Who Tells the Stories?

As a storyteller, I can no longer say with quite the same confidence: “This is not political. Tell me about your mother, your love, your family, your hobbies, your food.” New approaches to the documentary genre are transforming the way in which stories are told from refugee camps, shifting the role of the outsider from teller to catalyst, from speaker to listener, and from writer to trainer and facilitator, resulting in first-hand stories of resilience, survival and pain.

In October 2014, I began a storytelling project in one of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, Al Rashidiya, which has profoundly challenged the way I view communication, voice and listening. Internet access and social media usage have provoked questions in marginalised communities around the world, such as “who gets to tell the story?” and “how is it told?”, and Humans of Al Rashidiya is a response to this, attempting to provide a platform for storytelling by, for and from a community with few digital resources or social capital.

Burj el-Shemali camp, Lebanon, 2008.

Burj el-Shemali camp, Lebanon, 2008.

Humans of Al Rashidiya is inspired by the popular Humans of New York project, which accompanies photos of passers-by on the streets of New York with short, often intimate, text about their lives. Using the same format to encourage sharing, commenting and the repurposing of images, we shared one story per day from the camp during the months of October and November, creating a platform for people in the camp to submit stories. Although the daily photo sharing has stopped, the live page continues to gather comments from people all over the world.

The stories – shared on Facebook and Tumblr – are about everything from love and family life to unemployment and maintaining culture in the diaspora. Amid touching stories about the journey into exile and the struggles faced by Palestinians from Syria (now twice displaced) are stories of anger and frustration – and of simply getting on with life.

As Mohammed Al Assad, the co-director, and I were walking through the camp one day in September we found Abu Nabil, a resident in his early 70s, sitting outside his home. I wanted Abu Nabil to tell me something about love and marriage. Instead he wanted to talk about the injustice of the difference between our lives. He said: “It’s a difficult life here in the camps. We are far from our land. Your life in England is not like our life here because you have a house in your own country. We are out of Palestine, you can see how we live here, it’s very difficult, not like your life, or anybody who has his own house in his own country. This life is very, very difficult. If I could live in my own house, my own building in my own country, then life would be not difficult for us.” He died a few weeks later.

The second stage of the project involves collaboration with a youth group in the camp, where a team of young people will be trained in digital storytelling, filmmaking, blogging and social media, creating content for an interactive documentary to be broadcast on Facebook.

The cafe operated by this youth group has the last line of the London-based Palestinian poet Rateef Ziadah’s spoken word piece, We Teach Life, Sir, painted on the wall, as a reminder of the uneven power balance of mainstream media and how the pain of human experience is condensed into an outsider’s agenda. It reads: “Today, my body was a TV’d massacre that had to fit into soundbites and word limits and move those that are desensitised to terrorist blood.”

Communication from inside refugee camps has historically been the preserve of journalists, advocates and aid workers rather than those who have been displaced, and stories have therefore revolved solely around outsiders’ objectives. The stories and questions being shared and raised by those engaging with Humans of Al Rashidiya are crucial to changing this dominance.

New technological capabilities and social media platforms make everyone a storyteller and challenge the notion that only those with expensive equipment and connections to editors can tell a story. As this assumption continues to shift, Humans of Al Rashidiya and others projects like it are enabling marginalised communities to share stories of survival rather than victimhood, and agency rather than passivity.

- First published by Index on Citizenship Magazine, Spring 2015, Across the wires - how refugee stories get told.

Social Media in International Development - New Findings

Last month the International Broadcasting Trust released a report I co-authored with Helen Magee. 'Social Media - Making Your Voice Heard', is an analysis of how International Development organisations in the UK are using social media in their campaigning and field work, based on interviews with 11 digital professionals and freelancers working for and with leading aid and development organisations.

The most exciting finding and area for future growth that we investigate is the potential for connecting communities in the countries NGOs operate in with supporters and advocates in the UK through social media.

As connectivity and social media use increases globally, an understanding of how people are using technology can lead to new opportunities for dialogue, reporting and storytelling - benefitting programmes in the field as well as the work of campaigning and fundraising teams.

Here are the key findings:

  • Online communication is widely used by NGOs, but the full potential of social media is not always realised.
  • The most effective use of online communications requires an organisational culture that values social media as central to its overall strategy. However, there is frequently a lack of integration of digital technologies within NGOs.
  • The social media landscape is fast-moving and changeable and demands creative management. There is a danger that NGOs think too much about the platform and not enough about the message and the audience.
  • NGOs need to move away from a predominantly broadcast model to a more dialogical model that encourages two-way communication.
  • Measurement is essential to build an evidence base for future decision-making and the increasing availability of analytical tools facilitates this. But NGOs should be wary of simply aiming to gain followers or likes. “Going viral” raises awareness, but does not necessarily lead to sustained commitment.
  • Listening has been undervalued and is vitally important in order to understand supporters and monitor public debate about development issues.
  • There are NGOs who are leading the field and embracing the full potential of social media. This is reflected in a series of high profile campaigns that tap into cultural trends, work across online and traditional media, and provide a platform for seldom-heard voices.
  • The future will present further possibilities for building greater engagement via social media as access to the internet and mobile technology continues to grow.

Meet Up: Interactive Documentary for Social Change

I’m chairing a meet up on the 19th November at the Centre for Creative Collaboration on i-docs for social change.


We will be hearing about some innovative projects before discussing the following:

Measurement: How are online analytics enabling organisations to measure the impact of interactive documentary? How does this correspond to discussions about measuring impact in documentary film?

Participation: To what extent does ‘giving voice’ to marginalised communities matter? How does this tie in to previous work in different fields including participatory video?

Dialogue: Can interactive documentary facilitate dialogue in new ways? What doors for mediation of different perspectives are opened by new technological capabilities?

I’m looking forward to hearing thoughts from a variety of sectors on some key questions! If you’re free and in London it would be great if you could join us. More details are on the event page. 

Stories of Exile, Not Occupation

With support from a local youth group, a friend in Al Rashidiya camp and I have today launched ‘Humans of Al Rashidiya’ - telling stories by and from Palestinians in Lebanon.

I’m really excited about the potential of this project to raise awareness about the unique difficulties faced by Palestinians in Lebanon, though I’m mindful of the complexities of reducing lives to soundbites. I’ll be reflecting on the process as part of my PhD research.

After the first 30 days the floor will be open for people to upload their own stories, and the goal is for the Facebook page and website to become a live storytelling community for people in Lebanon and the West to engage with.

Take a look at the website and join the community on Facebook.

UPDATE: Lebanon's Daily Star published this article based on an interview with Mohammed and a trip to Alrashidiya.