A conversation about refugee rights begins with the Geneva Convention of 1951. Refugees were granted some basic rights at that time. But we know things now we did not then; and now it is clear that many rights were lacking. If the Convention were to meet again today, it would do well to declare one new right in particular.
Refugees’ stories belong to them and them only.
Refugees have often lost property and loved ones. They have lost their home and their friends, the streets they grew up on and the comforts they enjoyed. But as much as they have lost, they will always take their stories with them.
We must understand this – you and I who are not refugees. Refugees’ stories are often all they have left. On their arrival in a new society, we must not take from them the one piece of property which has survived the transit. We must remember one thing:
Refugees’ stories do not belong to us.
Rifaie Tammas left Syria as a refugee in 2014. He now lives in Australia, where he works as a citizen journalist and an academic. In 2018, a popular TV network interviewed him about US airstrikes in Syria. Tammas is a scholar of Syrian politics; he expected to give his expert analysis. Instead, the network asked him personal questions about losing his father and brother. Later, the network sent Tammas a clip of him ‘half in tears.’ The experience was ‘humiliating’.
Dina Nayeri and her mother left Iran as refugees in 1988. In 1990, they settled in Edmond, Oklahoma. The people there liked to hear the Nayeri family's escape story. They asked about it ‘in churches and women’s groups, at schools and even at dinners.' For Dina, it felt like ‘we owed them our previous identity. We had to lay it at their door.’ After a while, she noticed something. The people were always asking how they escaped Iran, but they rarely asked about their life in it. All they wanted was an escape story. And they wanted it whenever they liked.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees leave their countries each year. Only 14% make it to rich countries like Australia or the United States. When they get there, they become Asylum Seekers, who fear deportation to the place they fled. How do they try to prevent this? By parting with their stories. ‘We had to turn our ordeal into a good, persuasive story or risk being sent back.’ That is not the experience of Dina Nayeri alone; it is the experience of refugees everywhere. And if they have the good luck to stay, it is their experience in their new communities. Often, refugees must share their stories as a condition of their acceptance. Whenever this happens, refugees receive a message. It is the same message Tammas and Nayeri received.
Your story does not belong to you. It is the property of the society you have entered, taken in exchange for your permission to settle.
Is this fair? Remember that refugees have survived dangers most of us cannot imagine. They have lived with the worst stress; they have lost most of the things which are worth having. As they arrive on our shores, exhausted, must we really take one of the few things they still own, their story?
We should resist the urge. Refugees’ stories do not belong to us.
Refugees’ stories belong to them alone. Once we accept this principle, we give them the chance to reach their full potential. We must give refugees the right to tell their stories how they wish. And that includes not telling them at all.
The right to forget
Many refugees have suffered trauma. By asking them to tell their stories, we might be making them relive it. Some might prefer to forget what they experienced. We know, for example, that many Holocaust survivors did not want to talk about their experience in the camps. Some thought that the exercise would be too painful. Others felt that, as hard as they tried, no other person could truly understand what it was like. Others simply wanted to forget and move on. Many of these survivors went on to have children; to have successful careers; to lead happy, fulfilling lives.
Today’s refugees deserve the freedom to do the same. How do we give it to them? By giving them the right to not tell their story. They might find their story an inhibition to moving on. They might want to dispense with it. But if all their neighbours know their story, they no longer have that power. This is another reason why a refugee’s story should belong only to the refugee.
We are not entitled to know it.
But sometimes refugees may want to tell us. When this happens, better we hear the story from the refugees themselves, than through the voice of a slippery media. Me We International is helping refugees tell their stories.
Me We International: helping refugees take control of their stories
It is not enough to declare that refugees’ stories belong only to them. To truly own their stories, refugees must know how to tell them.
If refugees cannot tell their stories, the media will. And the media will tell them in whatever way it likes. Sometimes it tells the story of a victim. The Australian TV network told this story about Rifaie Tammas. Sometimes the story is about a survivor. Sometimes a hero, sometimes a villain (it usually depends on the outlet’s political affiliation). But as many stories as the media tells, it never tells them in the way refugees would. Only refugees can do that.
Me We International teaches refugees to tell their own stories. It trains them in public speaking. It sets them creative writing exercises. It shows them how to express themselves. Through this, refugees can ‘reclaim control of the narrative of their lives’. They gain the ability to tell their stories as they experienced them. Not as the media wants to tell them. And when they take control of their past, they take control of their future.
In the words of the founder, Mohsin Mohi Ud Din, ‘Narrative = Control = Power’
Conclusion: full freedom of action
Refugees’ stories belong only to them. We should not regard this as an abstract principle; we should respect it as a concrete right. This includes the right for refugees to tell their stories how they wish. Or not to tell them at all. Or even to forget them entirely.
Those of us who are not refugees should be sensitive. We should not expect that refugees tell us their stories. They are fully in their right to not tell us. When they do tell us, we should not impose on the stories a meaning the refugees do not themselves agree with. We should be careful when labelling refugees as victims or heroes or survivors. We should be sceptical of media outlets which do just that.
It is up to refugees to decide what relation their stories have to their identities. Whether or not they wish to connect their past with their present. Whether their story is a subject of pride or a trauma to be forgotten.
That way, refugees can use their stories however they wish. Or not use them at all. They will have full freedom of action. And they will have a new and real right.
The right to own their story.