5 top tips for refugee storytelling

25th July 2023

How to tell compelling, ethical and inclusive stories, featuring the RE-ROOTED exhibition story-tellers Hassan Akkad, Emma Price and Janahan. 

“In the past, I faced problems and fears but I did not have a voice. I did not have the confidence to ask questions to people in the hierarchy… Will I get paid? Will I be used as a click bait? Will they come with an agenda to dig deep into my trauma? I don’t want to be that poster boy.”  

- Janahan, speaking at the digital launch of the RE-ROOTED exhibition.

On 4th July 2023, we invited the celebrated film-maker Hassan Akkad, inspiring exhibition star Janahan, and Comic Relief’s Emma Price to a conversation on the process behind RE-ROOTED: Stories of starting again and to share their expertise on how to tell compelling, ethical and inclusive stories of seeking sanctuary. 

Stories have the chance to inform, to influence and to inspire. As Hassan reflected, “We want good politicians, and they need to be voted in. We need to think about storytelling as campaigning.” But in a world full of content, how can charities succeed in telling stories that are compelling, ethical and inclusive?

Today, we share five top tips and insights that emerged during the conversation with these three brilliant story-tellers.  

  1. Tell many stories, not just one  We’re so used to looking for ‘one story’ that says it all. But, as Emma reflects, in doing so “we often fall back on the traditional case study approach where one person tells us all about their life story in an intense way and this becomes a fundraising call to action.” With RE-ROOTED, Emma wanted to do it differently. “I wanted a portfolio approach to get richer storytelling and to take pressure off that one person to tick all the boxes. The great thing is you end up with seven pieces that stand alone but which also come together as a big ensemble piece.”    

  2. Celebrate the ordinary, not just the extraordinary  RE-ROOTED is a celebration of life. It's authentic, it’s light-hearted and, as Hassan notes, it’s “rich and three-dimensional”. But why celebrate the everyday? According to Hassan, “It’s not just a problem with stories of trauma, but also with positive stories. It’s like a fetish. Making an article about a successful chocolate maker or a chef or doctor hijacks reality. It focuses on the 1% that have done extraordinary things. It says, ‘These people need sympathy because look how incredible they are!’ But the truth is that 99% of people are ordinary people who just want to exist. We need a careful balance on how we are telling these stories.”   

  3. Conduct conversations, not interviews  Hassan shares how conducting a conversation is infinitely better than coming with a ready-made list of questions. “I want to humanise people. But first you need a universal language - food, films, what you do on the weekend. I wanted to ask these sorts of questions and we had some really funny answers like ‘I don’t understand water taps. Why are the hot and cold taps separate? I like the gaps, the humour! I like finding other channels of reflecting with people on Britain as a society.” Emma agrees. She watched Hassan’s process and noted how “so often people come with a strict agenda” when really a good interview is ”a listening exercise.” When the interviewer themself - in this case Hassan - also shares a common history of forced migration, it becomes all the more possible to tell relatable stories that shift power to the story-teller.    

  4. Ensure a values-driven consent process  Emma and Janahan both recall the first moments of contact when they discussed this exhibition. Janahan was wondering “What power and autonomy will I hold?” In the end, after a number of honest conversations with Emma, he says he “took a chance”, encouraged by Comic Relief’s values-driven consent process. Hassan shares how this process goes beyond the legal baseline of consent and release forms for interviewees: it is vital to make clear the participant’s right to withdraw their consent at any stage of the process. “Consent is a process. You don’t ask people to sign the form in the first minute. Build a relationship of trust. You can give them a contact to get back in touch if they wish to change their mind. Reassure them before and after that anything they say they can change later”, Hassan says. He adds, “If they are clearly very troubled, I wouldn’t interview them during that difficult time. If they are in a hotel, traumatised - you can’t always make the right decisions. It’s a question of time and place.”

  5. Publish in print, not just online During the one-week showing at The Oxo Tower in London commencing on 20th June, World Refugee Day, over 750 visitors explored the 7 stories in depth. During our conversation, Emma shared just how exciting it was to be back in an exhibition space after Covid-19. “People who came in really took time and read all of it. It’s so hard to get that engagement when you are only digital. You can keep people’s attention longer.” Getting back to physical spaces is a great way to reach wider audiences and ensure deeper engagement.

Through this rich conversation with the producers and participants of the RE-ROOTED: Stories of starting again exhibition, we’ve showcased the power of storytelling in educating, inspiring, and advocating for change. By emphasising multiple stories, celebrating the everyday, conducting conversations instead of interviews, prioritising values-driven consent, and embracing print and digital formats, charities can engage in high-quality storytelling to portray compelling narratives of seeking sanctuary while fostering empathy and understanding in society.

Funded by Comic Relief, the (opens in new window)Across Borders(opens in new window)programme(opens in new window) is a group of civil society organisations who are working to develop routes to safety for refugees. This cohort has been transforming lives together since 2020, and is set to continue its work until 2025. During this period, information-sharing, innovative practices and enhanced collaboration puts the Across Borders cohort at the cutting edge of a modern refugee response.

Comic Relief is excited to present RE-ROOTED – an exhibition curated with celebrated Syrian and BAFTA award winning documentary filmmaker, Hassan Akkad, to share a surprising and moving insight into the stories of seven refugees from across the globe who came here seeking sanctuary from war and persecution. Through a collection of illuminating interviews, photography, and short film, visitors will learn the reasons why each of the contributors had to leave their homes behind. From Afghanistan to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Syria, and El Salvador, the series showcases the extraordinary journeys they have been on and explores how they have rebuilt their lives in the UK whilst pursuing passions such as law, fashion, and theatre. Explore the digital version of the exhibition here. 

By Jacob Warn with Tanya Murphy

Comic Relief Across Borders Learning Coordinators