Refugee Voices in RACE Centre Archives

Part One: Introducing Six Collections

Written by Annie Dickinson and Maya Sharma

The voices and stories of those who have fled conflict, violence and persecution to seek sanctuary in a new country are captured in many archive collections at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre. Memories of homes and families left behind, long and difficult journeys over land and sea, and the harsh realities facing those who seek refuge in the UK once they arrive feature heavily across our collections, along with stories of hope, resilience and community.

Oral histories, in particular, allow us to hear refugees telling their stories in their own words. Refugees and migrants are often in the news, spoken about in terms of policies and statistics, often in ways that reproduce negative myths and stereotypes. It is much rarer to hear the voices of refugees themselves, yet who is better placed to speak truthfully about the refugee experience than those who have lived that experience?

The oral history collections at the RACE Centre put refugee voices front and centre, and in doing so counter the negative myths and stereotypes about refugees and migrants often found in newspapers or on television. For those of us fortunate enough not to have been forced to flee our homes and countries, listening to refugees talk about their lives, their journeys and the struggles they have faced, as well as their achievements, the communities they have built and the contributions they have made, has the potential to replace fear and mistrust with understanding and compassion.

To mark Refugee Week 2022, this blog introduces six oral history collections that feature refugee voices, providing background and contextual information about each collection along with links to find out more. The second part of the blog explores some of the stories and experiences narrated in the recordings in more depth.

Transcripts and recordings of many of the oral history interviews discussed in this article are available to access at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre on the lower ground floor of Central Library. For more details please visit our website or get in touch with us by email at [email protected].

You can find out more about the history of refugees in Manchester by reading this blog, published in Refugee Week 2021.

Memories of Partition (GB3228.77)

The Memories of Partition collection captures for posterity the voices of people who lived through the 1947 Partition of India. The division of the country by the British into India and Pakistan, and the way in which it was carried out, resulted in widespread violence. 14 to 16 million people were displaced; there was a sudden and mass exodus of people from newly created Pakistan to India and vice versa. Records estimate that between 200,000 and 1 million people were killed in the violence that accompanied Partition. There are also notable stories of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs protecting each other.

The story of Partition often centres the experiences of British colonial rulers, along with leading Independence campaigners and politicians. The voices and experiences of ordinary people are often left out of these narratives. The Memories of Partition Project, run by the Manchester Museum, aimed to capture the collective memory of those affected by Partition: at the heart of the collection are a set of oral history recordings with “ordinary” Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis. Though Partition was over 70 years ago, many of the interviews illustrate the deep emotional impact of the traumatic events and experiences.

Find out more:

You can listen to excerpts from two interviews on our SoundCloud channel.

Videos of interviews are available to watch on Manchester Museum’s YouTube channel.

Manchester Refugee Support Network (GB3228.57)

The Manchester Refugee Support Network collection is significant in that it not only records the stories of refugees from a range of different countries, it also documents the important work of the Manchester Refugee Support Network and its many member refugee community organisations. The collection documents decades of work by refugees in Manchester to support themselves, each other, and the community.

MRSN was set up in 1995 by refugees and asylum seekers in response to the woeful lack of support for those arriving in the UK seeking asylum. Statutory bodies and voluntary sector organisations often failed to provide services that were culturally appropriate, sensitive to people who had often experienced emotional and/or physical trauma, and delivered in community languages. MRSN brought together those with lived experience of the asylum system to create support systems and services for others like them, as well as to challenge other organisations (including the Home Office and UK Border Agency) to do better.

As well as a rich set of documents, photos and materials which tell the story of MRSN from its inception, the collection contains a set of oral history recordings with key members, past and present. The collection not only records personal stories, but also the dedicated work of communities coming together to try and use their experiences and resources to make things better. It also offers insights into the sometimes nightmarish system for seeking asylum in the UK.

Find out more:

More information about MRSN is available on their website, including a timeline which shows the development of the Network set against wider events.

The Distance We Have Travelled (GB3228.41)

The oral history recordings in The Distance We Have Travelled collection allow us to hear the voices of some of the most vulnerable communities in Manchester. The people interviewed come from Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Somalia, and fled their homes to escape civil war, political instability, violence and persecution. At the time the interviews were carried out, many were undocumented or awaiting the outcome of asylum appeals, uncertain whether they would be granted the right to remain in the UK. Because of this, all of the interviews are anonymised to protect the identities of those that took part.

The Distance We Have Travelled learning pack. Image credit: The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust

The interviews were carried out by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust in 2005-2007 as part of the Distance We Have Travelled project. The project aimed to increase understanding and challenge negative stereotypes about refugees, and also produced an exhibition and a learning pack. The recordings include painful and traumatic experiences as well as uncertainty about the future, but there is hope, too, and an incredible amount of resilience.

Find out more:

You can read the oral history transcripts and access the learning pack in our library.

Voices of Kosovo in Manchester (GB3228.53)

In 1999 many Kosovar people arrived in Manchester as refugees, evacuated to the North West as part of a global humanitarian response to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. The Voices of Kosovo in Manchester archive collection was created by Manchester Aid to Kosovo’s VOKIM (Voices of Kosovo in Manchester) project. The VOKIM project marked the 20th anniversary of the Kosovar evacuation to Manchester and recorded oral histories with members of the community, as well as those involved in moving them to Manchester and helping them to settle here.

This collection stands as testimony that the conflicts and political systems that result in exodus, causing people to seek sanctuary elsewhere, can be seen close to home, as well as “over there” (i.e. on different continents or markedly different political systems to Europe).

Find out more:

The project website ( includes further contextual information, full transcripts and recordings of the oral histories, as well as additional materials and guidelines for schools and learning.

Lisapo – The Congolese Tales (GB3228.24)

‘Lisapo’ means tale or story in Lingala, one of the many languages spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Lisapo – The Congolese Tales, Congolese refugees tell their own stories: of their lives and experiences back home, their reasons for coming to the UK, and the communities that they have built here in Manchester. The collection was created as part of an oral history project run by Community Arts North West and Manchester’s Congolese communities.

Congolese people have been migrating to the UK since the late 1980s due to ongoing instability and civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This instability dates back to the 1870s, when King Leopold II of Belgium set out to conquer the area surrounding the Congo Basin and exploit its resources. A period of intense brutality followed and millions of Congolese people died as a result of forced labour, disease and famine brought about by colonial rule. The Belgian state took over control of the country from 1908 until 1960 when the local independence movement forced them to relinquish power. Since then, internal conflict and violence has kept the area in perpetual instability and has displaced thousands of Congolese people within and outside the country.

Find out more:

The Lisapo Project website has further contextual information about the project as well as videos of Congolese cultural performances.

Gardens of Babylon (GB3228.93)

In the Gardens of Babylon collection, four first generation Iranian and Kurdish migrants share the rich artistic history embedded in Persian culture, in oral history recordings that include stories, songs, rhymes and poems. Those interviewed were all born in the area of Iran, Iraq and Kurdistan that was once known as Babylon. This region is widely held to be one of the cradles of civilisation, and had a significant global impact on philosophy, medicine, literature and the arts..

Oil painting created by Bolton-based Iranian artist Ana Sahami, in response to the title of the project, Gardens of Babylon, GB3228.93/5/1.

The people interviewed in the collection are artists, writers and creatives, and most came to the UK as refugees; some to escape the persecution of Kurdish people in Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s and others as a result of the oppressive regime that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The recordings were made as part of the Gardens of Babylon project by Sheba Arts, a migrant arts and culture organisation based in Manchester.

Find out more:

You can find out more and watch a documentary film about the project on the Sheba Arts website.

You can listen to excerpts from the oral history recordings on our SoundCloud channel.