Documenting refugees in the 21st century

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, reports on Birkbeck’s recent Documenting Refugees event, which combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story.

Kate Stanworth’s photo of Salma, who travelled from Syria to Germany.

Wednesday 20 June marked World Refugee Day, an event through which the UN seeks to show governments the importance of collaboration as a means to accommodate forced migrants all over the world. With the global number of refugees being at an all-time high, this year stood for commemorating their strength, courage and perseverance. In light of this message, Birkbeck lecturer Agnes Woolley hosted ‘Documenting Refugees’, a thoughtful evening discussing the way in which refugees are represented both in the arts and media.

The event combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story, both of which reveal an intimate portrayal of refugees and their stories. For Stanworth, the focus lies on personal narratives and the psychological survival techniques used by refugees during the most difficult times. In addition, her portraits reveal how reaching the final destination (typically Germany or the UK) is still very much the beginning of the long journey forced immigrants have got ahead of them.

A similar idea is conveyed in Another News Story, where Wallace and his team follow both the refugees and journalists portraying them on their challenging journey across Europe. While the documentary offers an excellent balance of mixed narratives, the character that stands out most is Syrian mother Mahasen Nassif. Not only is her excellent English, positivity and strength while travelling alone completely overwhelming; her story also shows how getting to Germany is not where the refugee experience ends. When, in the panel discussion afterwards, director Wallace is asked about her he admits that she is finding it challenging to be living a slow-moving life in a remote town in Germany, endlessly waiting for documentation. A side of the story we hear a lot less often.

What is also special about the documentary is that it was shot without any kind of plan, with the main characters being simply those they kept running into. Finding a repertoire of narratives was therefore an entirely natural process, Wallace explains. And ultimately this has led to a uniquely nuanced documentation of a phenomenon that is predominantly being told through the biased and sensation seeking media. The documentary title already hints at this, but insights given by Bruno, a Belgian journalist and recurring character in the film, make it all the more evident: the news is wherever the media is – be that refugee camps at the Hungarian border or the Venice film festival.

 

‘Another News Story’ teaser

Both during the screening and discussion afterwards, the main issue with documenting refugees seems to be the fact that it is ongoing. As Ahmad al-Rahsid, a forced migration researcher at SOAS who fled from Aleppo in late 2012 comments, the Syrian conflict is considered by critics to be one of the most documented conflicts of humanitarian history, yet it took the picture of one little boy to finally cause a shift in political and public responses. People don’t typically respond to just another news story, and with crises without a beginning or end that is a very big problem. The refugee crisis didn’t start nor end in 2015; it is a long-term humanitarian issue that needs as much attention now as it did three years ago. Events like this are needed to help us realise that.

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The 2018 Geography fieldtrip: spectacular landscapes and sun kissed beaches

Dr Sue Brooks discusses the Department of Geography Annual field trip to Mallorca where the group researched the Mediterranean climate, tourism and agriculture.

Farewell from the 2018 Mallorca field trip

What is there not to like about the Mallorca field trip? Let’s start with the Mallorcan landscapes, dating back to the Triassic and Jurassic geological periods (@250-150 million years ago) when warm sub-tropical seas allowed the deposition of sediments, shelly fragments and bones, all to be uplifted in the Alpine Orogeny, beginning 65 million years ago and still active today. The result is the landscape of the Trumantura National Park an area of amazing relief, geology and challenging transportation. It contains one of the most hair-raising drives in Europe, accessing Cap de Formentor, but that did not deter our coach driver, who took on the hairpin bends, steep ravines and determined cyclists in a calm and composed manner to get us to the Cap. Next was a trip to the golden sands of Formentor Beach and an ice cream, quickly followed by the wonderful market town of Pollenca, where we were rewarded by the view of Es Pla (central plain) and the rooftops of Pollenca after climbing the Calvery Steps. The final journey took us to the Monastery at Lluc for another ice cream, and then back to Santa Ponsa via the strategically important reservoirs of Gorg Blau and Cubert, constructed in the 1970s to help with water supply across the island.

Students were engaged in learning about tourism, agriculture and water supply set within the context of the natural landscapes. One task was producing an isohyet map to show the spatial distribution of rainfall across the island while at the same time discovering that the Mediterranean climate presents some considerable challenges through its temporal distribution of rainfall and the mismatch to tourism demand. There was plenty of time for group work with projects on Santa Ponsa beach and in the ephemeral torrents that are so typical of the island.

Hard work in progress back at the hotel

Project hand in was set for 5pm on the last day and everyone worked very hard to meet this deadline, before a relaxing evening with some travelling to Magaluf to join the fun there. Some students decided to stay on for a holiday and to fully appreciate the diverse and spectacular landscapes of the island. Thank you to all our students for your hard work, dedication and exemplary behaviour on the field-trip. We look forward to welcoming next year’s cohort for another wonderful experience.

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International Women’s Day: womanism, activism and higher education

Dr Jan Etienne, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Geography, convened the recent Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education: the politics of representation and community activism conference – the first of its kind at Birkbeck.

Over 200 women attended Birkbeck’s first Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education conference, which drew together black women activists and academics from various parts of the United Kingdom, across Europe, South Africa and the United States. A further 210 women, who were unable to be allocated tickets, were invited to watch the live stream of the keynote speeches.

At Birkbeck, we already know about the ‘feminist emergency,’ but our conference demonstrates a burning ‘womanist emergency’! The scale of interest in the black woman’s desire to take charge of a lost agenda cannot be underestimated. Such a desire has reached fever levels. Quite frankly, as black women, we are fed up with other’s speaking on our behalf. We are hungry for genuine representation. Finally, we are seeing black sisters speaking our language, standing up for us, taking charge and ownership of our agenda for change.

This conference of black women activists working alongside their black sisters in HE is long overdue and I am happy that Birkbeck is the first higher education establishment to allow this Womanist platform to emerge.  We have a lot to say and a great deal to achieve.

On the day of the conference, a clear message emerged for the urgent need for the black woman in HE to play her part in promoting collaborative, activists’ links in order to prioritise the movement for a free, decolonised education system. The lively, vociferous workshops revealed the reasons for such high levels of interest in the conference.

In a platform presentation entitled: ‘Young womanist voices: our mother’s legacy’, young black feminists: Nombuso Methibela, Dolly Ogunrinde and Jenna Davis spoke on ‘the silencing of black women’s activist’s voices; the power of language to promote activism and the significance of passing on experience steeped in activist’s struggle’.

Nombuso Methibela, an activist and educational researcher from South Africa, talked passionately on the silencing of the voices of black women activists, like African nationalist and grassroots political organiser Hannah Kudjoe, who played a formidable role in Ghana’s struggle for independence.  She stressed: “In the recollection of Ghana’s independence history we rarely hear of her contributions. Kudjoe’s disappearance from public memory and her un-naming have been a focal point of the anti-colonial movement.”

Through her South African experience, Nombuso suggested that: “Black women’s political representation has come out of the collective desire to recognise the experiences of Black women who fought against marginalisation in national liberation movements and black consciousness movements despite their collective disappearance from popular history”.

Dolly Ogunrinde, an outreach worker for an educational charity, highlighted the importance of language and how we share concepts and ideas across generations.

She said: “As an educator, I find my students are very much aware of issues surrounding race and the notion of an intersectional struggle that occurs between race and gender. However, what they don’t have is the language to express that. With the concept of womanism, I was able to finally find a word which encapsulates the ideas that my mother had passed down to me.

“‘Womanism’ is a concept that is now engaging young black women all over the country. And I don’t necessarily think the answer lies in teaching young people about womanism in the sphere of formal education. Instead, I think the answer lies in informal education. We, all of us in this room are informal educators to the young women in our lives.  It is important we share oral histories and popularise terms like ‘womanism’ to provide the next generation of womanist activists the power in language to express their ideas.”

Jenna Davis, a parliamentary assistant, politics student and community worker spoke on the legacy of black women activists, trade unionist and elected officials. “They have left us young black women like me, a huge legacy. Their achievements and sacrifices have made it possible for my generation to believe it’s possible to enter the political sector. They have prepared us for the fight ahead and have shown us how to confront and deal with misogynoir, colourism, oppression and so much else. They have shown us that Black women can come from different walks of life and educational backgrounds and achieve.

“As a young black woman in the political field, my mother has taught me that education is a key that opens many doors. She wasn’t just talking about academia. She was also talking about the power of life experiences. That is why I use my story and experiences to empower other young people about the importance of community activism and encourage them to participate and work for change”.

One participant said: “This day is a cause for celebration because we can see positive role models from across the Higher Education sector who are committed to working with us.  These black sisters are demonstrating their potential to change our lives, remove the oppressive white curriculums and speak to our history.”

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The past in the present at international meeting on ancient and medieval Telangana

Dr Rebecca Darley, a lecturer in medieval history from the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology reviews an international conference on the history of Telangana in Hyderabad, India.

In January 2018, researchers from across the world met in Hyderabad, India for the second international congress uncovering the history of ancient and medieval Telangana. The first, held in 2017, had been inaugurated only three years after Telangana became India’s newest federal state and the first new state to be created since India’s independence in 1947.

Though Telangana is administratively a very new state, its claims to an independent identity are rooted in the antiquity and uniqueness of its culture. These conferences, hosted by the Telangana State Department for Archaeology and Museums, now re-named Heritage Telangana, were therefore aimed at bringing together researchers and the public to celebrate and uncover this past. In particular, the focus on the ancient and medieval periods was intended to provide a sense of the depth of this identity beyond the recent rhetoric of an independence campaign which was, for obvious reasons, rooted in modern grievances and modern decisions about how to establish the states of India.

I was very fortunate to have been at the 2017 gathering as well and it was great to meet new people, see old faces and to be back in one of my favourite cities in the world. My own research focuses on discoveries of Byzantine and Roman coins, minted in the Mediterranean region, but exported to south India in the first seven centuries AD. The State Archaeology Museum in Hyderabad has one of the largest collections of these coin finds in India and many were discovered within what is now Telangana. This was the challenge I had set myself; to interpret these ancient finds through the lens of the modern boundaries of Telangana State.

Mine was the first paper after the elaborate and extremely enjoyable opening ceremonies, and it received a very good response. It was a particular honour to be on a panel with P. V. Radhakrishnan and T. Satyamurthy, both senior scholars whose work I have used and admired for many years.

Being the first paper also meant that I was then free to enjoy the rest of the conference – two days of papers and cultural performances. Director of Heritage Telangana, Smt. N. R. Visalatchy has made it her mission in this post not just to raise the profile of cultural heritage in Telangana, but also to expand its definition, and so academic papers were combined with demonstrations of classical dance and folk musical performance. The range and standard of papers was wonderful, as was the public interest shown in the conference. It would be fair to say that academic conferences in the UK rarely attract a substantial public audience, even when they are open and advertised. By contrast, in both 2017 and 2018, the international meetings on Telangana heritage filled an auditorium with a crowd including journalists, members of learned societies, local history enthusiasts, writers and teachers, as well as archaeologists, academics and heritage workers.

Heritage institutions in India, as in the UK, often have to struggle with budgetary constraints, maintenance of buildings which are themselves heritage structures and recording and cataloguing ever-growing collections. The support given by Telangana State to these conferences is, therefore, most welcome and was an opportunity also to see some of the success stories as excavators reported on ongoing archaeological excavations and developing projects.

Hopefully, there will be a chance to meet again in Hyderabad for the third international conference on Telangana Heritage. My own research, in part as a result of this paper, has raised a wealth of new questions about how Roman and Byzantine coin evidence can reveal social practices and state structures in inland India. There remains much more to say and to discover.

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