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.