Amgueddfa Blog: Ffoaduriaid Cymru

لو  كنتُ في سجن حقيقي.. وكان هناك خمسون سجين سيكون عندي مالايقل عن خمسة أصدقاء… ولكن أنظري الى حالتي هنا… لايوجد أحد حولي…

If I was in a real prison… say there are fifty prisoners in one room, you would at least make friends with five of them… But here, look at my situation. There is no one around.

Salih, Cardiff, 2020


Towards the end of 2019, I began working as a Research Associate at the AHRC funded project “Refugee Wales: The Aftermath of Violence”. The project is a partnership between Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. Its aim is to record the stories of refugees in Wales, inform Welsh government of what we’ve learnt from them, and archive them as part of the national collections. My role is to record interviews with Syrian refugees who have settled in Wales since 2011.

I am an Arabic-speaking Iraqi and new to Wales myself, so my first challenge was finding willing participants from the Syrian community. Once I had been introduced via a gatekeeper, I started meeting potential participants to gain their trust and confidence and to explain the project further. Establishing a relationship of trust with people whose lives have been in turmoil is not straightforward. My days were ebbing and flowing between positive and negative responses, encouraging and disappointing reactions, scheduling and rescheduling of appointments, rejections and last-minute cancellations. I succeeded in completing my first interviews in February 2020 and had others planned. Then came the COVID-19 lockdown on 23rd March. 

When it became obvious that this situation would last some time, we decided reluctantly to experiment with remote interviewing. One of our team, Beth Thomas, is an OHS trainer who advised us, after discussion with her colleagues, on the options available. Our choice of method was decided on the following principle: that it should be as simple and secure as possible for the interviewees. We used a mobile phone connected to one channel of a Zoom H5 recorder, with the other channel recording the interviewer via a clip-on mike.

It seemed straightforward. Nevertheless, I struggled with the number of wired connections. I experimented with family and friends.  I wondered what kind of interview it would be if I was unable to see my participants. I also wondered how my interviewees would feel about not seeing me. How could I expect the participants to be at ease telling their life stories to someone they are unable to see?

The other option was to connect the Zoom H5 in the same way to the audio output of a computer, to record the audio only of a Zoom video interview. This made more sense to me as it would enable me and the interviewees to see one another. However, most of my participants were unhappy with this option because they either didn’t have a computer, had no access to Zoom, or they had problems with WiFi. 

It quickly became clear that almost all my participants were happier using WhatsApp on their smartphones, as this was how they normally connected with their families overseas. WhatsApp allowed us to conduct video interviews while recording audio locally on the Zoom H5, using the same setup as before. The only drawback was bandwidth and WiFi reception. I had some remote WhatsApp interviews which went well, with reasonable sound quality, and a disastrous one because I was unaware of how bad the WiFi was at the interviewee’s end. Other challenges ranged from dealing with the noise of children at the interviewee’s house, street noise, postmen and deliveries at my door or their door, my next-door neighbour’s loud music and my smoke alarm going off whenever my daughter burnt her eggs! 

In some ways, the pandemic strangely helped strengthen my relationship with interviewees. I have even developed strong bonds with some of my participants which transcended social distancing rules and highlighted our common vulnerability as human beings. They were more than mere research subjects but persons who need to be listened to and be supported in a very difficult stage of their resettlement. However, that involvement occasionally made it difficult to draw the line between supporting others and protecting yourself.

Salih was introduced to me as a Syrian refugee who met my requirements for project participants. All I knew about Salih was that he was a Syrian-Kurd who was resettled in Cardiff a few months before the first lockdown. I introduced myself over the phone and asked if he was interested in an initial remote meeting. Salih interrupted me saying: “I wish you could visit me and my wife in our house. I am in a wheelchair and my wife has some health problems. We only have one person who comes to check on us and brings us groceries… When our Home Office Caseworker comes for a visit, he talks to us through the living room window, hands us documents to sign, asks a couple of questions and leaves… We barely talk to people.” He became very emotional and asked me to help him reunite with the rest of his family who had been relocated in Germany. I explained to Salih that I was a researcher with no hand in policy making. Despite this, he was determined to be part of the project and have his voice heard.  

The phone call upset me. My inability to improve his situation made me ashamed of asking someone like Salih, who was painfully lonely, to narrate his personal story of suffering and survival remotely. Next morning, I called Salih and asked if he and his wife were happy for me to visit them wearing a facemask and maintaining social distance. We agreed to meet the following day. 

After taking all the necessary precautions; wipes, a facemask, Covid-19 declaration forms etc. I went to Salih’s house.  Salih opened the door while leaning on his walking frames. He greeted me in his Arabic-Kurdish accent and led me into a dark first -floor flat, with one small window being their opening to the outside world. Salih’s wife sat on a small mattress on the floor. She had hardly any Arabic but could understand some of what I was saying as I saw her nodding at times. She made us a tasty Syrian coffee and uttered few words in Kurdish which Salih translated to me as: “I am so pleased to have a guest for whom I can offer coffee again as I used to!”

It was a short, emotional and tiring interview. I have kept in touch with them and have promised to revisit once lockdown is lifted. But I feel heavily burdened with helplessness, sorrow, and anger at their situation. 

We are talking through virtual windows, barely touching the lives of those beyond the pane.

I can trace the origin of this project, Refugee Wales, to 2009 when the civil war in Sri Lanka came to a bloody end when the government forces defeated the LTTE (Tamil Tigers).  The stories of the immense suffering of the Sri Lankan Tamil civilians flooded the media and, then, these stories disappeared.  Being an Indian Tamil myself, I followed the news of the final days of the civil war obsessively as these were narratives of my “cousins” in South Asia, and we were linked by language, culture, religion, food habits, mythology, families, and  with a commonality of memories and practices.  It is estimated that between 100,000-200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live in the UK, with a large number of them arriving as refugees from 1983 onwards.  The civil war in Sri Lanka lasted, off and on, for over 5 decades and Sri Lankan refugees who arrived in this country have lived here for more  than 2 generations.  

No sooner had the Sri Lankan civil war ended, then the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and it is still ongoing. The war has currently resulted in over 13 million Syrians who have been either internally displaced within Syria, or in neighbouring countries, or in Europe and the rest of the world.  Germany has over 800,000 Syrian refugees and the UK, a paltry 18,000-20,000 of them in 2021. The body count of Syrians who have died in this exodus is still not fully accounted for and the bottom of the Mediterranean sea, which is considered to be the deadliest migration route for refugees, has become a graveyard for them.  

Neither the Sri Lankan Tamil nor the Syrian refugees sought refuge in the UK so they could shop in Tesco and take jobs away from the locals.  They left their countries under desperate circumstances—the daily bombings, the kidnapping of children (and youth) by rebel soldiers forcing them into becoming child soldiers, the rape of women and children, the loss of jobs, homes, family members—spouses, children, parents, siblings--the lack of food, safety, and a full night’s sleep; it was the precarity of life.  

In Homo Sacer, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben points to the distinction made by the Ancient Greeks between bios (the form or manner in which life is lived and which assesses the richness of life) and zoë (the biological fact of life) and suggests that in contemporary life that distinction has collapsed.  So, life now only means bare life, zoë.  The biological fact of life with all its potentialities and possibilities has been erased.  For the French philosopher Michel Foucault, modern power is about “fostering life or disallowing it.”  This is how civilian populations in Sri Lanka and Syria were perceived by their governments—a full life disallowed for some of its citizens so that they are reduced to a bare life, their only possibility being to flee.  This is how refugees are perceived in the current political climate with hostile environment policies, to be seen as only deserving of a bare life, to show how unwelcome they are.  

If by moving away from their country results in a total and complete break from their past lives for the refugees, a rupture from their histories and cultures, what this project hopes to achieve is to allow refugees to connect their past to their present, give them a voice, and a sense of belonging and that people are, indeed, witnessing their trials.  The Museum with the richness of cultural life that it offers, through its resources, will assist in enabling refugees to become citizens of Wales, and help them to transform their lives in the country that is now their home; it will facilitate and contribute to them leading their lives into the fullest of its potentialities and possibilities.  

And those of us who already live in Wales, how will these newcomers change our lives? By hearing their stories, we, too, will reach further into our potentiality, of the richness of diversity, compassion, being good hosts and helping them go through their transformation and, in so doing, initiate new ways of being and becoming Welsh.

When I first read about this project, “Refugee Wales: The Afterlife of Violence,” I immediately identified with the idea of the afterlife of violence. This idea is closely related to my personal experience as an Iraqi survivor of wars, an asylum seeker and a former academic in my home country, struggling at some stage, to set my foot in the British academia. Moreover, my PhD research “Contemporary Iraqi Women’s Fiction of War” and my publications focus on war-related trauma and on how memory and identity function to shape and define the lives of survivors. 

In my PhD research, I analyzed narratives of the three decades of wars, sanctions and occupation in Iraq and I examined how survivors of traumatic events undergo a “crisis of survival” which transform them into victims to their survival. The crisis of the characters in the narratives takes different forms: sorrow, guilt, uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. However, the characters are determined to live and can put up with the hardships they are facing by means of the strategies of coping: denial, escape, daydreams and through the act of narration.

 Not only fictional characters could survive the woes of war, but also the writers of the texts and myself. In my PhD research, I added my personal memories of war to the experiences of the characters and the writers to generate one story of dealing with loss of a country and of loved ones and of putting up with the sorrow of an unfinished political disarray. My recollections of war work as a personal testimony to a historical fact and locate me as a historian and in my thesis also as an author who narrates the history of the political conflict in Iraq.

Unfortunately, this conflict was enlarged to engulf Syria, a very close country to Iraq and with which Iraqis share similar culture, traditions, and values. And above all we share Arabic language which enabled me to work as a volunteering interpreter with the Syrian refugees in the UK since 2012. 

In my role as an Associate Researcher in the “Refugee Wales Project,” I am responsible for meeting with Syrian refugees in Wales and of conducting interviews with them. The data collected from the recorded interviews will be translated, analyzed and be part of a book later. Thus, I am offered a great opportunity to add my initial PhD research findings and my personal story of displacement, of longing and of belonging to the stories of refugees who are striving to build a new life in Wales. Together we will produce another narrative of survival and a historical record to generations of Syrians who would be longing to hear testimonies from the witnesses who are seeking to integrate while enduring an unresolved misery back home.

https://refugee.wales

Samuel Sequeira, Cydymaith Ymchwil, prosiect Ffoaduriaid Cymru

It was the summer of August 2007. After finishing our holidays in the area in Germany where my wife was born, we (my wife and I) were waiting for a delayed flight from Frankfurt to Heathrow, London. Finally, when the flight arrived, and we were about to board there was chaos as all started rushing towards boarding. An officer was checking our passports and as usual I had no reason to be anxious because my visa and resident documents were in order. 

Despite having all travel documents perfect when the officer took our passports he took inordinately longer to examine them, and to our shock he looked at me as said, “Sir, I want you stand aside” while handing over my wife’s passport to her to proceed towards boarding. But my wife, who is German by nationality, would have none of this and she took up a fight with the officer asking for an explanation. The officer was livid with rage and could not believe the anger displayed by my wife. Also, the crowd was growing impatient. Obviously, having no legitimate reason other than my skin colour and Indian nationality, the officer had to relent. But his minute-long stare at me was something that has remained with me even today. Whenever I read or watch the long caravans of migrants struggling to crossover myriad real and imaginary borders to reach a place of safety my own experience at Frankfurt airport comes to haunt me. This and several more such small but unforgettable experiences at border crossings have inspired me embark on a research area that relates to migrants and refugees.

When I embarked on my doctoral research at Cardiff University some years ago I focussed on the group of South Asians who had migrated to the UK (Wales in particular) since Indian partition in 1947 as labourers, professionals, students, refugees as well as those who were ousted from African countries in the 1970s. During my doctoral years I recorded stories of their home that they had left behind, their migration process, settlement, and life in the UK. Being of Indian origin I, too, have shared their migration experience and viewed this area of research most suited to my interests and personal experience. Having completed my PhD in 2016 and while looking for an opportunity to continue my research career I found this current research project: Refugee Wales having received funding support and I saw this as a great opportunity to research on Sri Lankan Tamil community in Wales.

Prior to arriving in the UK, I had worked in India as a journalist. Being from South India I was keeping a close tag on what had been going on Sri Lanka during the time by way of civil war. I have witnessed the plight of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India from close quarters and empathised with their plight. It was very sad that the issue that arose due to real or perceived discrimination led the Sri Lankan Tamils go to the extreme situation of taking up arms and demand a separate homeland. Failure of the state to resolve this ethnic issue and the intransigence of the radical groups among Tamils led to the final war that ended in the defeat and encampment of thousands of Tamils in 2009. I personally had felt a tinge of sadness when the Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran was killed and the Sri Lankan state was celebrating the triumph. My sadness was not for the demise of Prabhakaran but for the defeat and humiliation suffered by a proud and valiant people who fought for their rights and equality within Sri Lankan nation.

The media images of mass- graves, destroyed villages and people in camps huddled behind barbed wires soaked in monsoon rain and ragged condition still haunt me. As a journalist I was always imagining what stories those people behind barbed wires may have had to tell. Now, with this project, I have an opportunity to listen to at least some of those who suffered those years of conflict, state oppression and war and yet managed to escape to the safety of Britain. Their stories of how they managed to escape, what trauma they suffered while crossing those borders and, finally, ending up being settled in the UK will inspire others who go through a similar experience. These stories will no doubt help the state and the wider community to view the issue of migrants and refugees beyond the pale of legality and deal with it as a human condition requiring compassion and assistance. As for the Sri Lankan Tamils in Wales it is their opportunity to imprint their story on the canvas of the larger story of Wales as a multicultural nation. That is why I am delighted to be part of this interesting research project.

https://refugee.wales

Pan ddechreuodd Sain Ffagan gynllunio’r project hwn gyda staff y Brifysgol, doedd dim sôn am Covid-19. A dyma ni nawr ynghanol ‘Y Meudwyo Mawr’, yn gofidio am ein hiechyd, ein bywoliaeth a’n dyfodol. Mor rhwydd y gall bywyd droi wyneb i waered! Ac fe ŵyr ffoaduriaid hynny’n well na neb. Digon hawdd meddwl nad yw’r hyn sy’n digwydd mewn gwlad bell yn ddim i wneud â ni yng Nghymru. Gwers Covid-19 yw ein bod ni, yn ein milltir sgwâr, yn rhan annatod o fyd sy’n fwy. 

Credaf yn gryf iawn mai hanfod amgueddfa fel Sain Ffagan yw’r egwyddor fod hanes pawb yn bwysig. Mae pob un ohonom yn cyfrif, beth bynnag fo’n cefndir. Mae hawl gan bawb i lais, i fywyd rhydd a diogel, a chael parch gan eraill. Nid dweud stori’r bobl fawr yw pwrpas yr amgueddfa, ond cofnodi a deall cyfraniad pawb i’n hanes. Mae Cymru yn ystyried ei hun yn wlad groesawgar, barod ei chymwynas. Mae’r hunan-ddelwedd honno’n rhan o’n hunaniaeth fel cenedl. Ond pa mor wir yw hynny? Beth gallwn ni ddysgu am ein hunain a’n lle yn y byd trwy wrando ar dystiolaeth y ffoaduriaid sydd wedi ceisio am loches yn ein plith? Ac i ba raddau ydyn ni’n deall, mewn gwirionedd, cymhellion ac ofnau’r ffoaduriaid hynny? Sut mae esmwytho eu ffordd tuag at deimlo eu bod yn perthyn?

Mae’r bartneriaeth rhwng y Brifysgol a’r Amgueddfa yn ein galluogi i gyflawni sawl peth. Gwaith y Brifysgol yw gwneud yr ymchwil dadansoddol manwl fydd yn dylanwadu, gobeithio, ar benderfyniadau a pholisiau gwleidyddol. Cyfrifoldeb yr Amgueddfa yw diogelu tystiolaeth lafar y ffoaduriaid ar gyfer yr oesoedd a ddêl, ond hefyd creu cyfleoedd iddynt gyflwyno eu profiadau a’u gobeithion i eraill. ‘Lloches ein hanes ni’ yw Sain Ffagan, ond mae rhoi lloches hefyd yn rhan o’n hanes ni ac yn haeddu sylw.

Gwyliwch allan felly am ddigwyddiadau yn Sain Ffagan sy’n ymwneud â phrosiect Ffoaduriaid Cymru. Yn y byd ansicr sydd ohoni, anodd yw rhagweld pa fath o ddigwyddiadau fyddan nhw. Rhaid i ni gyd bellach fod yn barod i ddelio gydag ansicrwydd. Mae ffoaduriaid wedi bod trwy brofiadau na fydd y rhan fwyaf ohonom yn wynebu byth. Mae gennym lawer i’w ddysgu ganddynt.