Storytelling is a powerful tool for helping us understand and empathise across difference, but asking people to ‘share their story’ also comes with risks.

Held on 23 February 2021 as part of the Refugee Week Slow Conference, this workshop explored how storytelling can be done in an ethical and empowering way, as well as asking what alternatives there are to first person testimony.

Over 170 people joined the session, which was led by:

  • Allan Njanji, Doctoral Researcher: Media and Migration, Nottingham Trent University (Chair)
  • Rifaie Tammas, Syrian Activist and PhD researcher at University of Sydney, author of the Open Democracy article ‘Refugee stories could do more harm than good’.
  • Kolbassia Haoussou, Survivors Speak OUT, Freedom From Torture
  • Claire Webster Saaremets, Skimstone Arts
  • Smajo Beso, Researcher and former refugee from Bosnia

Below is an overview of the main points shared – do also see the video for the whole conversation.

A Space for Many Stories

Refugee Week aims to be an empowering platform where people who have experienced displacement can express themselves on their own terms. We recognise that no single narrative represents ‘the refugee experience’, and support diverse representations of people and experiences through arts and culture. (Refugee Week shared values)

Sharing stories can…

  • Help us connect across difference
  • Help us see our common humanity
  • Move us to support and act for refugee rights
  • Be empowering for the storyteller
  • Be an act of justice for those who have been wronged or silenced
  • Contribute towards healing

Some things to consider when inviting refugees to share their stories:

  • Be honest and upfront: about your limitations, and about why you want to share someone’s story
  • Ask who owns the story: Who decides when, why or how the story should be shared? What is the balance between the needs of the audience/ project, and those of the person sharing their story?
  • Check you have informed consent, meaning the storyteller understands how and where the story will be shared, and whether they or not they will be able to retract or change details afterwards
  • Follow up afterwards to check how the person is feeling and offer support. This is especially important if difficult experiences have been shared
  • Support people to set their own parameters about what they do and don’t want to share
  • ‘Refugee stories’ often focus either on trauma, or on refugees’ ‘superhero’ qualities. Make space for other stories and experiences, too
  • Be aware that people may feel obliged to share their story, especially if the request comes from an organisation that has supported them
  • Refugees and people seeking sanctuary may be in vulnerable/disadvantaged situations, but they are also experts by experience. How can their testimony be reframed as expertise? Can they also take on a leadership or a consultancy role?
  • When making creative work about ‘refugee stories’, can the person with lived experience be involved as a co-producer or a consultant? The latter could involve checking back with them about whether they feel the piece reflects their experience
  • Where do stories go – what is the impact? Audiences might be invited to pause to reflect, to share what they’ve learned or to take action

Further reading

Platforma Manifesto: A guide to good practice for the arts, refugees & migration (Counterpoints Arts)

Attendees said…

“This are such important and valuable messages – I will take these away with me and keep them at the core of my approach – thank you.”

“I am so touched by the depth of the experience here. It’s given me a lot of food for thought.” 

“Thank you so much for this super engaging discussion and for sharing such powerful ideas. A lot of learning for me and I hope for many others. And a lot of hope for doing better work with and by / about people who experienced asylum, refuge, war – and those who do research or re-interpret these stories through art.”

“So insightful to hear of real experiences from those who have shared their journeys. I will take a lot away from this meeting, especially about the CONTROL that the sharer should have and the need to REFLECT.”

“When you explain it like that – it seems so simple and common sense – but I fear many of us have not followed it in the past. Thank you for the perspective and sound advice.”


The Refugee Week ‘Slow Conference’ is a series of free online workshops on arts and culture for change, 04 February – 11 March. Click here to see the full programme and sign up.

We are gathering clips and resources from throughout the Refugee Week Slow Conference here.