Syrian Voices is a new oral history project that gathers a compelling collection of candid audio-visual testimonies on film-camera and Zoom of Syrians in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic. The project was conceived as a community participatory initiative based along models of oral history and public engagement developed by academic institutions in the US. Oral and public history should facilitate the redistribution of intellectual authority and facilitate communication and knowledge-sharing within wider society so as to create more diverse and inclusive histories. The project encourages members of the Syrian community to actively participate in the creation of their own histories using well-established ‘shared authority’ oral history frames.
Abdulrahman is a 5 minute film about young man whose family was selected for resettlement by the UN under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme after Abdulrahman’s father sustained life-changing injuries during an aerial bombardment in Aleppo in 2017.
So far, we have recorded twenty-five interviews on film camera and zoom, each approximately 1.5 hours long. The key goals, in the long term, are to encourage community participation via its TORCH platform; raise awareness of the UK’s vibrant Syrian diaspora; build and broaden Syrian community networks through a series of workshops and seminars; and nuance the conversations about refugee and migrant communities in the mainstream media. The British Library has expressed an interest in archiving the Syrian Voices interviews. “I think it is good this research that you’re doing, that you are giving people the platform to express themselves as they wish to be seen or considered,” says Yazan, one of the participants interviewed.
Most participants had arrived in the UK either as part of the former Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme (SVPRS) or as asylees. A minority came under educational scholarships. In June 2020, project leaders Angela Flynn and Mehreen Saigol circulated an information leaflet over Community Sponsorship and Oxford’s Asylum Welcome networks, to recruit these people to the project.
While the project started out as an exploration of the impact of Covid-19 on a minority group that has little voice in the mainstream media, it quickly evolved into a series of in-depth and semi-structured ‘life-trajectory’ interviews, pursuant to the wishes of the participants. The interviewees were keen to counter to the negative depictions of refugees and diaspora communities in the mainstream media. The questionnaire the team circulated, therefore, included questions that might explore family background, education, daily life in Syria, reasons for coming to UK and life in the UK. With the support of a BBC cameraman, Nick, we filmed interviews in 2020 and 2021, and moved over to Zoom recordings when lockdown restrictions were in operation.
Muradi is a 5 minute clip of the story of a young mother-of-four who was married in rural Syria aged 16 and now lives with her family in Oxfordshire.
While the stories are exceptionally diverse – participants come from all back-grounds and walks of life – the narratives are woven together by common threads of resilience in the face of adversity and the powerful desire to build successful lives in the UK. No-one voluntarily leaves family, friends and everything they know to make a new life in a foreign country unless constrained by real and immediate concerns for personal safety and survival. For most participants, the pandemic had less traumatic impact than the events in Syria that prompted their departure to the UK. A few were keen to emphasize the cultural diversity of Syria and as one interviewee, Aziz, said, “many people from Europe were refugees at some point, and I want them to understand that Syria has been a home for refugees throughout our history.”
A key aspect was to raise awareness of the situation of refugees within the wider community. To this effect we made three short documentary films, Abdulrahman, Muradi, and Arwa. Two were launched on our TORCH platform during the lock-downs in 2020-1. The third, Arwa, was screened to a live audience at the Weston Library, Oxford in October 2021. The films focus on feelings and emotions in order to promote empathy and understanding: Suzie, who watched the films, said that it reminder her that “refugees are ordinary people like you and me and in similar circumstances it could happen to anyone of us.”
Arwa , a 15 minute documentary, tells the story of a journey and arrival to the UK via Kurdistan and Greece.
The films have generated positive feedback within the local community in Oxford and London, with another audience member, Mary, saying “I personally was moved beyond words at the rawness of Arwa’s account – her sincerity in the suffering she had endured was so beautifully unfiltered and yet she felt relatable as an attractive young woman with dreams and aspirations…what a light you are shining on the issue of refugees in this country.”
Besides its goal to witness diaspora narratives, the project aims to build networks of support and association between members of the Syrian community and the wider community, alongside local organisations such as Asylum Welcome and the Old Fire Station Oxford , which hosts the Syrian Sisters Kitchen. The community aspect of the project was severely constrained by the social distancing regulations implemented during the pandemic. We were obliged to transfer prospective live events onto our virtual TORCH platform. This had an impact on the creation of real and lasting networks. Instead, we hosted three live webinar events in 2021.
Once the easing of the lock-down restrictions permitted, Syrian Voices has worked with the Playground Theatre. A one day workshop on theatre and improvisation, for example, offered another way for participants to tell their stories within a cathartic dramatic process and for community theatres to respond to and engage with local minority communities. As a result of such theatrical collaborations, going forwards into 2022 The Playground Theatre plans to put on a new production with a well-known Syrian playwright. Meanwhile, one participants has written a short play which has been entered it into a competition devised by a central London theatre.
Syrian voices is on-going, and it will evolve in accordance with the wishes of our participants. One thing is for sure, we have actively listened to our interviewees and responded to their desire to dwell on their Syrian past and hopes for the future. These recorded interviews provide a lasting testimony to the extraordinary skills, talent, resilience and humanity of those who form part of the UK’s Syrian diaspora.
Angela Flynn is a researcher at Oxford university who teaches a third-year undergraduate course on “France from the Popular Front to the Liberation, 1936-44.” She has a background in twentieth century civilian conflict in Spain and France. Having worked alongside Professor Robert Gildea for a number of years she was inspired create the Syrian Voices oral history video archive and film project with the collaboration of experienced film-maker and community sponsorship co-ordinator Mehreen Saigol.
Mehreen Saigol is a documentary director who has made current affairs, arts and history programmes for UK and US broadcasters. She is also chair of a Community Sponsorship group in London helping resettle vulnerable refugees as part of a government scheme. This experience led to a collaboration with historian Angela Flynn to record the testimonies of Syrians forced to flee conflict and who are now living across Britain.
The project is supported by the Oxford History Faculty and will appear on its forthcoming Community History website. Syrian Voices is particularly grateful for the support of Lyndal Roper, Martin Conway, Meryem Kalayci, Elisabeth Bolorinos Allard and TORCH Oxford. The short film ARWA was funded by TORCH. The interviews and films are collected as Syrian Voices and will be archived at the British Library.