Cardiff-based TLANG Co-Investigator Frances Rock reports back from the ‘Belonging: Happiness in the City’ event which took place as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.
I would defy anyone not to be moved to action after spending four months observing in a legal advice centre for those seeking asylum. The Cardiff team (Co-Investigator (CI) Frances Rock and Research Fellow (RF) Amal Hallak) had seen great optimism and fortitude from people who had nothing and with very little prospect of safety and security as well as acts of generosity which were as humbling as they were inspiring.
Our response was to apply for funding from the ESRC Festival of Social Science in order to run an event which built on some of the themes beginning to come out of our law data. We had seen that the communicative practices in the legal advice setting not only facilitated the giving and receiving of practical advice but also provided support beyond the legal and even beyond the practical. We felt that this support fostered a sense of belonging for those newly arrived in Cardiff and, as we observed over time, contributed to their happiness here. As we reflected on this, we saw that these themes of belonging and happiness echoed across our research in the other sites where our Key Participants had, in very different ways, built themselves ways of belonging and finding happiness as they made Wales their new home and became part of the social world, here.
We were successful in our funding application and, in spring 2016, began planning an event to take place on 12th November in the Centre where we had been doing our fieldwork. We selected this venue so that people who used the Centre, those seeking asylum, would be as likely as possible to attend and so that others would come to visit the Centre and get an idea of its work. Part of the remit of the Centre is to involve people from the long-term local community and thus to break down social barriers which might be perceived between new and long-term residents and the event fed into this aim.
Initially the event was designed around providing a platform for people seeking asylum to introduce longer-term Cardiff residents to a belonging about which they were knowledgeable. This belonging did not have to be a physical artefact, although we would help people to source those. It could, instead, be a dance step, a song, a story and so on. The rationale was around giving those seeking asylum an opportunity to speak publicly but not about their reasons for leaving home, their harrowing journeys to the UK or their tough times here but instead about something for which they felt a passion or enthusiasm and through which they felt happiness and belonging. This was intended as a shift in power and voice – the person seeking asylum becomes the authority and shares something positive. However we came to feel that this design relied on an ability to operate within communicative norms which were overly restrictive for the ultimate aims that we had in mind. It was also sometimes difficult to translate one sense of ‘belonging’ to potential participants never mind two senses of the word!
At this stage, the vote to leave the European Union occurred and the tone of debate around asylum, sanctuary and granting refuge changed dramatically, particularly in public fora. We felt a renewed enthusiasm about an event which would give voice but we wanted to do it in ways which would facilitate social contact through talk, participation and co-ordinated activity – some of the things that are so central to superdiverse social life as we had observed it through the research project. We were fortunate to be joined on our team by Helen Clifford from local arts organisation Made in Roath. Helen is an established artist and arts facilitator with experience as an artist in residence, drawing people into thinking about such topics as place and the global home. Helen was also actively engaged in arts classes for those seeking asylum which ran in the Centre where we had been doing our fieldwork so she brought a very particular expertise as well as a shared connection to some of the individuals we had begun to know, there.
With Helen, we nuanced our ideas about belonging and worked up a series of activities designed to draw people into different kinds of interactions, to facilitate talk and other forms of communication, to permit people who did not share a language to interact meaningfully and comfortably and, crucially, to try to remove communicative disadvantage. We aimed to devise an event which would be entertaining and fun yet would draw people who were experiencing the asylum process first hand into interactions with others in ways which would place their respective statuses, their language abilities and their communicative competence in the western/global north context in the background. Helen took the lead on this, drawing on both her experiences making art at the location of our fieldwork and on recounts of the fieldwork and our observations across the project from RA Amal Hallak and me, CI Frances Rock. Of course, an important task before the event was to publicise to long-term Cardiff residents and to those who had recently come to Cardiff seeking refuge. We circulated information on the event in four languages:
As well as extensive tweeting, leafletting and media releases, it was perhaps more important to talk to those who were seeking asylum themselves about what was on offer at the event. Over a number of months, and particularly in the week before the event, I went to local support centres for asylum seekers to present the event to centre users, as well as attending English classes and drop-in sessions where I was able to discuss the event in detail. This was time-consuming but wonderful work. I had many interesting conversations with people who were just beginning life in the UK about experiences, ambitions, language, the future, the past, fear and confidence. I also had great chats with people who volunteered in the places I visited. Many of the conversations relied on translation and translanguaging. Sometimes I would speak to someone on my own and we would gradually evolve ways of making sense. On other occasions someone else would join the conversation and some ad hoc interpreting would take place. On yet other occasions Google translate became a resource. For me, the publicity activities were also as valuable as the event itself.