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New collection tells the stories of Syrians who have found refuge in Wales

25 Jun 2022 6 minute read
Maybe Over the Horizon by Alison Lochhead. Photography: Luke Unsworth

The remarkable and moving testimonies of Syrians who have found refuge in Wales have been recorded as part of a research project undertaken by Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

This collection, chosen by the Books Council of Wales as Book of the Month for July, is released today to mark the start of refugee week.

Angham Abdullah, Beth Thomas and Chris Weedon

As he escaped from Syria into Jordan, surgeon Hussam Allaham recalled:

When the plane took off, I looked from the window and all I saw was smoke… areas were burning. It was an unforgettable image. I flew when the country was burning …

And it is still burning. Since the very beginning no one expected that things would come to this stage… We were hopeful. We used to say this month, the next month, the next year…

This image of smoke all around can serve as an evocative metaphor of the common refugee experience of losing sight of all the things that gave their former life its meaning and coherence.

There are many people in Wales today who have settled here after escaping war and violence in their home countries. For them, telling their story can be both difficult and life affirming.

Listening to refugee stories cuts through the empathy fatigue produced by 24-hour news. Individual stories tell us how it feels to become a refugee, to lose your home and the life you have known.

They tell us what it is like to deal with a traumatic past and an uncertain future. They throw light on the many obstacles to creating a new life in an unfamiliar environment. They also reveal the positive contributions that refugees make to Wales today and how we can help smooth the process of settling in.

Refugee Wales : Syrian Voices

Remembering and forgetting

Refugee Wales: Syrian Voices, recently published, is a book that revolves around the oral testimonies of Syrians who have found refuge in Wales.

They have been recorded as part of a joint research project between Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales.

Moving away from their country has resulted in a break from their past lives and a rupture from their histories and cultures.

Their stories show how Syrians in Wales manage to create identities and a sense of community as refugees, as ex-patriot Syrians and as new Welsh citizens. These competing identities are integrated into the host society in different ways and to different degrees. Both remembering and forgetting the past play crucial roles.

Sometimes remembering is done actively.

As Latifa Alnajjar, recalls: ‘I sit down at night and contemplate and remember. I feel it, I smell it and feel like my soul is still there’.

Here the message is one of nostalgic loss. Yet even where the memories are painful, not all refugees want to forget their traumatic pasts.

Some take care to preserve the details of their flight, sometimes by writing them down and sometimes through preserving objects such as the clothing which they had with them when they fled.

When they achieve refugee status, such objects take on new meanings.

For example, Bashar tells of how ‘dear objects of difficult memories’ are also a record of his survival.

This points to how even traumatic memories can assume a positive role in the present if they are embedded in a narrative of survival.

Rather than repressing and forgetting their traumatic experiences, the interviewees use them as evidence of their strength.

Memories

Both types of memories – traumatic and nostalgic – are involuntarily prompted by external factors including for example, images, media representations, objects, smells and sounds. The interviews show clearly that it is not easy to abandon a past life, however much you might want to put it behind you. They also show that sharing experiences can have beneficial effects.

As Ahmad Al Kadri tells us of his regular meetings with other Syrian refugees, ‘We usually discuss our present, plans for the future and perhaps the problems we are facing and memories of the past. It is about sharing of feelings, suffering, happy moments. When I talk to them, I feel I am not alone in whatever suffering I am going through’.

In addition to the psychological and emotional difficulties that many Syrian refugees live with, they face a wide range of other challenges, which include problems with English, lack of knowledge of life in Wales, and often not being able to work in the professions for which they were trained.

Basic areas of everyday life become problematic if you don’t know the ropes in the host society. Despite the hardships they face, the refugees’ resilience in coping with their new lives in Wales is impressive.

In telling their life stories, the interviewees suggest a range of strategies that would improve the experience of becoming a refugee.

Notes made by one of the refugees for learning English.

Community support

Many of the suggestions for doing things differently come from refugees who reached the UK legally with the help of organisations such as the UN. They emphasise the need for greater preparation where possible before travelling.

Some refugees reflect that they ‘wish that the authorities could listen to what we raise and find a reasonable solution to so many issues affecting refugees.’

Others place a lot of emphasis on self-help.

Yet this too could be made easier if more accessible information were more readily available. It would also help refugees be more active in shaping their new lives.

Community support is crucial to making a success of life in Wales: ‘I am making friends here and I feel that those close friends have become my family. When we first came, we were lonely. Day by day, we met new people and have enlarged our circle of friends’.

As Khalid Al Saeed puts it: ‘This is our society now. To be able to go on and be positive I believe that we shouldn’t focus on the past’.

Suleiman Suleiman working in his own restaurant in Cardiff, 2020. © Angham Abdullah

A life from scratch

Ronahi Hassan suggests that refugees are a positive addition to British society.

‘Diversity and accepting diversity will benefit society. Refugees are great people. They risk their lives, head to the unknown and do their best to build their lives’.

This country should be proud of any refugee who succeeds in ‘building a life from scratch’. Some interviewees stress integration must be a two-way process in which the host society must ‘get to know us better’.

By hearing their stories, we can help Syrian and other refugees through their transformation and initiate new ways of being and becoming Welsh.

Knowing more about the lives of others is vital in shaping the kind of society in which we wish to live.

Featuring artwork by Alison Lochhead and fully illustrated throughout with colour  photographs, it is published by Parthian and can be purchased here or from good bookshops


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Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
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