17 September 2018
In May 2018, Olivia Sheringham delivered an event at Walthamstow Garden Party with charity, Stories and Supper, supported by the Centre for Public Engagement Small Grants. Below she reflects on how such events can change the dominant narrative about migration and refugees.
Stories about refugees and migrants are ubiquitous in the public realm, depicting them as either pitiable victims or unwelcome intruders. Those arriving in the UK in search of a better life are often required to tell their stories in the intimidating contexts of an asylum or visa interview in which their words become burdened with the potential weight of determining a ticket to stay or being forced to leave. In the context of an increasingly hostile environment, how can we create spaces of hospitality and inclusivity? And how can we change the narrative, and tell a different story about migration?
Stories and Supper is a refugee and migrant supper club project based in Walthamstow, East London which seeks to challenge the myths surrounding the migration ‘crisis’ and provide a welcome space for refugees living in London. It was set up in 2017 by Rebecca Tully and Helen Taylor. They hold supper club events around East London, giving refugee chefs the chance to cook for paying guests and for refugees and migrants to tell their stories in their own words. In the run up to the events, refugees and local volunteers get together weekly to share food and stories and prepare for the event. I’ve been volunteering for the organization since March 2018, driven by a personal - and professional - commitment to challenging the predominantly negative narrative surrounding migration and refugees in the UK and a desire to explore the potential for creating new stories and spaces of encounter across difference.
One of the key challenges of the project has been attracting people who do not already have some understanding of, and empathy towards, refugees and migrants. With this in mind, I worked in collaboration with Stories and Supper to help deliver a series of refugee story ‘café sessions’ at the Walthamstow Garden Party (WGP) on Saturday 14th July. This is a free family-friendly annual event, held in Lloyd Park which attracts thousands of people from across London and beyond. In the run up to the event we held six story-telling workshops with refugees and migrants to develop skills in storytelling and performance - and to have fun. Workshop leaders included Phosphorous theatre - a project that that creates productions with young refugee and asylum seekers – and local story-teller Jumana Moon. During these sessions we also shared delicious food to decide what we would cook on the day and planned the logistics of the event.
The event itself involved two story-telling café sessions in the Community Marquee at the WGP. Entry was free, but people were invited to buy a plate of Indian or Syrian street food (cooked by local refugees Shahnaz and Ismail, with help from volunteers on the project). Each session was packed – we sold over one hundred meals, and more came to hear the stories. As people sat enjoying their food around small tables, they listened to the stories and poems performed on stage: Syrian refugee Abdul talked about his mother’s obsession with feeding him until he was full to burst, while Karahman talked about his journey from Turkey on the anniversary of his arrival to the UK. Shahnaz from India talked about her passion for cooking for lots of people, while Towodros recounted his traumatic journey and read his poem. And finally Eid from Syria introduced a film made about him and his determination to swim in the 2020 Olympics. These are not the stories of victims or intruders, they are real stories told by real people– sometimes painful, sometimes funny, and sometimes about fairly ordinary things - but they are real, and they are told.
At the end of each session the audience were invited to share their thoughts on a postcard which we hung up on string around the tent. These reactions demonstrated how people were moved by the stories and the atmosphere in the marquee. As one person remarked: “Beautiful to hear the stories and poems. It just reinforces that people are the same the world over – wanting the same things. (And that all mothers want to feed their sons – even when grown up,” whilst another wrote ‘Thank you for enlightening us . . . we must try to imagine being in the shoes of others.’
The writer, Ali Smith, who is also a patron of the Refugee Tales project, writes that ‘The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality’. Telling stories and sharing food as we did at the Garden Party were acts of hospitality. And the space of the marquee was a space filled with a sense of inclusion, of sharing, one that stands in stark contrast to the hostile and divisive migration landscape that pervades the UK media and policy. This was also a particular space of possibility, of hope, a small opening perhaps. The next big question – which will be the subject of a new research proposal - is how these small acts of hospitality can move beyond empathy towards action positive change.