The United Nations has designated 20 June as World Refugee Day, and I was pleased to attend a couple of events at the University of East London’s Centre for Migration, Refugees, and Belonging recognizing the role of refugees in social and cultural transformation. Both the Q&A session with celebrated author Dina Nayeri and the panel discussion on documenting life story narratives of migration experiences raised my awareness of some common assumptions around movers.
Nayeri’s book The Ungrateful Refugee: What immigrants never tell you (Primrose Press) tells of her own experience leaving Iran with her mother under great pressure, moving through several places and lengthy periods of time before arriving in the United States. Nayeri alerts us to the crushing expectations placed on movers to “posture gratefulness” as a means of making their presence somehow acceptable to those already there. Our current system of national belonging is built upon a broad difference in rights and resources between those deemed ‘local’ and those who are seen as ‘newcomers’.
While mobility for ‘locals’ is easier than ever—tourism and business travel are both built on streamlined border crossing—moving to safety for people threatened by political upheaval has resulted in longer and longer periods of waiting at borders. Nayeri talks about how she and her family members felt “crushed by the waiting,” But it was “the look that well-meaning people gave them seeking acknowledgement” for the welcome that helped her understand the neverending expectation of gratefulness for being allowed into the national space.
Increasing interest in the stories that people from refugee backgrounds tell about their experiences of migration and settlement was very much evident at the packed re-launch of the Migration Special Interest Group of the Oral History Society (UK). The session was organized by Paul Dudman, Archivist at the Refugee Council Archive at University of East London and the community-engaged Living Refugee Archive. Panelists spoke about a range of fascinating projects to locate the participation of refugee and migrant newcomers in the social life of the places of settlement: oral histories with Chinese newcomers in Manchester, research into Gujuratis’ journey to Croyden, the role of translation in reception and settlement of various groups coming to the UK in the 1940s, among others.
In addition to broadening our historical understanding of places of migration, our archives may also help to unpack the story of “assimilation theatre” that Nayeri draws attention to in The Ungrateful Refugee. For example, Judith Garfield, of Eastside Community Heritage, described the Hidden Histories project and spoke about the difference acquiring legal status made to the types of stories newcomers told: gaining their residency in the UK transformed their “limbo”stories into “integration” narratives, demonstrating the relevance of bordered status in producing social belonging.
Drawing our attention to the relationship between national borders, legal status, and the right to place, archives can help us critique the assumption that communities are made up of sedentary locals and mobile newcomers. Panelist and oral historian Mariella Hoffman has suggested defining hosts and refugees as a single field, an alternative way to capture communities constantly in the process of becoming. Capturing forced migration as part of our shared history of place and not only a temporary status for some community members can help recenter experiences of being on the move as part of our shared humanity.