Home » Guest Post
Category Archives: Guest Post
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.
By Salma Gul and Nithya Rajan
This is a conversation between Salma and Nithya. Salma is an Afghan activist and artisan who is a refugee in Delhi, India, and Nithya is a core team member in ADHFMR and an Indian origin Ph.D. researcher at the University of Minnesota, US. Nithya is currently conducting field research in Delhi for her dissertation project on the material life and labor experiences of Afghan refugee women in India. Nithya and Salma worked together on a livelihood initiative for Afghan refugee women over the past year, where Salma was the lead artisan. This is a snippet from hours of conversations between them that span a range of topics, but often revolves around the problems faced by refugees, especially women refugees in India.
The time and space of this conversation are significant. In recent years India has reversed a long tradition non-refoulement, despite not being a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951. Delhi, where this conversation is taking place is not a city that one associates with refugees, but it is home to at least 60,000 refugees. From Salma’s top-floor apartment in a migrant neighborhood, we can see the majestic white dome of Humayun’s tomb, a 16th-century monument. Thousands of refugees were housed in the expansive gardens of this monument after The Partition of India in 1947, one of the biggest mass displacement of peoples to date. Refugees in Delhi live in a city deeply shaped by The Partition, often in neighborhoods that were created to house partition refugees around 70 years ago.
For World Refugee Day 2019, we decided to talk about the issues that haunt us in this global climate that is so hostile to migration and refugees.
Nithya: Salma, how long have you been a refugee?
Salma: I came to India in 2013; So it has been almost 6 years now. I had to flee Kabul because of the threats I received as a women’s rights activist. When I first arrived in India, I did not even realize that I was now a refugee- someone who had fled their country because of the fear of persecution. Two Afghan women who had also come with me to India told me that I have to apply for refugee status at UNHCR. This was news to me. I had not come to India with the intention of becoming a refugee, I left because I had no other option.
Nithya: My move to the US happened under very different circumstances, but I think there are some moments that all migrants experience irrespective of the conditions of their migration. When I went through the immigration checkpoint in the US for the first time, it hit me that I was now an immigrant. Coming back to you, it is important for people to realize that refugees are people who are forced to flee circumstances beyond their control. No one sets out to become a refugee; many do not realize that they are refugees until they reach a host country and have to apply for asylum in order to access the most basic amenities.
We have had many conversations about the problems that refugees face in India such as lack of documentation, jobs, access to health and education. Which of these are foremost in your mind today?
Salma: Refugees cannot travel anywhere from India and this is something that I personally feel constrained by. I am not talking about resettlement, but the opportunity to travel and explore the world. I have been offered opportunities to attend conferences abroad as an activist, but could not take them up because I have no travel documents. I realize that I might never be able to go to Afghanistan again, but I wish I had a travel document that would allow me to travel to other places. Even though we cannot get citizenship in India, we should be eligible for some other government-issued documentation that will give us the freedom to travel and move around.
Nithya: What you are saying makes me realize that while we think of refugees as victims of displacement and forced migration, we do not empathize with the forced immobility that refugees endure post-displacement in places like India. In India, refugees are forced to remain in Delhi because the UNHCR office is located here even though high rents, shortage of jobs and extreme weather make survival in this city difficult. This inability to leave shapes the lives of refugees who are in urban cities as well as refugee camps. In India, even domestic travel requires some form of state-issued document that many refugees often do not have.
Salma: If I have to live in India forever, given the current laws and the attitude towards refugees, I will be forced to live in Delhi. I would not even be able to move to another city in India. In that sense, it is like being in jail.
Nithya: Not having identity documents, especially Aadhaar Card (a unique identity number issued to residents of Indian and is now required for most financial transactions) affects refugee in other ways as well. Refugees cannot open bank accounts which are now mandatory for jobs in the formal sector. Further, in the absence of any refugee laws or comprehensive refugee policy, it is not clear whether refugees have the right to work in India.
What has it been like trying to make a living as a single refugee woman in India?
Salma: I am someone who cannot keep still and needs to work all the time. I have worked long hours since I was 10 years old when I started working in a carpet-weaving workshop to contribute to my family finances. So for me, not being able to work is the biggest punishment. Although I was not able to complete my higher education, I have much experience in women’s rights organizing as well as tailoring and designing clothes and traditional Afghan embroidery. Yet, I have not had even one steady job since I came to India. I have made ends meet and supported other Afghan refugee women through my embroidery work, but it is not a dependable source of income. I have taken up every opportunity available to improve my circumstances- training and classes offered by UNHCR partner NGOs, English-language courses, livelihood programs, and apprenticeships, but none of them have led to jobs or a steady source of income. And this is not just my story, it is the case of most refugees in India. If you are a single woman without family support or male relatives who have access to more informal jobs, then your situation is very dire. The work options available for women are often limited to cooking, embroidery, and tailoring. It is difficult to imagine a future in India if I cannot work here and this is why most refugees feel like they are in limbo.
Nithya: The context in which refugees have to labor in India is so complicated. It is shaped by a pastiche of laws, visa rules, bureaucratic red-tapism, high unemployment rates and the non-recognition of refugees’ educational qualifications and work experience. The alarming fact is that while there has been some unprecedented anti-refugee action by the state in the past few years, the condition of refugees in India has mostly remained the same for many decades. In a recent speech, Member of Parliament Mr. Shashi Tharoor pointed out that India is the only democracy of any worth that does not have a national asylum law.
Any kind of substantive change to the condition of refugees in India, including the right to work will have to come through such legislative changes. While the UNHCR runs initiatives through its partner NGOs to make education, health, the legal system and livelihood more accessible to refugees, recognition by and support of the Indian state is crucial for improving the lives of refugees.
 Bhupinder Singh Chimni. “The legal condition of refugees in India.” J. Refugee Stud. 7 (1994): 378.
 Shashi Tharoor. Keynote Address. “The Emerging Narrative of Forced Migration in South Asia conference.” Migration and Asylum Project. India International Center. 10 January 2019.
And A Poem for YOU on #WorldRefugeeDay2019
By Ayar Ata
The impetus for my research on Kurdish mass displacement and diaspora was developed gradually over the course of my own life experience as a refugee in July 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war as the region became increasingly insecure and dangerous for everyone, especially for refugees and displaced people, I with five other young men took a long walk out of the border region through an area called in Kurdish ‘dyhata sotawakan’ literary (burned villages).
Five month later a new chapter of my life began in November 1986 when Sweden kindly opened a new gate for me to an exhilarating, and yet at an alien society. A new society which was both inviting and challenging me to restart my life. I traveled to London to study with my suitcase. I arrived at Stansted airport in London on 25 June 1989. To cut a long story short, I am still here, a member of the Kurdish diaspora in London and I am a Kurdish Londoner.
Perhaps my own formal and most informative steps towards active integration or active citizenship in London began when I completed my undergraduate degree at SOAS, University of London in 1997. During the course of studying for a BA in Social Anthropology and Development Studies, I learned more about forced migration and immigration – stories as well as theories. This helped to shape my initial academic interest in migration and integration in London. I further completed my postgraduate studies in social policy at Middlesex University in 2000 and forced migration and international human rights studies at University of East London in 2009 prior to starting my PhD study at London South Bank University (LSBU) in February 2011 which I completed in April 2017.
My study on Kurdish diaspora in London at LSBU analyses the notion of history, cultural identity and the idea of home and belonging by considering how the Kurds view their own history (the past) and how they relate (at present) within their new home, that is London. In other words an analytical attempt has been made to understand a shifting position of the Kurds from victims in the region to active citizens in London. Moreover, based on personal narratives and other empirical data collected, my study clearly illustrates that the transformation of identity is occurring within the Kurdish diaspora in London. On a micro level, a new theme has emerged within these narratives, where many second generation Kurds who born in London positively identify themselves as ‘Kurdish Londoners’. The energy, dynamism, and challenges of integration should be understood better for all BAME and refugee communities in London. See a recent proposal which put forward by the British Future, an independent think tank organisation based in London, advocating for starting a Centre at the City Hall for promoting integration and citizenship in London.
 Ata, Ayar (2008). My Suitcase [a poem] In Exile Writers Magazine, issue 9.
Under my bed there it was my seemingly little suitcase.
Inside it my few precious belonging.
A present from My Grand mum, an evenly shaped
Light blue stone with white spots spread all over it.
A familiar piece of early morning sky with tiny stars twinkling in the palm of my hand.
A photo of my mother smiling at me in despair,
waving and wondering.
A broken watch with frozen hands
Ethical and Privacy Issues in Collecting Oral Histories
by Shailja Sharma, DePaul University, USA
Though oral histories and their archives are an accepted mode of historical inquiry in academic and non-academic settings, this practice raises questions around survivor’s trauma, confidentiality vs. public memory, and a researcher’s ethical imperative to “do no harm”. Unlike material archives, where artifacts and documents are historical legacies, oral histories often implicate living people. More importantly, in the context of Partition history, events and memories involve a degree of violence and uprooting. While working to collect oral histories for 1947 Archive, an organization based in Berkeley, California, the process of asking subjects to revisit old and private memories is a fraught one. They often get upset, emotional, cry or need to take a break from the recording. Sometimes, they can’t go on. In addition to traumatic memory, there is often a generation or a gender gap between the recorder and the interview subject.
Keeping in mind that the need for oral testimonies is so crucial, particularly as this generation from 1947 is dying out so rapidly, what are the best practices around collecting oral history? My paper will address the pros and cons of this exercise.
The paper is based on my work for the 1947 Partition archives, based out of Berkeley, CA, which holds 1740 stories on Partition. The idea behind the public archive is to collect the oral testimonies and document the histories of people who survived the partition of British India. The virtual archive which we have established will serve as a resource for scholars, historians and people at large.
In 1947, India became independent but was simultaneously divided into East and West Pakistan, leading to a massive population transfer across the eastern and western borders of these new countries. The numbers, approximately, were ten million displaced, over a million killed and many more unaccounted for. The population transfers were not centrally managed; they were oftentimes spontaneous. The resettlement was also chaotic, extending from 1947 to the mid 1950s. This displacement and resettlement was aided by the army and paramilitaries, along with religious NGOs and spontaneous collective groups. Once refugees ended up in camps, mostly near major and mid-size cities, resettlement began.
Housing was a major issue. In Delhi and Karachi, many refugees were “allotted” “abandoned” houses. Other times, they broke into locked homes and took them over without any paperwork. Houses that were temporarily abandoned or permanently abandoned, nobody knew if the border would be crossable, whether their departure was permanent or temporary, would they be able to return.
The demographic displacement, haphazard and disorganized as it was, was also accompanied by mob violence which had been building between June and August 1947. Semi-organized political and religiously inspired groups of males preyed upon families, especially women, justifying their physical and sexual violence as a tit for tat cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. This in turn forced families to flee established neighborhoods, homes and businesses. Displaced migrants were called “Mohajir” in Pakistan and “sharanarthi” in India. Most people were not sure whether they were leaving for good, or temporarily. There was a lack of clarity about what a “partition” meant. They were unclear of whether borders would be open or closed, whether they would have the freedom freedom to travel, to visit relatives across borders, marry or not.
The history of this resettlement and forced migration has to be preserved and documented. The Partition Archive has collected 1740 narratives of the survivors of 1947. The interviews were carried out by trained volunteers, of whom I am one. Interviews have taken place in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom and USA. The process is centrally administered by the archive. First, interviewees/narrators/survivors contact the archive, which then puts them in touch with interviewers in their area. The audio/video/still photographs are then uploaded to the site of the Archive, where they are technically edited and made available to the public.
I have recorded five subjects talking about their experiences of displacement and resettlement in the last two years for the 1947 archive. The last two interviews were conducted in summer 2016. My subjects were a 98-year-old government servant of Pakistan’s Commerce department and his 91-year-old wife.
In this paper, I will be using some examples from these interviews as I explore how, even after so many years, the many sensitivities and silences around the experiences of displacement color their narratives.
As an interviewer, one has to tread a fine line between asking for details of survivor experiences, finding out as much as you can so that their stories serve as rich source material, and realizing that these experiences are not in the past. For the narrators, they are part of their present and of their living family histories. Especially with experiences that were oftentimes violent, resulting in trauma and loss, or in reinvention of identities, how much honesty is required or desirable for the narrative to be authentic? Is the narrative a Barthesian style narrative, signifying an experience or is it the experience itself? Is it history or a historical story?
And in cases where the loss is accompanied by physical violence, can one really press for details?
Before you become a “Story Scholar” for the 1947 archive, you go through a two-three-hour training, which covers some technical details but also advice on what can and cannot be asked. The archive also provides you with an exhaustive list of questions which covers different types of migrants: farmers, musicians, academics, businessmen, women etc. There are twenty pages of questions in all. What I have found however, is once we start the interviews with a name, age, and general question about origins, the interviewer doesn’t need to prompt the storyteller with too many questions.
The specificities, of town and village life, the school days, mostly form and idyllic pre-lapsarian community where generations lived in recurrent cycles of rooted continuity. Partition is seen as an unexpected storm that swept away known ways of living and ended in a pale copy. Within that your-narrative, many details differ. Sometimes post-Partition is also seen as a getting rid of an imperial power, a moment of nationalist inspiration, a chance to build a new nation, a fulfillment of a political dream. It is described as a chance at a modern education, a dismantling of oppressive caste or village systems. But the overwhelming theme is one of loss.
This can appear in many ways: sometimes a subject may start crying as he or she recounts the details of their journey. As an interviewer what do you do: Do you pretend this is part of the story? Do you ask if they want to take a break, even if it interrupts the flow of the narrative? Do you let it become a chance to ask even more detailed questions? Is your responsibility to the “story” or to the person telling their story? This is especially hard as most of the narrators are well into their seventies.
At other times, their spouses who are sitting and listening to the story may get emotionally disturbed as much of the experience being described is new to them as well. What is my responsibility as a stranger, as an interviewer?
A third moment of ethical ambiguity arises when parts of the narrative touch on taboos: for example, the rape or abduction of a female family member. The interview protocol suggests that we ask for details but when the subject is clearly reluctant to either identify the relative or provide details of the incident, or if he or she says something deliberately vague like, “yes, my sister died for our family at that time”, can I press for what that means?
In one interview, the family of the subject broke into a Muslim family’s house upon arriving in independent India. I was told “Hamne tala tor ke kabza kar liya” [we broke the lock and captured it]. Later on in the story, his family claimed compensation from the state for agricultural and residential property they had left behind. Can I show any judgment about this? Can I ask a leading question like “Did you pay for it later?”
Lastly, I argue that there are many grey areas around violence: did they themselves perpetrate violent acts? Abduction? Looting? Nearly all narratives frame their stories as ones of victimhood, or courage, or some combination of the two. The perpetrators are sometimes anonymous, at other times, members of another religious group. This makes a kind of sense as most of the narrators were children or teenagers at the time of the partition. In many cases they have heard about who was responsible for looting, arson and murder. In a few cases, they have direct knowledge or eyewitness accounts of actual incidents. Can one ask for these details when the truth would implicate them or worse still, give the lie to the story that they were telling?
So to conclude, while the idea of first person narratives and autobiographical accounts of the Partition is an important and powerful one, in practice, as I do more interviews, I find the silences and grey areas in the narratives much more compelling. I also find that the format creates some ethical quandaries about where to push, and what kinds of stories are being elicited by this format.
While the idea of having a detailed list of questions is a good one from a historical perspective, perhaps having a more open ended approach would be a better one so that interviews could move away from a detailed recounting to a more reflective type of narrative. In addition, a better training for the interviewers in dealing with some of these ethical and emotional areas would help in understanding the nuances of the stories we are listening to.
Finally, while the archive has almost 1740 stories on its website, what is needed is a better analysis of the patterns in these stories and a critical questioning of some of the assumptions in them. I realize that this might go against the grain of the reason this archive was created, but not questioning or analyzing is to do the wealth of material here a real disservice.
A note about the directions that this paper can go: The politics of the archive:
In his book Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida presents the figure of the archon, guardian of the documents, the “sentry”, as one of the three pylons supporting the archive. The other two are the “place” and the “law”. The discussion of sentries enables Derrida to slightly reduce the abstractness of the archive, and to speak of figures of power that legislate, repeat their law, and enforce it. However, the way he looks at the sentries from the outside, as those who set archival borders, allows them to fool him at times: to force him to look at the threshold from their point of view, namely inward, at the way in which they uphold the law of the archive, leaving Citizen Derrida and his fellows outside, beyond the conceptualization of the archive. Yet Derrida, in his turn, fools them, writing that: “It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.”[i]
[i] Another way to theorize the archive is through the theoretical lens of the Hegelian concept of Aughebung or“Sublation” whereby the archive both protects/freezes memory and cancels it as a political act. See Thomson, Alistair (2010), “ Memory and Remembering in Oral History” in Donald A. Ritchie (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Oral History, Oxford: Oxford University Press.