Why refugee storytelling matters for healing

Refugee storytelling
6 min read
21 June, 2022
The ability to recollect memories is vital to ensure that shared identities and traditions are not lost. For refugees, storytelling and writing have become essential lifelines to keep their spirits alive and tell the world of their trauma.

I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 90s but my family is from Iraq. Whatever we did, Iraq was always present: at the dinner table, in our food, in our connections to our relatives who were still there, and in the stories that we heard from my parents.

My mother would often recall the heat of the summer and how she and her family would seek relief by sleeping on the roof. I couldn’t imagine that kind of heat in Northern Ireland where it seemed to perpetually rain.

Iraq was also a constant presence in the media when I was growing up. When I turned on the TV I saw stories of war, violence, and politics. But I didn’t want to know about war and politics.

I wanted to understand Iraq’s long, rich and complicated history. I wanted to know about the artists, the writers and philosophers that had spent their lives in Baghdad. I wanted to learn about and meet the many, many, diverse communities that called Iraq home. I wanted to know about the mundane and the every day and I wanted to hear it from other Iraqis.

"For refugees, seeing your country and community spoken about in these terms has an impact on your sense of self"

Then the war happened, and the stories got ever more political. Iraq, Iraqis and everything ordinary that was us, became even more political.

On television, analysts talked about military strategy, the type of bombs that were being dropped, and al-Qaeda; they talked about Tony Blair and George Bush; they talked about how they were on their way to winning the war.

At home, we watched the places that formed so many memories be destroyed and brainstormed about where family members could go to be safe and rebuild their lives.

There is a disconnect between how war and conflict are viewed by those experiencing it and those on the outside. For outside commentators, it’s seen almost as a game, an opportunity to test your ‘Risk’ strategy in real-time.

For those who have experienced displacement, it’s very different. But we don’t often amplify those voices. Instead, we are shown pictures of asylum seekers at borders and warned of a crisis. We’re told about ‘uncivilised’ people and places and their GDP.

A migrant writes on the deck of the boat of the NGO Proactiva Open Arms [Getty Images]
A migrant writes on the deck of the boat of the NGO Proactiva Open Arms [Getty Images]

For refugees, seeing your country and community spoken about in these terms has an impact on your sense of self. The discrimination, hostile policies and racism that can often result from lazy tropes and are spouted by politicians also have a huge impact on wellbeing.

Imagine losing your home and then being presented with an image of yourself and your community as ‘threats’, violent, and uncivilised… it challenges your self-worth and can lead to anxiety, depressive symptoms, lower self-esteem and well-being overall.

It can lead to isolation as people are told that if you come as you are, you cannot be part of a community, or if you want to be, you must leave their histories behind. Dismantling the trauma of that experience and restoring that sense of self requires difficult emotional work.

This is why it’s important for refugees to tell their own stories, on their own terms. It can help refugees to process and heal from their experiences. It also helps other people to better understand the trauma of displacement and give a more nuanced view of these ‘uncivilised’ countries.

Now working for Amna, an organisation that helps people deal with the emotional fallout of conflict and forced displacement, I’ve finally had the chance to create a project that does this. SADA, meaning voice in Farsi, is a storytelling platform where six refugees from all over the world have shared their stories.

We hear from: a woman whose life turned upside down last year when the Taliban entered Kabul; a family who took a courageous journey across Syria to try and reach safety in Turkey; a woman who endured many hardships while waiting for asylum for her and her son in Greece; another woman who was forced to separate from her family and community in return for the chance of a new life in the UK; an Afghan man who tries to start again after losing his homeland twice and a Ukrainian psychologist who finds sanctuary supporting children who have fled the same war as her.

Through animation, film, illustration and photography, these six stories have come to life showing the incredibly complex emotional journey of displacement.

The storytellers have not only shared the tolls of war but also the strength and survival of the people and the practices that have helped them through. In the process of developing SADA, our storytellers told us how therapeutic they found it to be able to talk about their experiences unbounded.

When Amna’s work first began in a tent in Idomeni in 2016, it was hard to imagine that people would come to our tent day after day when all we offered was a listening ear but that was exactly what happened.

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Men, women and children came every day to share their stories. Hearing these stories is also important for those who haven’t experienced the pain of losing their home. How many people really understand how it feels to lose everything unfamiliar and start again amid uncertainty?

I’m grateful that the SADA storytellers have chosen to help others learn and begin to have a more nuanced understanding of what refugees experience.

Growing up, I desperately wanted to go to Iraq with a camera around my neck to show the human side of the war – not just the struggles but the strength and resilience and even the funny parts in between.

Everything that I thought was missing from news coverage. I couldn’t do that but the need to tell a different story – not the story of politics – but the story of people stayed with me. I’m glad I’ve been able to do that with SADA.

Laramie Shubber is a photographer and the creative director of the SADA project. She leads communications at Amna – an organisation that supports the emotional wellbeing of refugees – and has previously managed multi-media campaigns in South Asia and the MENA region.

Laramie and her family left Iraq after the gulf war and settled in Northern Ireland during the peace process. She is passionate about the power of communications to affect positive social change, including dispelling stereotypes and putting the microphone (or camera) in the hands of communities.

Follow her on Twitter: @LaramieShubber

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.