In their own words? Challenges of presenting stories of Syrian refugees in Wales

The buildings looked different. I was looking from this window. I was looking at the opposite building and wondering if this was the only building without a Sateh (flat roof). Are all the buildings and houses without Sateh? And how come? And what about balconies? No balconies at all? When the team left, I went for a short walk to explore the area around our house. I walked for about 100 metres and I was surprised. All the houses, they all look the same! I thought that it was a positive sign. I had a feeling of fairness and of justice once I noticed how similar the houses were. To me, this similarity reflected the fact that people are equal here, at least in the way their houses look. I continued my walk and felt a bit scared. People were looking at me and I felt like a stranger. No words to help me as I couldn’t speak English.

Khalid al Sayed

I have always worked with oral history in two languages. But both have been languages I speak fluently. Over decades of working at St Fagans National Museum of History, I have recorded people from many walks of life in both Welsh and English – whichever was the first language of the interviewee. I thought I was aware of the challenges of editing and presenting oral testimonies which were originally recorded in another language. However, my involvement over the last few years in an AHRC-funded project about refugees has made me realise that there was much more to learn and consider. 

Refugee Wales: the Afterlife of Violence is a joint project between Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. The aims of the project are threefold: to enable refugees to articulate their changing experience of war, flight and integration into a new society; to nuance and expand trauma and memory studies by including non-Western subjects of trauma; and to produce knowledge that will contribute to better public understanding and policymaking as regards refugee experience. The life experiences of two groups of refugees were recorded: Sri Lankan Tamils, who have been in Wales since the 1980s and now include second and third generations, and recent refugees from war-torn Syria.

All but one of the interviews with Syrian refugees were conducted in Arabic. Angham Abdullah, a native Arabic speaker with personal experience of being a refugee, was both interviewer and translator. One of the objectives of the project was to produce a book of the oral testimonies of Syrian refugees, translated into English and aimed at a non-academic audience.  This has now been published by Parthian Press as Refugee Wales: Syrian Voices.

Editing oral testimonies is always an ethical challenge. On the one hand, you want to present the material in a form that engages the audience with the content. However, there is always the doubt that, by editing and curating, you have brought your own agenda into the equation. Working with Angham Abdullah and Chris Weedon to edit this book, this was even more of a concern as only Angham had access to the original Arabic recordings. Chris and I were two steps removed from the recordings and the actual words of the interviewees, working from translated transcripts prepared by Angham.

When the editing was done and we were drafting a foreword to the book, Angham objected to a line saying that we were giving the refugees a voice. They already had a voice, she insisted, and had used that voice in the recorded interviews. The problem was not the lack of a voice but how to get people to take note of what they had to say. 

There are multiple ‘voices’ involved in producing a book like this:

  • the interviewee and interviewer who constructed the oral history in the first place
  • the translator who has to convey not just the bare literal bones of the words but the cultural context too, and
  • the final editors of the narrative in the book.

Involving the interviewer in the translation and editing has been helpful (though difficult for Angham), particularly as the interviewees themselves can’t check that we haven’t made mistakes or edited to the point where we have misrepresented them. Interviewing people in their first language enables them to convey who they are – the complexity of their social and cultural backgrounds, their emotions and thoughts. Being judged through the prism of a language they are still learning is a continual source of frustration for many of the people we recorded. 

So we have not given the refugees a voice. We have given others hopefully access to their stories and the means to see them as human beings rather than government statistics or newspaper headlines. We have so much to learn from their resilience and their expectations of the UK as a land of fairness and opportunity. As an oral historian, the experience has further impressed on me the faith that interviewees place in us to do justice to their testimonies. It is both a privilege and a huge responsibility.

The first feeling I had when I arrived in the UK was that of freedom. The freedom which I hadn’t experienced before in Syria. Freedom of speech and of movement. Freedom of speech is what people miss in the Middle East and I found it here. When you approached me for this interview and when you sent me the consent forms to sign and told me that I have the right to have an anonymous name and to withdraw when I like, this gave me agency over what I am going to say. I felt free to discuss the topics you asked me to discuss. I have no fears or doubts that you might take my statements somewhere and hurt me. We lived in an age of fear and oppression and we suspected everyone around. I feel free here. I am not afraid of people or secret agents. I am settled well, and I feel comfortable.

Bashar

This video includes very short clips from recordings made for the Refugee Wales project. The complete interviews will be archived at St Fagans National Museum of History.

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