Imagine what it would be like if a stranger were to tell your story in their own words. Also imagine that this stranger believed their own fantasies about you more than what you had told them about yourself. And imagine that this stranger’s voice was loud enough for all the world to hear, but yours was not. This is exactly how it felt like to be a Syrian migrant living in the West. I wanted to raise my voice and speak my truth and my story – and that is how I came to create a one-woman show for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.Dr Lina Fadel, speaking on the Visualising War and Peace Podcast.
At the end of 2022, we recorded a conversation with Dr Lina Fadel for the Visualising War and Peace podcast. Dr Fadel is an Assistant Professor at Heriot-Watt University, with a background in languages and intercultural studies. Her research looks at how we navigate sameness and difference in multicultural contexts, and she is particularly interested in how people reconstruct their identities and engage in home-making following displacement. As a forced migrant from Syria herself, she has done a lot of work in recent years learning from and supporting Syrian refugees in Scotland. As well as publishing academic articles, she performed a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2022, designed to ‘expose the double standards that exist both at the UK border and in the media’s portrayal of refugees.’ As Dr Fadel described it, ‘This was my chance to speak out publicly about the injustices committed against migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and to reflect on how we think and speak of them in our everyday conversations.’
You can listen to our conversation here: ‘Combatting Reductive Refugee Narratives with Dr Lina Fadel‘. And you can read some quotations from Dr Fadel’s work (her Fringe show, articles, and our podcast discussion) below. They offer valuable insights into the experience of forced migration from both personal and academic perspectives.
Should I stay or should I go? The soundtrack to my life in the UK and possibly the soundtrack to every immigrant’s life. A very relevant question, isn’t it? It’s been a stressful couple of years for UK politics since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, and especially a difficult time if you are an immigrant, or a refugee… I think the referendum has given those who hid behind political correctness the permission to actively tell us to go home. And this makes you question your place in the world because we are being constantly reminded that we do not belong here, and that the world cannot see beyond our difference.Dr Lina Fadel, opening her Edinburgh Fringe Show ‘Become a Sexy Refugee in 5 Easy Steps!‘
During our conversation Dr Fadel shares her own story of forced migration from Syria to Scotland, and discusses some of the challenges that she has faced as she has made a new home in the UK. In particular, she reflects on the hard work that forced migrants have to do to establish a sense of belonging, and the ways in which people around them can undermine that hard work: for example, by asking them when they plan to ‘go home’, or by questioning their right to have opinions about their adopted country. Dr Fadel recounts some particularly uncomfortable exchanges about Brexit, for instance:
As I shared my reflections as an academic and a new British citizen on how Brexit was not only a political issue but also a social challenge requiring urgent debate, a woman in the audience protested, saying she could not understand why Brexit mattered to me. My critique of British politics was clearly not welcome. The woman’s dismissal of my Britishness was also a dismissal of my views as illegitimate. Was it my accent? My skin tone? Or was it my inescapable association with the ‘dangerous migrant‘ discourse that has permeated British politics over the past ten years? She might not have said ‘why do you stay in this country?’, but I heard it.Dr Lina Fadel, ‘When hope is a dinghy in the Channel: how racism in the UK is a crisis of belonging‘, published in The Conversation (17.8.2020).
She also narrates a challenging conversation she had with a taxi driver in Edinburgh (narrated in this article, ‘But you don’t look like a Syrian’):
Before arriving at my destination, he asked me if I had wanted to return home and I wanted to say: but where and what is home? It sounded like a well-meaning question; however, a profound sadness came over me. The question was patronizingly suggestive of the speaker’s conviction that this, my here and now – Scotland – is not really my home but a temporary place from which I can only return… How can I explain to the taxi driver that home was a concept in flux; that it certainly was not bricks and mortar but a process, a lifetime work of reconciling the connections between past and present and all those spaces in between? How can I explain that home is often no more than an act of putting one’s shattered pieces together? How can I explain to him that in order to return, one has to arrive and that I am still in that liminal space in the process of arriving?
This necessitates a closer examination of marginalised experience that focuses ‘on the fabric and routines of their everyday lives, because marginalisation is so often experienced and felt at the banal level – eating, washing, travelling and socialising.’ (Mayblin et al, 2020, p. 108). In other words, this is a call for an understanding of ‘how hierarchical conceptions of human worth impact on the everyday’ (ibid., p. 108) and the need for adopting fresh outlooks and frameworks when we talk about migration.Dr Lina Fadel, in ‘But you don’t look like a Syrian: Migrant Narrative Beyond the Dichotomous Divide in Migration Studies‘, Displaced Voices: A Journal of Archives, Migration and Cultural Heritage, 2021, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 61-65.
We also discuss toxic representations of refugees and migrants in the media and politics. Dr Fadel reflects on the different connotations that are associated with those two different terms (‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’), and wider tendencies to categories some forced migrants as ‘worthy’ and others as not. She also gets us thinking about who controls knowledge production and storytelling about migrants (largely people with no lived experience of migration), and explains what she means by ‘the tyranny of the single narrative‘ – i.e. reductive storytelling, that flattens all migration experiences into one simple, often negative account, that does not do justice to the diversity or complexity of different migrant journeys.
Such a reductive narrative, fortified by years of media bias, right-wing populism and refugee panic, flattened my experiences and reduced my rich and multifaceted heritage to ‘swarms of migrants‘, ‘dinghy people‘, or a mere ‘threat or victim‘ binary. This oppressive and untruthful narrative required me to tell a different story that demonstrates that there are diverse ways of being and becoming in this world.
The message I wanted to share with my audience was simple: stories are a human right and a responsibility – but most importantly, stories are a privilege that the majority of refugees do not enjoy. Without someone listening, storytelling is a fragmented and futile human endeavour. What refugees need the most is for the world to actively listen and practise cultural humility – a curious and respectful attitude towards other cultures. Like Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I am fully aware of the need to stop the popular story from becoming the only story.Dr Lina Fadel, ‘A Syrian academic at the Fringe: why I put on a show to reclaim the stories of refugees like me‘, published in The Conversation (7.9.2022).
Dr Fadel’s solution is to call for more active listening as well as more storytelling. As she puts it:
There is no act more generous or humane than letting someone tell their story the way they want it to be heard, and actively listening to them, with humility and self-awareness.Dr Lina Fadel, speaking on the Visualising War and Peace Podcast.
She advocates strongly for giving refugees and forced migrants spaces and platforms to tell their own stories, in their own words. And she has valuable suggestions about how ordinary people in their day-to-day lives can listen actively, humbly, and with curiosity. As she notes, ‘integration’ is a two-way process, and there is learning and sharing to be done in multiple directions. Dr Fadel urges us to approach current discussions of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ as a ‘crisis of storytelling‘ – one which we can all help to solve.
We hope you enjoy the episode! As with all the story-sharing on this site, we want to hear what you think. Does what Dr Fadel discusses in the podcast resonate with you? Do you have similar stories of your own to share? What can you do, either as a storyteller or a listener, to respond to the ‘crisis of storytelling’ which Dr Fadel draws our attention to? Please let us know what you think, either by emailing us directly on [email protected] or by filling in our feedback form. Thank you!