Based on the article: Esin, C. and Lounasmaa, A., 2020. Narrative and ethical (in) action: creating spaces of resistance with refugee-storytellers in the Calais ‘Jungle’camp. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, pp.1-13.
Between November 2015 and September 2016, under the University of East London civic engagement and impact schemes, the authors, together with Corinne Squire, colleagues and students who volunteered their time, ran overlapping projects with the refugee residents of the ‘Jungle’, the unrecognised refugee camp in Calais. The aim of the projects was to encourage refugee participants to tell their life stories using multiple modalities, and to consider their education in their new countries. The space of the projects based on ethical hesitancy enabled the team to co-construct a relational field. The argument of the broader paper is that it was within this relational space refugee storytellers resisted and/or challenged the mainstream refugee narratives, whilst giving rise to ethically important questions.
The work included a short, accredited university course called Life Stories, which consisted of photography and visual storytelling workshops, film-making sessions, workshops on opportunities in higher education in Europe and a co-authored book, entitled ‘Voices from the ‘Jungle’.
There has been an increase in the number of educational and research projects as the populations flee the countries of conflict and violence to move to safer countries of the world. All these projects have been part of the endeavor which aims to understand the conditions of refugees and/or support them in their journeys. For example, Sanyal (2017) analyses photography and videos from the Calais ‘Jungle’ with a view to understanding the biopolitics of resistance which includes an interplay between humanitarian action and the refugee as a ’body to be managed’ (p. 5).
The projects that the authors drew on the paper were included into this collective effort. When the team started the projects in the Calais ‘Jungle’, it was a response to an ethical demand, which arose from their political responsibility and obligation towards one another, as Butler (2016) puts it. When displaced populations walked their way to reach a safer place and lives, the authors and the team made an ethical decision to be in solidarity with some of the refugees, to help them to channel their resources into an embodied and embedded practice.
The projects were neither framed as research nor research impact but as an instance of public engagement. The engagement provided a framework for work shaped by solidarity, and to secure ongoing support beyond a one-off intervention. The discussion and questions in the broader paper have been informed by the authors’ reflections as facilitators in the projects. They were aware of the public scrutiny that the refugee participants were subjected to, and the limits of narratives, being personal or public. The projects were not categorised as research, yet, the authors believed that their work with narratives and refugee communities had influenced their position in the space.
Throughout the project sessions, the authors collaborated with the refugee participants, they kept asking questions to explore the narrative practices that refugee participants built up to make sense of their lives, and to connect them to their present and imagined future. The narratives produced by the participants themselves are all available publicly, and where they are not, the authors have granted the team the permission to use them.
The authors positioned themselves as facilitators of the projects rather than ‘experts’, imposing good/right decisions about the lives of refugee-participants. In terms of their ethical position, ‘they have drawn on the work of Kofoed and Staunæs (2015), who deploy hesitancy as an ethical strategy. According to Kofoed and Staunæs (2015) in zones of high intensity, there are moments when researchers are required to intervene to do what is right. Ethical hesitancy may be a useful strategy in those instances. They describe hesitancy as ‘a momentary suspension of action due to an embodied sense of thoughtfulness and engaged capability of interrupting one’s own immediate incentives to response and enact embedded normativities and judgements’ (p.25)’ (Esin &Lounasmaa, 2020, online)
Hesitancy as an ethical position enabled the facilitators in the projects to consider their long-term contribution to the development of a solution without rapid intervention. In the context of the Calais ‘Jungle’, the collaboration included taking up an ethical position without falling into the trap of making the ‘right’ decision from a privileged position.
Some of the participatory projects
A short course in the Calais ‘Jungle’. The course was called Life Stories. It offered five credits at level 3 in Social Sciences for those who attended three teaching sessions and completed assessment in the form of their own life story. The assessment could be completed by writing a life story, through oral presentation, a recording, a visual life story or through combination of these. Translation was also facilitated, where possible, for some who wished to complete the assessment in a different language. University studies could have not been a reality for some of the participants even though they were able to seek asylum in Europe later. However, the classes provided an emotional support for the participants by encouraging to think of their lives beyond the material needs of the camp.
Participatory photography workshops. The workshops were organized as a part of the Life Histories course. They were led by photographers Gideon Mendel and Crispin Hughes. They were both experienced in participatory community photography, worked with residents to create visual narratives of their lives, particularly of their lives in the camp.
According to Gomez and Vannini (2017), working with photography has three functions in work with migrants. These are: using photography can enable participants to control of what they can share visually; photographs can open up the space of interaction between facilitators and participants; and making photographs can enable participant to consider complex emotions in context, beyond the power imbalances surrounding their lives. The rationale from a more narrative perspective was to provide emancipatory possibilities for participants to tell their stories (Squire et al., 2014, p. 43), in transnational, transcultural and multilingual contexts (O’Neill, 2008), where life stories are ever relational and never singular.
Teaching and workshops ran in makeshift classrooms, in the schools of the camp, the Jungle Books library, in tents, where was available, sometimes one to one, other times with groups.
The participants told stories about their lives at home and in the camp; their journeys; their difficulties and friendships in the ‘Jungle’; their attempts to cross the border to reach Britain. They introduced the camp to the team. Their families and members of the ‘Jungle’ community became part of the conversations. The authors told participants about their lives in and before London, their own journeys; they answered the questions on the educational system in Britain, with the fear of giving the participants false hope on a positive future life in Europe. The conversation continued over tea and food in the camp.
O’Neill and Harindranath (2006) point out an interesting fact about narratives gathered in participatory projects. That is their potential to reconstitute the boundaries of citizenship for communities of displaced people. Migration researchers (see Doná, 2007; Erel, Reynolds, & Kaptani, 2017; Gomez & Vannini, 2017; Holgate et al., 2012) have been aiming to increase the participation in the processes and to examine power imbalances in their work.
The projects that the authors draw on in the paper, explore the possibility of creating a participatory space; to challenge the exclusive practices through the production of biographical narratives. Using a multimodal methodology allowed the use of different forms, such as visual and verbal stories, social mediaposts, poetry or other types of written narratives. Multimodality helped to work in a multilingual and multicultural field.
Refugees were usually asked to tell about particular parts of their lives and journeys, as their narratives become part of the claims for safety, citizenship and human rights. If the biographical narratives respond to legal claims, the content and structure become more strict (see Millibank, 2009 for a detailed argument). In the Calais projects, the goal was to constitute a space in which storytellers told biographical narratives in a powerful context that marginalized (if not exclude) displaced populations.
What does it mean for the refugee-storytellers to tell their personal narratives? Narratives are political projects themselves (Meretoja, 2018). Meanings are constructed as each individual encounter leads to new stories. The potential in narrative practices make it possible to re-constitute the narrative. In this way, each biographical narrative becomes a political project to reveal social injustice, to mobilise solidarity and transformation.
The interconnections between personal and communal narratives should also be considered as part of the political world, how storytellers and hearers make sense of that world (Andrews, 2014, p. 85). Examining the interrelation between micro ad macro narratives enhances the ability to scrutinize narratives as political practices that are constructed within a network of power relations.
In addition to offering tools for the refugee storytellers to re-build the sphere of politics related to migration and displacement, biographical narratives could provide storytellers with resources to re-construct meanings as individuals and communities. Additionally, the micro narratives could be functional to reveal the levels of power relations that form them (see Tamboukou, 2003, pp. 94–102). The personal stories may be the ‘technologies of resistance’, tools for storytellers to move between the constraining reality of their lives and the dream of limitless freedom, at times, forming precarious positions in between.
Forging narratives of resistance
Majid Adin – finding beauty
When the refugee storytellers created narratives in the camp, the conditions were complicated. The Calais ‘Jungle’ was an unrecognized refugee camp. The legal and political frameworks set limits to its refugee residents’ right to citizenship and human rights. The same frameworks shaped the interaction through projects and the way personal narratives were shared.
The ‘Jungle’s reputation at the time meant that many participants felt constrained to tell their families that they lived in the camp. These storytellers created visual narratives about a nice new life in France rather than exposing the camp conditions and project a version of the self. That produced a contradiction to think about.
You will see one of the two shorts extracts by Majid Adin that the authors used in the broader paper below. The narrative was constituted during Majid’s participation in the ‘Displaces’ photography project. It is available online*. The narrative, formed across modalities (written and visual), allowed the authors to read parts of the narratives together. Majid’s narrative was one of the frequent responses to the living conditions of the ‘Jungle’– one highlighting the humanity of the camp’s residents. Majid spent several months in the ‘Jungle’ and participated in various projects, producing arts and working with art-based groups. Majid’s narrative portrayed the shared material space and its meaning to him.
‘This was beautiful for me. The main street in the Jungle. I pass this way a lot, some thousand times. This area for us has not a very good feeling, not good memories. We all have dreams and wishes. 99% of us don’t want to be here. But sometimes in a place you hate you can find something interesting and beautiful. I find a beauty in this place.’
In his narrative, Majid links his hate for the material conditions of the camp to his dreams for the future. Majid does not romanticise or deliver an unrealistic narrative about the living conditions or his emotions. Instead, he crafts his narrative as a path for resistance, between the unbearable materiality of his present and his desire for a better future. Other participants who wanted to show beauty in the ‘Jungle’ often spoke about the community building that was taking place and the offers of help and hospitality that made the ‘Jungle’ beautiful. The community spirit of the ‘Jungle’ was also more than a narrative of resistance to some. Majid’s search for beauty seeks to change that narrative and hence the authors’ views of both the ‘Jungle’ and its inhabitants.’ (Esin & Lounasmaa, 2020, online)
Life narratives make sense within the local complexity of social relations. Why does Majid’s narrative seeking beauty of the camp have the potential of resistance? Riessman’s (2000) study of the destigmatizing practices of South Indian women in reaction to childlessness was useful to understand the form of resistance embedded in Majid’s story. Riessman discusses more subtle aspects of resistance rather than considering it as changing social structures of gender and patriarchy.
Similarly, as in Majid’s narrative, there were narratives that counter the reputation of the camp as a place of violence, reassuring their families and building their claims for citizenship. The narrative itself should be examined as a technology of resistance that emerged within the relational space of such non-invasive projects.
Ethical questions, reflections
Being facilitators in such projects necessitated deploying an ethical position beyond the baseline of ‘do no harm’. Being in solidarity with refugee residents (participants), framing the work as education and participatory storytelling opened up the space to all possible outcomes, or indeed none at all. Not engaging with institutional ethics for the “Jungle’ projects does not mean that they are not helpful while researching vulnerable populations. The point within the context was that the residents in the ‘Jungle’ should not be turned into objects of knowledge. The objective was to explore ways in which participants could benefit from the work more directly. The authors deployed ethical positions to participate in a dialogue with storytellers and audiences, and to recognize the limitations of the work.
Levels of confidentiality and privacy were not the same for the facilitators and participants at all times although there were negotiations on different levels. In telling visual narratives, the participant-storytellers were in a position to use digital cameras and edit their story with the photographers. There were disagreements on some of the compositions. While the storytellers wanted to tell their stories as they wished to, the facilitators were concerned about the anonymity of visual narratives. They did not want to risk anything about the asylum seeking process for the participants, or they were alarmed about the violence that may come from various communities. The photographers and facilitators respected participants’ decision, where possible, if storytellers chose to post the same pictures on social media despite being aware of the potential harms.
Ethical questions throughout the process were asked. Gender, class and language differences shaped the interaction, power inequalities formed the hierarchies in relationships. English was the language of power while it was the main medium to communicate at times. At other times, another language shared by the participants took over. The forms of interaction and the use of time and space were negotiated in varied ways. For the facilitators, times of day were determined by daylight hours, when it was safe for them to stay in the camp, and Eurostar timetables. For most of the participants, times and spaces were framed by nightly trips to the port to ‘try’ for England, availability of food and supplies. The reality of police presence in the camp remained as a problem for all residents.
The commitment to ethical hesitancy (Kofoed & Staunæs, 2015), engaging in a ‘slow practice’ that resisted the urge to jump into action did not immune any of the facilitators from making decisions that were ethically questionable. Yet, all decisions included dialogue. Hesitancy as an ethical principle was also useful to examine interaction and moments of storytelling. What made narratives as political projects, which were linked to the relations of the practice; who told the story, under which circumstances it was told, and who heard it were the questions asked at the moments of hesitancy.
Among all of the complexities, the authors of the paper believe that the projects provide an important contribution to understanding ethical issues in work with refugee narratives, which can be, or at least become social action. They suggest that practitioners/researchers working with refugees and migrants could utilise ethical hesitancy as a principle to collaborate with the project participants in the development of long-term transformations.
*Source: Displaces- Photography narratives project with the residents of the Calais camp
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