Back to the Future: using family history, heritage and culture as a means of moving forward for refugees.
Moan about politicians and potholes all you like (really, feel free), but I refuse to believe that even the most cynical among us didn’t feel an inkling of pride and excitement when England made the final in the Euros this summer. Intelligent concern for the trajectory of government policy went out of the window as a whole nation settled in to spend the evening screaming encouragement at the unresponsive little people running around on the screens in their living rooms. After all, we wanted to win. But what do I mean by ‘we’ anyway?
There are certain experiences and emotions which a majority of people who grew up in the same nation together can share, allowing them to feel a collective identity. After all, a country is made up of so much more than the people who lead or represent it, and our evidence for this is culture. Say Boris Johnson woke up one day and decided to send you off somewhere on the other side of the globe. Just because you were no longer within the physical boundaries of the UK, would some part of you ever stop belonging to it? Would a roast dinner not taste as good? Would Shakespeare cease to rhyme? Would Big Ben crumble? Would the Spice Girls never have existed? However much you may wish for the latter, my point is this: national identity is found in the common cultural experiences so many of us share. It can survive changes to geographical location and the despotic or benevolent whims of an unchecked political bossman.
According to Said, exile (the term he used for forced migration) ‘has torn millions of people from the nourishment of tradition, family and geography.’ It is very telling that tradition and family are described as means of ‘nourishment,’ something as essential to life as food and water. Culture might not have the strength of collectivity behind it when its routines are followed outside of their country of origin, but it mostly exists within national memory, making it one of our most mobile possessions. Isn’t it time we helped refugees who have been cut off from the geographical reminders of where they are from access and celebrate their heritage? Although it might be impossible for refugees to be physically reunited with family members, just learning about their family history and heritage can be of immense benefit.
The importance of collective memory within family, community, and culture
In 2001, Dr Marshall Duke and Dr. Robin Fivush created the ‘Do You Know’ scale (DYK) which asked adolescents a series of questions to determine how much they knew about their family. They found that those with the greater sense of family history and heritage were more resilient and had greater emotional well-being. The results of a further 2019 study by Stine Breum Ramsgaard and Annette Bohn showed that an awareness of even a traumatic family history is likely to be of benefit. Two groups of adolescents, one from a majority background and one who were the children of refugees, were asked to imagine their futures. Many of the children of refugees had parents who were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, yet a higher proportion of these children imagined their futures more positively than the other group. The children of refugees were also more likely to name family, helping others, and achievements as important life themes and goals. It is believed that people who are more aware of their social and cultural backgrounds are able to think autobiographically, processing their pasts and being aspirational about their futures.
Both studies showed that those who are aware of their family history are better equipped to overcome challenges: they have learned from their predecessors’ example that it is possible to live through turmoil and to seek a positive outcome from disruption. Perhaps these psychological benefits can also be reaped from the history of a whole society, as recorded in culture. In ‘An Environmental History of Literary Resilience,’ Mélanie Bourlet and Marie Lorin discuss the role of literature along the Senegal River in the Sudano-Sahelian zone where land grabbing, environmental exploitation and border conflict occurred in the late 20th century. Many people were displaced as a result, some internally within Senegal and Mauritania, while others migrated further afield. Migration in this area intensified when land shortages gave government powers an excuse to discriminate against black farmers.
The area is rich in Pulaar literature which contains a strong oral tradition where stories are communicated aloud from person to person, rather than being written down formally. One of the better-known myths which circulates in the region, Tyamaba, tells of a woman who gives birth to twins, one of whom is a baby and the other a snake. The twins’ birth represented an alliance between humans and the river, resulting in the family’s prosperity. However, Tyamaba must remain a secret: if he is discovered, this bond will be broken and a curse will fall on the family. Years later, Tyamaba is found by his twin’s wife, and consequently he must return to the river. Before he does, he speaks to his twin brother for the final time and makes a pact with him. The family will not be cursed on the condition that they treat the river and its inhabitants with respect. Tyamaba returns to the river and the balance between man and nature resumes.
The beauty of an oral tradition is that tales evolve as they are passed from person to person, rather than being fixed in a single, published form. Versions of Tyamaba have gone on to describe the migration of the Fulani people around the area and some also recount successions of drought, likely having been influenced by the more recent environmental upheaval which has occurred there. This story gives a precedent of migration for the people living along the Senegal River, The awareness of previous generations’ success in overcoming trials can create resilience in current and future generations, as it does within a single family.
Could literature and culture also prevent the psychological wounds it can help to heal?
Refugee literature can be a force for change because it is dynamic and progressive by nature. To return to Bourlet and Lorin’s discussion of Pulaar literature, they describe how the Senegal-Mauritania border conflict in 1989-1992 caused an outpouring of poetry which criticised government action and was circulated through radio and cassettes. One local poet, Bakary Diallo (1892 – 1978), was the first person to write Pulaar using the Latin alphabet. In doing so, he created a transnational piece of literature. Transnationality in literature has great potential for changing prejudiced attitudes to migration, asylum seekers, and ‘otherness’ on a global scale, because it begins to break down some of the global barriers between people and their different languages and cultures. This could lead to greater acceptance and understanding.
Just as works in translation and global forms of literature are only recently being accepted into a restricted body of English literature, so have refugees been shut out of nations for similarly ridiculous reasons, such as the policing of the evolution of ethnicity, populations and culture. Disintegrating barriers within literature could pave the way for this to happen at physical borders too by bringing about a change in attitudes as an intermediary step.
I don’t believe that it is naïve to see potential in literature for finally being the force which brings about changes in attitude. Words have immense power and whether they are used to further progress or to hinder it is up to us. After all, aren’t the negative phrases banded about in the media largely to blame for prevalent negative stereotypes surrounding refugees?
At the very least, a greater understanding of global cultures could prevent us from having such two-dimensional views of the countries where many asylum seekers begin their journeys. While the news is primarily consumed by what is going wrong in these regions, it overlooks that these negative events have not always been their only characteristics, and nor are they still. Have we ever stopped to consider the oral tradition which predated the civil war in Syria, which is being moulded by the lived experiences of those who are caught up in the conflict now? Is enough made of the ancient Pashto poetry which existed in Afghanistan for millennia before the Taliban did?
Of course, it would be reductive and unethical to pretend that the news pouring out of these regions is predominantly positive. We have a duty to those who are losing their lives to be aware of the geopolitical events taking place there. However, both for our own depth of view and for the benefit of the people who became refugees there, we need to alter our perspective, so we are able to view countries not just as disaster zones, but as someone’s home.
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Isobel is a History and English student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford Micro Internship programme organised by the University Careers Service.