The Responsibility of Voice
As students studying the displacement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, we are challenged – as most researchers are – to navigate the distance between our own experiences and the experiences of the people we interview. We have continually grappled with questions of how we can ethically represent someone else’s voice and whether we even have the right, or the capacity for that matter, to tell someone else’s story.
I still cannot answer these questions with certainty. I do, however, try to keep some important considerations in mind as I enter this community that I can not adequately speak for and share these stories that are not my own.
Like all people, the refugees we interview are multidimensional. Though being a refugee has undoubtedly been consequential to a person’s life, it is only one part of their story. Their ‘refugee story’ does not define them as human beings nor does it shed light on their personhood. This refugee story, often portrayed as a story of tragedy, not only infantilizes refugees by presenting them as helpless victims but strips them of their agency, their resilience, and their claim to their own story.
Instead, to do more justice to their personhood, we try to represent the stories and multidimensionality of refugees. In this way, stories beyond tragedy can shine through – stories of hope, stories of sacrifice, and stories of incredible human triumph.
Typically, in a UNHCR interview – at which refugees are applying for official refugee status or applying for resettlement – the worker at UNHCR controls every aspect of the interview. Since this worker is only interested in facts about a refugee’s life, he or she strictly asks questions relating to persecution. Inconsistencies are detrimental to receiving a desirable status, yet minute details are repeatedly requested. As an Iraqi man named Gasan told me in an interview a few days ago, “Who’s Gasan Al-Qasi? [The United Nations] is going to tell you. Don’t judge me. You don’t know me. But she (the worker at the UN) immediately judged me. She destroyed my family… If you (the UN) are not going to support us, who is going to support us?”
Personhood cannot be captured in an intense interview focused on details of persecution, built on the premise that the person sharing will be judged at the end of the interview.
In contrast, our interviews are focused on understanding who these refugees are as people – and the stakes are not life-altering. By asking broad questions focused on areas such as family, community, religion, values, and moments of significance, refugees can direct the interview to areas that are important to them. In telling the story on their own terms, they can choose which parts of themselves to share. This strategy can not only give us a glimpse into the experiences which have been meaningful to a refugee but also can allow us to come closer to understanding their story from their perspective.
Thus, the structure of our interviews – centered on empathy and open mindedness – do no harm to the refugees sharing their stories, at the very least. Sometimes sharing (and having a person present who will listen) can also be restorative, especially when interviews with the United Nations can be so exploitative and unforgiving. However, despite our efforts, we will never be able to fully understand someone else’s experiences.
For that reason, we have to be really cautious about our representation of people. To most accurately represent someone’s voice, we must do all we can to be true to what they told us – including what they included and excluding what they excluded. Our voices and our privilege can bring legitimacy because we are students at an American university – as problematic as that is – and we can try to use that legitimacy to broadcast voices that society has chosen to silence. That legitimacy, which in our case is not much compared to that of policy makers or more experienced researchers, brings a responsibility to advocate ethically on the behalf of those with whom we spoke – representing their multidimensionality and shedding light on positives and negatives, capacity and constraint, tragedy and triumph.