can be a complex mix of personal issues as well as the political and economic events around them. And someone who arrives in the UK as a migrant, with the clear aim of returning to their home country may find themselves settling here more permanently.

Refugees are people who cannot return to their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution, conflict, violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order, and who, as a result, require international protection

Asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined by the UK government. Asylum is a right not a privilege — it is a human right to be safe.

Immigrant is someone who makes a conscious decision to leave their home and move to a foreign country with the intention of settling there.

Migrant is someone who is moving from place to place (within their country or across borders), usually for economic reasons such as seasonal work. Neither were forced to leave their native countries because of persecution or violence, but rather are seeking better opportunities.

Challenging racist attitudes

It is important to equip young people with the ability to recognise and challenge the racially charged language of migration. You may encounter young people who harbour stereotypical views, misconceptions or racist ideas when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers. It is our hope that our resources and your guidance can support such young people in developing more nuanced opinions guided by reliable sources and primary voices.

Daalat Ali reflects on his experiences of racism in the UK.

In many cases, young people have not been given space and a safe environment to really explore the refugee experience and to form their own opinions, so the simple act of making space in their day to focus on refugeeism is an important act. By drawing on oral histories from our archives you can bring real people and their experiences into the classroom, encouraging young people to see refugees as individuals with many different experiences and views.

Creating positive discussions

Show a willingness to learn from others about cultures and history that are new to you; your students, for example, can be a wealth of knowledge. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’; the reality is we are all learning all the time. Broaching uncomfortable issues is scary but keeping silent about racism in our past allows it to continue today — those issues need to be discussed with students.

– Nat Holmes, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre

Understanding the lived experiences of the group of young people you are working with is crucial to managing a challenging but positive discussion. These experiences may range from first-hand trauma of forced migration, violence and racism through to students who have no, or very little, personal experience of global majority communities. Such experiences may be hidden and it is important to recognise the sensitivities that may arise during your discussions and the further reading that students may go and seek out. Highlight support systems, challenge students to clarify their sources and encourage critical, independent thought.

Be confident that in creating these discussions you are at the forefront of shaping generational views. This is incredibly important work that the RACE Centre is here to support.

Subsequent blogs will introduce some of our archive collections that focus on the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in Greater Manchester and will present some creative ways of using these in educational work with young people. Look out for instalment two, an introduction to refugee experiences at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, coming soon.