Collecting Oral Histories from Syrians in the United Kingdom
Citizens and workers from around the Roman empire came to live and work in Britain. On a recent visit with my mother to the museum in Aquae Sulis, better known today as Bath, I came across a Syrian man there. Not a modern-day Syrian refugee, but a man who had moved to the city as a Roman citizen, lived in the city, worked in the city, and died there, too. He may well also have had children, who would have grown up British.
Migration has always been a part of the human experience. We tend to forget this because sometimes it’s easier, or more expedient, not to remember. Our current global order has created rigid borders that attempt to divide and distinguish the human family. Unfortunately, we have come to view this reality as the natural order, forgetting that just a century ago, such divides within what we call the Middle East, were far more fluid and practical, enabling the accommodation of old ways, allegiances, and traditions braided far more deeply and subtly than any notion of nation state.
Refugees, too, have always existed, carrying with them memories of home as they are forced to rebuild and create new lives for themselves in new places. Like everyone, they adapt and gradually transform both themselves and their environments. Many leave legacies which echo down centuries—think of Aeneas from Virgil’s tale who fled the burning Troy as a refugee and built a new life for himself in what we today call Rome. In fact, several characters in the tale leave Troy and establish cities across Europe, all with memories of home pushing them forward.
Memories are important. They carry coding for past civilizations. They carry love and life, knowledge and experiences. Most importantly, they carry stories. Our memories are our stories, our parents’ stories and their parents before them. The Idrimi Project will collect, preserve, and share some of these stories. We hope that this can become a repository for Syrians who wish to participate and a valuable resource for future generations of Syrians as well as historians and academics.
These stories will also be a remarkable tool for building threads of understanding between British and Syrian people. Between 11,000 and 12,000 Syrians have come to live in the UK since the conflict began in 2011: some have self-settled and some have come through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRP). According to the latest Immigration Statistics, 5,453 Syrians were resettled to the UK under the VPRP in the year ending March 2017.
The Idrimi Project is an attempt to preserve, albeit in a small way, some of Syria’s rich cultural heritage, especially as it existed before the conflict. Many who had the fortune to visit Syria before 2011 have attested to the beauty, diversity, history, and charm of its historic cities. It was also a country on the brink of modernity despite the controlled economic and political structures. There is much to be captured and preserved in the stories of its people.
We are excited to launch The Idrimi Project with these goals in mind. Essentially, we want to begin the process of formally collecting stories from the Syrian diaspora in the UK. Our desire is to archive the stories at the British Library in an effort to safeguard this precious history for future generations of Syrians. Considering the British Library’s premier status as a cultural institution, there is no safer place to store the histories.
What and How?
The project will be divided into two phases:
The first will see our oral historian (Dunya Habash) travel throughout the UK to meet and interview a number of CARA scholars, transcribing and translating the interviews as well as creating podcasts of these for Making Light and CARA to have available. We are currently seeking funding for phase 1 of the project, which we anticipate to cost around￡15,000.
The second phase, should the first be successful and there be a demand, will entail rolling out a bigger project on a national scale, training a number of Syrians who are themselves refugees to carry out the interviews. Separate funding will be sought for phase 2.
Our oral historian will ask a range of questions about life in Syria, how participants lived before leaving home, their memories, traditions, daily habits, descriptions of neighbourhoods, things they did with friends and family, and other incidental details. The conversations will be audio recorded in Arabic or English, whichever language is preferred by the interviewee. All interviews will be translated and transcribed. Both the audio recording and the written transcription will be deposited in the British Library to become part of its National Archives.
Aside from archiving the histories with the British Library, Making Light also intends to use some of the material to create a podcast series about memory, culture, and heritage in Syria before the war. The podcasts will be published on our website independent of news and media associations. The personal information that will be shared will not be passed to any third party without consent. The interviews will be rendered anonymous unless otherwise agreed. We will share the podcast with the interviewees before publishing it online to verify approval and pleasure with its use in the production. The highest professional standards will be implemented to ensure all participants are pleased with the project.
Dunya Habash will be conducting the interviews for the Idrimi Project as well as translating and transcribing them so that they are properly archived in the British Library. She has received an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford and studied history at Birmingham-Southern College in the United States. She is delighted to be working on the Idrimi Project because of her personal connection to Syria. Although she grew up in the United States, her mother is from Aleppo and her father is from Damascus. Growing up, she spent most of her summers in Syria. It pained her to watch the country unravel after the events of 2011. The Syria she knows from childhood visits was a beautiful country full of life, diversity, history, and elegance. She is excited to help Making Light preserve Syria’s rich cultural heritage through the collection of its people’s stories and memories.
The Value of Oral History
Oral history has several unique benefits that no other historical source provides.
Oral history allows you to learn about the perspectives of individuals who might not otherwise appear in the historical record. While historians and history students can use traditional documents to reconstruct the past, everyday people fall through the cracks in the written record. Politicians, activists, and business leaders may show up regularly in official documents and the media, but the rest of us very seldom do. Chances are, if someone had to reconstruct your life story from the written record alone, they would have very little to go on — and the information they would be able to gather would reveal very little about the heart and soul of your daily life, or the things that matter most to you.
Oral history allows you to compensate for the digital age. Historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can rely on extensive correspondence and regular diary entries for information about life in the past. But in today’s world, telephone, email, and web-based communication have largely replaced those valuable written records. Without oral history, much of the personal history of the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries would be lost to future historians.
Oral history allows you to learn different kinds of information. Even when we do have extensive written sources about someone — such as a politician — we may not have the kind of information we want. Newspaper articles, speeches, and government documents may reveal significant useful information, but those kinds of sources often neglect more personal and private experiences. Through oral history, you can learn about the hopes, feelings, aspirations, disappointments, family histories, and personal experiences of the people you interview.
Oral history provides historical actors with an opportunity to tell their own stories in their own words. Through oral history, interviewees have a chance to participate in the creation of the historical retelling of their lives. Unlike Frederick Douglass who is long dead and cannot complicate, extend, or argue with our understanding of his life, living historical actors can enrich our understanding of history by telling their version of events and their interpretations in their own words.
Oral history provides a rich opportunity for human interaction. History, after all, is all about the human experience. Through oral history, researchers and interviewees come together in conversation about a commonly shared interest — as with all human interactions, this has the potential to be tremendously rewarding for both parties.
By Kathryn Walbert, Ph.D.
Message from the Founder
I am rather embarrassed to say I knew very little about Syria before 2011 and have not yet visited. Before leaving work to raise my family in the 1990s, I worked for many years at a small building conservation charity, researching the history of all sorts of wonderful buildings at risk in Britain. Then in 2012 my journalist brother John Cantlie was kidnapped in Binish in Idleb and we were thrown into a world of fear, where you didn’t know where to turn, what was true, or who to trust. I found the best way to keep things in perspective was to go online and read stories from Syria; I was drawn particularly to those of women, whose brothers and sons had vanished but who nevertheless kept their families going. I began too to see stories which revealed far more of the people they depicted than reporting their deaths ever could – the boy from Aleppo who made a model of the city as he imagined it one day to be again, students risking sniper fire to get to university, a grandmother going back to work as a midwife and walking half way across Damascus each day to keep the family going, a young woman caught in the sarin attacks of Eastern Ghouta saving her murdered brother’s caged bird. Later, some of the men my brother had been held with were murdered; from 19th August 2014 our private difficulties were suddenly screaming headline news, people we loved used to fit many half-truths and partisan narratives. These things and some little paper chess pieces that managed to come out from Raqqa were really why Making Light has come into being and why I am so passionate about Syrians in the UK being able to tell the stories they choose to tell, which reveal who they feel themselves to be, certain they will not be used for someone else’s narrative.
Founder, Making Light