Frances Rock, Cardiff University, continues her report of the Belonging: Happiness in the city event Part one (preparation) is available here, and part three will conclude the write-up.
The day of “Belonging: Happiness in the City” felt momentous as the build-up had been so intense. We had no real control over the way that the day would go as its success was really dependent on both those seeking asylum and those who had been based in the UK for longer. We needed both to come along but also participate fully. Unlike an academic event when one can always read more, polish one’s presentation, re-visit the data and so on, this was now down to fortune.
We were fortunate, indeed, to receive the support of some wonderful volunteers, most of whom joined me for a meeting before the event, so that I could brief them on their role on the day. In my pre-event information to them the volunteers were told: “We hope that this will be an enjoyable event for all of us – not only those visiting the event. Hopefully we’ll all get a sense of “belonging” and “happiness”, too! Therefore do come along without a feeling of pressure or performance anxiety. The tasks on the day are fun and easy and a vital component is just being welcoming and getting involved.” The volunteers who helped out, in addition to the core Cardiff team, were: Tlang PhD student Piotr Węgorowski, PhD students Bdreah Alswais, Rowan Campbell, Susan Reichelt and Jaspal Singh; MA students Maria El Bitar, Melanie Lenz and Youren An and people who contacted us via the Centre where we did our fieldwork Luck Parkinson, Imogen Flatau, Marc Gourdeau, Sam Parker, Ayoob and Jonathan. We were also fortunate to be joined by our KP from the Heritage phase of our research, Kurda Saied-Al-Berezanchi who skilfully manipulated the tea and coffee facilities and to enlist, on the day, Dr Maryam Almohammad , a long-time supporter of the Tlang Project and participant at Cardiff’s LEDS research group (http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/leds).
The activities which Helen, Frances and Amal had devised for the day were diverse. We listed them on a flyer given out on the door, which also bore a voucher for free food – another very simple way of drawing people into the event and another way to encourage people to talk, together.
I will now present a few highlights and briefly overview each station around the Centre. One of the key activities was designed around mobile telephones. Helen Clifford, from Made in Roath, who was coordinating the artistic installations on the day had previously discussed belonging with Centre users. In some of Helen’s first discussions with refugees and those seeking asylum, she had been show the importance of the telephone as a belonging which brought a feeling of belonging. This was a valuable focus in the context of academic literature which shows the utility of mobile telephones to encounters in asylum processes (e.g. Jacquemet, forthcoming). It was also valuable in the context of (social) media representations of outrage that refugees and asylum seekers have mobile phones at all (for discussion, see: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/surprised-that-syrian-refugees-have-smartphones-well-sorry-to-break-this-to-you-but-youre-an-idiot-10489719.html, http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/trump-why-do-refugees-have-cell-phones/, http://www.dailydot.com/via/syria-refugees-cell-phone-use/ ). The value of the mobile phone as a focus had also been demonstrated in our fieldwork where phones were employed in the advice-giving context in a range of ways. In preparation for the event, Helen and I had attended a drop-in at the Centre. Helen photographed the backs of people’s mobile phones where individuality is shown through signs of age on the phone as well as additions such as stickers and cases. She also audio-recorded individuals discussing their phones and she made multiple visits. At the event, we exhibited the photos and excerpts from the interviews. Helen continued her work, however, by adding to the display all day, photographing phones and conducting further interviews so that the exhibit grew as the day progressed and the voices of those seeking asylum mixed with the voices of others within the display. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) published a report on the importance of mobile phones for refugees (http://www.unhcr.org/5770d43c4) just a few weeks before our event which gave us further confidence about this focus.
Participants were also tasked with considering what would contribute to their sense of happiness in the city of Cardiff. They were presented with a map of the city and were asked to make small models, in play-doh, of the things which they felt could be added to enhance happiness for all residents. Some participants spent a considerable time sitting at the table where this activity was placed, making models, discussing the city and their orientation to it with others, showing one another the works of others and even adding to one another’s vision for the city, layering play-doh over others’ contributions! Those who did not share a language were empowered to communicate in a way that made language irrelevant. Even for those who did, language became backgrounded. Additionally, the power to make changes to the environment seemed to be an empowering tool for some. The activity seemed to be about more than simply making models yet it worked for both adults and the many children who came to the event as each participant was able to engage in their own way.
We were fortunate to have been able to introduce some music to the event, too. Pauline Down (http://www.paulinedown.com/) also brought a wealth of experience and I had met her at a previous public event when she led some singing in a rainy Cardiff street, on the theme of “hope”, in the hectic environment of a big rugby match day. The calmer (and dryer) venue for our event was a boon! The singing gave participants the chance to connect through repeated sung phrases so that again, language was not a major focus. Instead, the rhythms, notes and repetition became significant. Singers could drop in and out of the activity and the singing was designed so that it was accessible even for those who had never sung before. Additionally those who did not want to sing, or who were thinking about whether to get involved or not, could simply watch what was going on and take in the music created. This led to some nice inversions between ‘performers’ and ‘audience’ and allowed any participant to take centre stage, if they wanted to, even if they might have felt ill-equipped to do so, before the event.
A productive aspect of so many social gatherings is food and this was no exception here. We had decided to include sharing food as part of the event because of its potential to put people at their ease and the importance of a daily meal for those who might not be able to afford to eat on some occasions. The food was all home-made and brought along by Frances and Helen but also by Cardiff doctoral candidate Jaspal Singh and Key Participant Kurda Saied-Al-Berezanchi. Sharing food gave further opportunities for people to talk together without talk being the only focus. All of the food was made by members of the team and the fabulous volunteers which fitted with the ethos of the day.
For our project, communication is, of course, key but the issue of how it happens or doesn’t happen within social hierarchies is also central. An activity designed by one of the staff at the Centre where we had done our fieldwork, Lucy Parkinson, took up this theme. In this activity, participants were only permitted to communicate through model-making. Participants were given a communication-based task such as finding out how and where to open a bank account or buy a particular kind of food. Some of the scenarios on which these tasks were based were familiar to us from our fieldwork when we had observed them happening for real. This reinforced the connection between the event and our research and the way that our presence was embedded for those we had observed. In the activity, participants had to discover information from their partner, to fulfil the task, ideally someone they had never met before, silently using only modelling with play-doh to elicit information. Whilst this was entertaining for participants the serious message about being cleaved from one’s usual communicative resources was clear. Some participants found the experience quite disturbing, even though it was only a simulation.
Jacquemet, M. (forthcoming) ‘Sociolinguistic Superdiversity and Asylum’ In: Creese, A. and Blackledge, A. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Language and Superdiversity, London: Routledge