Recreating the Refugees Narratives: From Sympathy to Dignity

Refugees welcome as a road sign
Refugees welcome as a road sign

An Arab, a Jew and a Korean walk into a bar. This is not the beginning of a joke, but rather the beginning of a dream. Three Torontonians came together to organize a grassroots fundraising initiative to support the resettlement of two Syrian families in Toronto. And so, Supper With Syria was born - an event to celebrate Syrian culture and heritage. It is a celebration of love, empathy, and humanity, and a social statement that challenges the dominant narratives on refugees in the West. Last week, the world witnessed horrific acts of terror in many cities - most publicized were the ones in Paris and Beirut. A few months earlier, the picture of little Aylan Kurdi on the Turkish shores shook people across the globe. Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have been flocking to Europe, especially Germany, in search of a safe and welcoming haven. The media, and subsequently public discourse, constructed refugees in all of these cases either positively as passive victims who deserve protection, or negatively as undeserving active agents of violence, immorality, and fraud. Such depictions of refugees in news are not new. In fact, research shows that refugees have always occupied these two primary roles in news coverage: victims or evil-infiltrators. But that's what media does. Journalists personalize, emotionalize, and dramatize news stories to optimize their accessibility as well as their impact. But, by doing that, the media molds national and global narratives, and consequently social and political judgments.

Narratives are the stories that humans use to understand their lives and the world around them, and to plan and justify their actions. Societies create stories over time about everything; "religion, politics, popular culture, regional identity, racial and ethnic identity, attitudes toward other members of the culture and toward minority members, [and] attitudes toward outsiders" (Beach, 2010). Research in fact shows that narratives exert powerful influences on group behaviour. They get engrained in our social subconscious, are reinforced through social interactions, and get reflected in policies.

Eventually these narratives shape national identity. Over the years, Canada has generally favored the narrative of the compassionate nation that opens up its doors to those who need help. Professor Catherine Dauvergne observes: "Humanitarianism is about identity. The individual identity of the other who benefits from our grace is important, but only because of the light it reflects back on us". Recently, almost ten years of conservative government in Canada, has allowed another narrative to slip in; that of xenophobia, the fear of the 'other', and consequent social introversion and military extroversion, against this 'other'. The conservative government pushed the narrative that labels refugees as threatening and burdensome, as manifested in halting refugee application processing and in cuts to refugee healthcare benefits.

The inherent problem in those narratives is that they lump all refugees into one homogenous mass of 'people' on the one hand, and silence refugees and their own narratives on the other. We, citizens and governments, become ventriloquists for refugees, and strip them from the only things they still own; their stories, relationships and experiences as human beings. We forget that there are as many refugee stories, experiences, and identities as there are refugees. We forget how complex identities are.

In addition to reducing those persons' experiences to those of displacement only, in our minds they exist in a liminal space, as stateless non-citizens, and hence less than the rest of us. The passive victim narrative continues by treating them as dependents and as objects of charity and sympathy. By conceptualizing refugees as either needy or greedy, we immediately create vertical relationships of power, in which refugee populations are alienated, unable to integrate in the larger community, and stripped of their sovereignty, agency and ability to access discourses of power.

From a utilitarian perspective, by disempowering refugees we get to all be disempowered. Our societies will lack the cohesive horizontal relationships needed for effective civic engagement and hence social capital. Moreover, research shows that refugees who feel less connected to their neighborhoods and lack support from friendships, have poor psychosocial adjustment and high rates of depression. That means more spending on healthcare, less productivity, and higher potential for violent behavior.

Before they became refugees, these people were parents, children, teachers, artisans, doctors and artists. How do we get to know our new community members and accept them as neighbors and friends, if we don't allow them to tell their stories? In her TED talk, Taiye Selasi says: "The more we know about where a story is set, the more local color and texture, the more human the characters start to feel, the more relatable, not less". By enabling new narratives, we allow the "refugee discourse to be transformed from one of (re)victimization and (re)oppression to one of resilience and dignity" (O'Connor, 2015). It is time to afford refugees the dignity every human is entitled to, by listening to their experiences, and experiencing their skills and rich cultures and heritages.

In Toronto, the community event Supper with Syria, is a social experiment to allow Syrians, some of whom are refugees, to become co-creators of the narratives on Syria and refugees, by showcasing their culture and their stories. Supper With Syria started with three individuals, an Arab, a Jew, and a Korean. Sang Kim came to Canada from North Korea when he was 6 years old, after his parents sought asylum in North America. Inna Gertsberg, fled at the age of 16 with her family the persecution of Jews in the former USSR, and came as a refugee to the USA before moving to Canada. And I am the Arab who was born and raised in Lebanon to Syrian parents and lived through the Lebanese civil war, in a country divided by sectarian and nationalistic feuds. I came to Canada in 2006 as a graduate student and found in Toronto the welcoming city that I would call home. We might not share the same stories and experiences of displacement, but we all have humanity in common.