Who is Telling Your Story?

Some years ago I discovered ‘The danger of a single story’ talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Since then, I have revisited the talk countless times because it continues to resonate on a personal and professional level. In her talk, Chimamanda made some profound statements about the relationship that exists between power and a story; and she spoke about the dangers of presenting a single view. My takeaway from that was that there is a danger in continuing to promote one faulty view and enshrining that view in the psyche of the masses, much to the detriment of the person or community that is the subject of interest. I was recently reminded about Chimamanda’s insightful talk when I attended the Refugee Week Celebrations at work. Every year there are a range of events hosted during this week that aim to raise awareness and inform the public about refugees. The week is also a time to celebrate and acknowledge the positive contributions refugees make in society, and the celebrations have been in place in Sydney since 1986.

In the last two years my interest in special weeks like this one has grown because with each occasion I get to learn about people’s journeys. This leaves me more informed about the people and communities affected by the policy work we undertake and provide advice on. This year, I had the great honour of hearing about the lived experiences of two individuals who now call Australia home after being forced to leave everything they knew behind. One of the speakers (at age 10) and his family had fled their home country by boat in the dark of night. Part way through the journey the motor of the boat ceased functioning and their family were fortunate enough to be rescued by a Thai ship which dropped them off at a Thai beach. Within moments of being rescued the little boat they had all been squeezed on sank! The family eventually found their way to a refugee camp where after some months had their refugee applications accepted and they made their way to Australia. They were sponsored by a local church in Balgolwah and eventually found their feet and place in Australia.

The second speaker shared about how she had to leave everything she knew overnight after her father had been imprisoned for supporting the opposition. This woman had been educated and trained as a teacher, with aspirations to continue onto her masters. Her family fled to Lebanon whilst the father was in prison. As refugees, they had to find jobs whilst waiting for their refugee applications to processed. They worked long hours in menial jobs where they were only paid 20-30% of what the locals got. The speaker shared about having to deal with locals who viewed their family as a threat given the narrative around refugees was that they were there to steal jobs, land and opportunities for the locals. So for a while, this family had to navigate through a system that was prejudiced till they were finally accepted into Australia. The family also had to pay a fortune to get their father out of prison so he could join them. Since arriving as refugees, the family has managed, in the space of 4 years, learn English, find employment and even set up their own businesses including a social enterprise that aims to assist newly arrived refugees in Australia.

As I listened to these lived experiences, I was inspired by the tenacity and resilience of these speakers and their families. As a policy person, I also had several questions swirling in my head about how they navigated through the Australian system. My thoughts were about the kind of access they had to essential services and support upon arrival in Australia. I also wondered about their well being and how they had learnt to cope with such a drastic change in their lives. Turns out I was not the only person in the room thinking along those lines. As I listened to the questions raised by some of my colleagues I thought back to Chimamanda’s talk. There is a specific point at which Chimamanda said that stories are powerful and they matter. More importantly , she said that stories can be “used to dispossess and to malign, but [they] can also be used to empower and to humanise. [They] can break the dignity of a people but [they] can also repair that broken dignity”.

Reflecting on some of the media narrative around refugees and the ongoing, albeit shallow (on occasion) political debates, I could not help but wonder about the damage that continues to be inflicted on specific communities because some of the power brokers including media houses do not go on fact finding missions about some of the stories they run. In cases where they do, they often fail to interrogate their sources of information and on most occasions run with partial truths that are curated to evoke panic or divide communities. Case in point – the “African Gangs” narrative that has cast such a negative light on the Sudanese communities, or the reporting approach taken when terrorist and violent crimes are committed! That it may be one or two individuals belonging to a certain group may not be refutable, but then proceeding to paint an entire community in a negative light is what is problematic. Not only that but cherry picking stories and magnifying what is in reality small in scale compared to other more pressing issues is what gets to me yet, when there are attempts to also talk about crime and violence by Australians, it seems that there is some “comfort” in underreporting and even changing laws and policies!

As I made my way back home after this event, I thought a lot about how we can contribute to shaping the faulty narratives provided about disadvantaged communities and other groups that have come under attack simply because there is a fear of “otherness”. A couple of practical things came to mind. The first was genuine engagement. This requires stepping out of our bubbles and taking time to learn and hear about other people’s experiences (of course in a non-intrusive manner). The second thing I thought about was taking a proactive approach to life and actually doing life with the communities around us. I’m talking about your local community. This latter point for me is based on my observations about social media and technology in general.

Whilst I appreciate social media and how the digital age enables us to customise the content we consume, there is also a rather damning aspect to it – it fosters greater ignorance and disengagement. To an extent, it has decreased the distance between us and those geographically far yet, it has increased the distance between us and those within our immediate surroundings. There are a lot more people who are unaware of what is happening in their own country and could perhaps tell you more about the state of America or whatever other nation’s news and happenings they choose to plug into. It’s ok to do so but in healthy doses. When my thoughts crystallise about this I will share about the importance of engagement with your immediate space and the dangers of inheriting ideologies and battles that have nothing to do with your geographical confines! I suspect it is part of the reason why ignorance about the local and locals reigns supreme and how we get hoodwinked by some power brokers because our attention is elsewhere.

As I sign off I’d like to leave you with some questions that continue to strike a chord in me after hearing about the refugee experiences of the speakers. Chimamanda said in her talk that if you show a people as one thing over and over again, to the rest of the community, that is what they become; which is why it is important to understand who tells a story, why they tell the story, when the story is told and most importantly how the story is told. What stories do you continue to hear about the disadvantaged and have you ever thought about what negative narrative(s) you have come to embrace consciously or unconsciously about a group of people? At the end of the day, the one who gets to tell the story controls so much more.

On a more personal note, do you ever share your story or stories? Who has been telling your story and is there something in it that could benefit someone else? Doesn’t have to be big, it could even be just sharing about your day or childhood with a colleague, neighbour or friend. I remember approaching one of the speakers at the end and at one point in our chat we spoke about some rather funny “you are from Australia” encounters we had and that in itself created inroads for a more detailed chat and connection point! We live in a multicultural society and I can guarantee you – one more story – your story will add some colour and bring some understanding likely to enrich the experience of many! Slowly but surely, that is how connection and community begins and grows.

If you are interested in reading further about refugee week and the amazing work being undertaken by the Refugee Council of Australia, or better yet if you are interested in volunteering or supporting their work you can visit the Refugee Council of Australia page and you can also find out more about Refugee week at: https://www.refugeeweek.org.au/about/overview/

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