Ever since I was forced to leave Syria five years ago, I have been sharing my personal story in the hope of raising awareness about the human rights violations in my home country. My experience of storytelling has been both positive and disappointing. On the one hand, it has enabled me to make connections with several supportive individuals who made me feel welcome. But on the other hand, the way that refugees are expected to share and curate their stories can do more harm than good.
Last year, I was approached by a prominent TV news network to discuss US airstrikes in Syria. I saw the invitation as an opportunity to share my academic perspective as the topic was closely related to what I was researching as part of my doctoral degree at the time. The interview proceeded with personal questions focused on my life in Syria. As I was not being asked about the airstrikes, I requested to share my view and they agreed.
A few days later, the reporter emailed with me the news clip of their coverage of the strikes. The clip started with a brief summary of what happened. I was then featured for a few seconds, half in tears and conspicuously traumatised while mentioning the loss of my brother and father. The clip then continued with a white Australian observer who gave his “objective” and scholarly analysis of the situation. While the journalist apologised for the “heavy editing”, this humiliating experience taught me that despite my background as a citizen journalist and an academic, for some I will forever be a traumatised Syrian refugee whose primary role is to evoke sympathy and tears.
Many organisations that work with refugees and asylum seekers also fall into this trap. While most of these organisations are well-meaning and do not directly coerce refugees to share their stories, there is often an expectation that refugees owe the wider public their stories. Thus, the expectation of sharing one’s story can transform into an obligation. I realised this when I politely declined an invitation to share my story from an institution that supported me in the past. Instead of the usual understanding response, a senior staff member at the institution said he was “very disappointed” that I could not save a few minutes of my time to help with their outreach work given what they have done for me.
Although refugees are free to choose the content of their stories, there is an expectation that they should include some details about their past in order to “move the audience” and inspire sympathy. In preparation for refugee events, some organisers send a list of prompt questions to refugee speakers about their life in their home country, their reasons for leaving, the challenges they have faced and how they have overcome them. There is an implicit narrative logic to the questions: ‘tragedy’ to ‘success’, ‘hell’ to ‘paradise’.
“The curated form of storytelling prevalent nowadays tends to marginalise or oversimplify.”
Some might claim that sharing refugee stories helps to raise awareness about important issues and generate positive social change by inspiring people and helping them better relate to the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers. Of course, personal stories contribute to achieving these goals. However, the curated form of storytelling prevalent nowadays tends to marginalise or oversimplify the complex context surrounding these stories.
While many refugees inspire others with their perseverance and resilience, their trauma and their stories should not be packaged in order to inspire. Refugees are not objects or vehicles of inspiration and sympathy. By repeatedly requesting refugees to share stories of why they have sought refuge, we essentialise their identities. People with disabilities face similar objectification when people treat their very existence and ability to lead their lives as inspiring.
The whole paradigm of using stories to raise awareness and change hearts and minds warrants further research. In my experience, the main audience of refugee narratives are people who support refugees already and tend to perceive these stories as a powerful demonstration of resilience and contribution to society. But we should be aware that the fetishisation of success stories can ignore the painful reality that for many refugees, surviving and adapting to a new life outside of their home country is often overwhelming, difficult and painful.
“Empowering refugees does not have to come through emphasising their heartbreaking stories.”
It is critical that refugees and the institutions that work closely with them are cognisant of the potential risks of sharing painful details of refugee stories. Because many refugees may feel obliged to accept requests of their supporters, being aware of the power imbalance is critical. People also need to recognise that refugees and asylum seekers have agency, and respect their right to determine how and when they share their stories. Empowering refugees does not have to come through emphasising their heartbreaking stories. Resisting the urge to ask refugees about their past life in their home country can be difficult, especially given their unique first-hand accounts. And while many refugees do not mind sharing their perspectives, we need to be careful not to trigger painful memories.
Once they are resettled, most refugees try to move on with their lives, focus on their families, establish new careers and contribute to the society that has taken them in. How many stories do we hear about the challenges of young people adapting to a completely new education system? The difficulty of finding employment? The joy of discovery in a new country? If we are genuinely interested in supporting refugees, then we should focus on stories about their present and future, not just their past.