Refugee Stories: Changing the Narrative

Speakers at Refugee Stories

“Why do Christians around the world prefer the narrative of populist nationalism and political exclusion to the message of the Gospel?” was the question posed by expert on the theology of migration, Dr Joshua Ralston, at a conference at Heythrop College to mark World Refugee Day.

JRS UK and the Heythrop Institute for Religion and Society hosted Refugee Stories: Changing the Narrative - the fruits of a collaboration between academics working in theology and related disciplines, practitioners serving refugees, and – most importantly – refugees themselves.

Dr Sophie Cartwright, JRS UK Policy Officer, explained that the aim was to put the voices of refugees at the centre of the current narratives about the “migrant crisis” and to re-shape the conversation: “we wanted to ground this project in the expertise of refugees [rather than just] gather raw data for academics to fashion into theology and ethics. While academe has something to bring, we learn more from refugees than they do from us.”  Dr Nick Austin SJ agreed: “the academic theoretician needs to think about people and to encounter them… not speak on behalf of refugees because they can speak for themselves.”

Sarah Teather, Director of JRS UK, gave the first paper, in which she described the UK government’s hostile environment policy and how it actively works against the asylum seeker telling his or her story in a coherent way. She explained how Home Office caseworkers and legal aid lawyers do not have the time or training to listen to and understand how to interpret these stories. Tribunals tend to default to suspicion, disbelief, and rejection. The asylum system relentlessly pushes asylum seekers onto the wrong side of the law.

Professor David Herd of Kent University, co-founder of Refugee Tales, went further, describing in his paper how talking and listening creates community – “storytelling is integral to human sharing [the story] it becomes the responsibility of the community who hears it and the detainee becomes a member of the community.”  He proposed that one purpose of the 2016 Immigration Act is to disrupt the telling of stories.  This, along with the well-established practice of dispersal and denial of the right to work or to study, keeps refugees outside the community, outside the law, and enables popular opinion to deny their human dignity.

Dr Ralston’s answer is that narrative has been seized by men of power, and that the focus needs to move back to innate human dignity, as reiterated by Christ’s own storytelling: “Theologically, human value is not determined by law; we are claimed as brothers and sisters by Jesus of Nazareth who was himself tried and found guilty before the law.”

Conference whole room

Refugee voices were also heard during the day: JRS showed a video featuring the stories of  four people who attend their day centre. Cecile, a refugee friend of JRS, came to the conference to tell the story of her experience in the UK asylum system over many years.  It was a story rejection, disruption and isolation, “what is the point of asking for asylum if my story is not believed?” asked Cecile.  But Cecile has retained her courage and her dignity shone through as she awaits a sixth tribunal decision.

In a short paper Dr Liam Hayes reminded us of Pope Francis’ efforts in Laudato Si to disrupt the prevailing narratives around refugees, to “challenge the globalisation of indifference… dwell together in our common home …and recover the narrative of inclusion and solidarity.”

Schola Cantorum in the Assumption ChapelThe conference concluded with Scorn not the Least - a Reflection with Words and Music at the Assumption Chapel.  Dr Michael Kirwan SJ read two reflections – on St Robert Southwell SJ, poet and martyr of sixteenth century England, and on Fr Friedrich Spee SJ a poet and professor who spoke out against torture in seventeenth century Germany.  Several of  Spee’s poems were sung by Heythrop’s Schola Cantorum, along with the Magnificat of Palestrina.

Pictured top: the conference organisers and speakers, from left, Dr Gillian Paterson, Dr Joshua Ralston, Dr Sara Silvestri, Dr Liam Hayes, Sarah Teather, Professor David Herd, Cecile, Dr Nick Austin SJ, Dr Sophie Cartwright, Dr Theodora Hawksley CJ, Dr Michael Kirwan SJ