The Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) exhibition, Refugees-Forced to Flee, provides us with an opportunity to reimagine dominant concepts and aspects of war, including displacement, refugee camps, refugees and humanitarian response. In this post, Sorcha Daly, Refugee Hosts’ Communications Coordinator, reflects on Refugee Hosts’ contribution, along with a number of other videos from the exhibition, available online. The videos draw on historical, contemporary, relational and ‘everyday’ contexts to highlight the devastation of war and present day (non)humanitarian response and to challenge the ‘exceptional’ nature of the ‘refugee crisis’ that is often portrayed in the media. Refugee Hosts’ contribution to the exhibition privileges the non-exceptional everyday lives of the residents of Baddawi camp (a field site of Refugee Hosts research) who live in protracted displacement and, rather than passively waiting for aid, often provide the first humanitarian response to newly arriving refugees. Viewing the ‘deeply personal experiences of people who have been forced to flee’, as the IWM exhibition invites us to do, alongside Ai Weiwei’s video, discussing his exhibition, ‘History of Bombs,’ highlights a stark contrast, argues Daly, between the ‘deeply personal’ lives of refugees and those affected by war, and the de-personalised, detached and scientific process of making, buying, selling and dropping bombs.
Refugee Hosts at the Imperial War Museum – discomfort, resistance, hope.
by Sorcha Daly, Communications Coordinator, Refugee Hosts
“It has become urgent to document the lives of its residents in both life and death through processes that privilege the ordinary and the everyday at the expense of the extraordinary and the unique, which rarely belong to the community itself but to those who claim its representation.”Yousif M Qasmiyeh, “Writing the camp, writing the camp archive: The case of Baddawi camp in Lebanon” in Refuge in a Moving World 2020
Although not quite how I imagined it, this blog reflects on parts of the Imperial War Museum exhibition, Refugees: Forced to Flee, and, in particular, Refugee Host’s contribution to the exhibition; a short video, with Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, PI on the Refugee Hosts’ project, describing the research of Refugee Hosts. I had imagined viewing our contribution (that also includes a life size photograph (taken by Elena) depicting views across Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon) in person.
Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 and travel restrictions this hasn’t been possible yet. Instead, and until I can visit in person (the exhibition runs until 24 May 2021) I decided to access parts of the exhibition that are available online. I’m glad I did. The content is informative and thought provoking, necessary and important and, at times, hard to watch. It facilitates a re-imagining and re-telling of the global ‘refugee-crisis’ and utilises historical, contemporary, relational and ‘everyday’ contexts to highlight the devastation of war and present day (non)humanitarian response. After watching the videos, I am left with no alternative but to question and problematize my own and the broader status quo.
I start with the introductory video ‘Why do refugees leave’ narrated by Simon Offord, Second World War curator at the London IWM explaining, against a backdrop of multiple film clips depicting the devastation of war in historical and contemporary settings, why people are left with no choice but to leave, and lose, their homes, livelihoods, and relationships. It’s not an easy watch and I recognise much of the more contemporary footage, reminding me of news items I have seen whilst wars raged and atrocities were enacted. People are terrorised, stripped of basic human and political rights, in areas that are experiencing ethnic cleansing and the destruction of entire towns and cities. They are forced to flee and seek sanctuary elsewhere. Multiple film clips show people on the move or in temporary refugee camps, living and coping within the context of forced displacement and the impact of war.
I watched Refugee Hosts’ video next. I am struck by the contrast between the two videos. There are no scenes of people on the move, no images of temporary camps. Instead, many of the images in the video are of Baddawi camp in Lebanon, one of Refugee Hosts’ field sites. Concrete buildings originating in the 1950’s to house Palestinian refugees are packed tightly together and emanate a sense of permanence and history. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh tells us that the research sites of Refugee Hosts are not, as conceptualised in many dominant humanitarian narratives, isolated refugee camps where people wait, lives suspended, in need of aid. Rather, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argues, they are situated in urban areas that exist within and can become part of cities, housing refugees experiencing protracted displacement whilst hosting and offering (refugee-led) humanitarian aid to newly arrived refugees from Syria. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh refers to this as ‘refugee-refugee humanitarianism’, and you can read more about this here and here.
These different conceptualizations of refugee (non)camps have also been written about extensively by Refugee Hosts writer-in-residence Yousif M. Qasmiyeh. “The camp has never been entirely a place, but a multiplicity of entwined histories and times”, he argues. His writing and poetry along with the writing of Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, here and here, invite us to conceptualise the camps (and consequently their inhabitants) not as static humanitarian tropes but as dynamic spaces incorporating economies, care giving and whole lives lived and situated within, as Elena Fiddian-Qasyiyeh argues, histories, contexts and relationships.
An important aspect of Refugee Hosts work is to move away from the exceptionalism of ‘refugee crisis’ by highlighting the ‘everydayness’ of peoples’ lives in the camps. The research of Refugee Hosts highlighted within the video, as we listen to and see different aspects of displacement, certainly does this. We can see and hear people going about their daily lives, making a living, providing care for loved ones and partaking in important traditions and acts of solidarity that bring meaning and dignity to their lives. As Fiddian-Qasmiyeh quotes Abu Dyab, the camps grave digger, who tells her that “I dig for the living, and I dig for the dead”, it is clear that neither life or death, nor the importance of their accompanying rituals and traditions, are suspended in the ‘camp.’
You can watch Refugee Hosts’ video below:
In the publicity for the IWM exhibition, we are told that the ‘exhibition confronts common perceptions by focusing on deeply personal experiences of people who have been forced to flee’ and Refugee Hosts’ short film sits on a page dedicated to a series of films contributing to these perspectives of the exhibition. Personal experiences with themes of home and loss permeate the collection, and in line with some of the themes of Refugee Hosts research, the importance of situating and connecting displacement within and throughout time. In the film, Tracing the Belgian Refugees, for example, we are brought back to the experiences of 250,000 Belgian refugees seeking sanctuary during the first World War and the UK’s response to the ensuing forced displacement; a response, argues Dr Phillipa Parry, which conceptualized Belgian refugees and their hosting as largely positive. At the same time, we are also asked, by Dr Christophe Declercq, to consider media and political rhetoric about contemporary forced displacement, spoken about in terms of a ‘refugee crisis,’ rather than a ‘humanitarian crisis’. In so doing it is easier to conceptualise and situate the crisis within the people on the move, rather than the causes of war, unrest, discrimination and persecution. Rather than presenting the personal stories of people displaced, current rhetoric ‘personalizes’ the crisis within the people seeking safety.
Lastly, I watch Ai Weiwei’s interview relating to his installation, History of Bombs, housed in the Imperial War Museum’s atrium. He discusses the approach he took to the exhibition, depicting bombs without emotion or judgement, and goes on to discuss their destructive nature, as objects designed by people, with clear ideas and logic and with the ‘casualty of human life’ in mind. Bombs that can ‘rain from the sky,’ using clear and precise information to target civilians and military alike. These bombs are now dropped by machines, also devoid of emotion or judgement, their impact de-personalised and detached from their origins. I note, having watched the previous videos, that the narratives and stories about the bombs’ origins, the commissioners, designers and makers, the contexts in which the bombs were designed and built, bought and sold, do not appear in the headlines or news in the same way people displaced by their impact are. Ai Weiwei queries how, why and by whom the bombs are made and laments their destructive powers, the cost to human life, and the arguments for peace that go unheeded.
At the end of my viewing, I reflect on perhaps one of the biggest contrasts within the collection of videos; the deeply personal stories and narratives of the exhibition that disrupt and resist dominant displacement narratives, witnessed alongside Ai Weiwei’s video and exhibition. Ai Weiwei’s approach to depicting the bombs, scientific, devoid of emotion, mirrors the approach to bomb making and arms dealing, and increasingly the policies and practices of immigration legislation and control, influenced by hostile and inhospitable rhetoric, with machines and AI often replacing the jobs of humans (see A Face to Open Doors With at the IWM), where the personal stories and the lives of those displaced are lost.
As I scroll down from Ai Weiwei’s video I am offered the opportunity to buy a mug, t-shirt or poster depicting the bombs featured in Ai Weiwei’s exhibition. I sit, uncomfortable in my seat. Ai Weiwei’s closing statements questioned whether people will care about the content of the exhibition, or whether they will just take a selfie and then go home for a cup of tea (potentially, I now realise, made in a mug with bombs on). Does going to an exhibition and buying the merchandise absolve me, or anyone, from taking action? And what action can I, as an individual, take against national or global powers? It’s easy to feel powerless. However, without awareness there can be no appropriate action, and this exhibition, and Refugee Hosts’ contribution to it, undoubtedly provides me with the opportunity to enhance my own awareness, to challenge my assumed knowledge and my urge to sometimes look away. I’m drawn to the idea of solidarity, a theme that is continually explored throughout the work of Refugee Hosts, and one that is used on both micro and macro scales to forge community and national networks that resist unequal structures and seek social justice. I’m reminded that it is necessary to ‘privilege the ordinary and the everyday at the expense of the extraordinary and the unique’ (Qasmiyeh, 2020), as Refugee Hosts project does, to feel discomforted by the extraordinariness of the dominant status quo, and to seek out, contribute to, and find hope in everyday acts of solidarity and resistance.
Antonopoulou, A. (2017) ‘The Virtual Reality of the Refugee Experience’
Blachnicka-Ciacek, D. (2017) ‘Refugees Present/Absent. Escaping the Traps of Refugee (Mis)representation’
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Shadows and Echoes In/Of Displacement
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Disrupting Humanitarian Narratives?
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) “Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying”
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) ‘Palestinian and Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Sharing Space, Electricity and the Sky‘
Greatrick, A. (2016) “Externalising the ‘Refugee Crisis’: A Consequence of Historical Denial?”
Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2016) ‘Writing the Camp‘
Featured image: The rooftops of Baddawi Camp. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh