Apathy, Empathy and Art: Reflections on Engaging Refugee Narratives III

By Alice Klein • BSc Anthropology

In June, the UCL Anthropology Department hosted the Engaging Refugee Narratives III Conference. Jointly organised by Dr Ruth Mandel and Dr Susan Pattie, it brought together academics, artists and advocates who work with and for people described as refugees. Over two days – June 16th and 17th – in conjunction with Refugee Week, the conference explored the ethical and practical concerns of refugee interactions. Through workshops, panel discussions, and general conversation attendees delved into the narrative aspect of refugee engagement.

Left: (L-R) Dr Patricia Spyer, Dr Ruth Mandel and Dr Susan Pattie; Right: Attendees at the conference

I volunteered for the conference again this summer, as I also volunteered last year for the inaugural conference; I was pleased to see some familiar as well as new faces! I had the opportunity to participate and observe, and came away inspired, despondent and hopeful in equal measure.

Some of these narratives shared at the conference cannot be described as anything but horrific. Humans are capable of a casual cruelty that seems almost fantastical but is all too viscerally real. And yet, interspersed with these horrors were moments of joy, seemingly clawed back from a spiral of doom and despair. It is easy to react with pity when thinking of, or interacting with refugees – and have pity be the only emotion associated with that label.

What I have taken from this conference it is that refugees’ narratives contain the breadth of human experience. Occasionally brilliant, all too frequently awful, much of their time is neither – it is simply normal. Their lives are those of people. Just people. And most often their lives, wants, needs, hopes, are as normal as my own. It seems too obvious to admit to, but there is a part of my most selfish self which fails to recognise this. I suspect I am not alone in this. Empathising with refugees needs to go deeper than mere pity. Pity directed at refugees is as productive as disdain. It achieves nothing. Acknowledging and celebrating their everyday lives, their essential normality is just as important as conveying the horrors they have fled, and may still experience. Their current mundane ordinariness is as important academically as their past – and just as academically and socially relevant.

Lunch, conversation and some sunshine!

People are made into refugees: politically, bureaucratically and socially. A label bestowed unto them which they can never quite lose, becoming the sum total of their identity. This process which is indifferent to the nuance of individuality and ultimately, a cruelty in and of itself. Refugee status is an abstraction from society, an invisible delineation separating them from ‘everyone else’. The Calais Jungle and the detention centres here in the UK exemplify the actual physical barriers that corral refugees; their actual physical isolation embodies and creates their social isolation. Refugees as a group are not present, are kept from being present, within our communal social lives.

I believe that the apathy towards refugees stems from this lack of presence. It may flare up (or down) into reactionary negativity, or, when confronted by the corpse of a dead child washed up on a European beach, a flurry of righteous soul-searching and donations. Perhaps the refugee crisis has gone so long unanswered that we have reached compassion fatigue. The refugees are the crisis, an amorphous, dehumanised whole which cannot be sublimated or assimilated. No longer people, but rather a single talking point, to be bandied about rhetorically.

image4-21It was apt then that a key theme of the conference was how artistic media can be used to convey narratives that connect with their audience on a more emotional level. Where the cold hard facts may shock and horrify, individual, personal stories may connect on a deeper level. Many of the questions raised by attendees were around artistic licence and representation: how true does an artist illustrating a story need to be to the facts? How much input should an individual have on their story? Is it still their story? Are they co-authors or source material?

Relative to last years’ conference, the discussions have moved beyond the ethics of representing and advocating for refugees, and into the ethics of the representations themselves. It cannot be denied that these representations are political, with an intended audience and an expected reaction. Staying faithful to these human stories while also inciting empathy in a fatigued, apathetic audience is a delicate balance, without a clear solution.

However, I am convinced that it is through photography, comics, and other artistic media that the connection between refugees and non-refugees can be forged. Art, in all its forms is a common human tendency, and can engage on a baser level than perhaps a – no doubt excellent – long form article about camp conditions in Turkey, for example. It has its place and is valuable, though comes with the caveat to be mindful of its pitfalls.

Attendees taking part in workshops

I am reminded of something which struck me at last year’s conference, which I felt again this year: everyone at the conference was effectively in agreement. I did wonder if the ‘echo chamber’ effect was at play, and everyone, myself included, broadly agreed with one another because we were all present. We had chosen to attend a conference which champions the rights and dignity of refugees – we were with our people – and so we accepted the views of our fellow attendees as our own. I am not criticising the conference, its aims, and its results. Engaging Refugee Narratives is an academic conference, yet it cannot be denied that its subject is intensely political, and I do wonder to what extent our personal politics affected our academic conclusions. I don’t know whether it did, and if so, whether that was necessarily wrong.

Regardless, the value and importance of the conference cannot be underestimated. Over the last two years the conferences have been the cause for some of my own personal reflection. If only one other human being has been helped by it, then I would consider it a success. I must believe the conference has stimulated and supported those who attended it, so that they may support refugees. And I fervently hope these methods of narrative outreach can and will stimulate public interest and engagement, instead of relying on more bodies washing up on foreign shores.

Engaging Refugee Narratives – information, access and contact:
For more information, and to get involved with Refugee Week:

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