In the course of the last semester, students in Mapping Diasporas met with five refugees, and interviewed them about their memory objects.
Memory objects are objects held and cherished by displaced people, and that end up symbolizing concepts of “home” and “identity,” and that also carry innumerable layers of memory and feelings. The are tangible artifacts composing an archive of the invisible.
The refugees who visited with our class all live in the Bay Area, are approximately the same age as the students in the class, and—with the sole important exception of a man who left Nazi Germany in the 1930s as a child—have been recently relocated here. They were recruited by a member of the Mapping Diasporas working group, documentary film-maker Sam Ball (of Citizen Film). Several of them settled in the Bay Area through the fantastic work of the staff and volunteers of the Refugee & Immigrant Services at Jewish Family and Community Services of the East Bay.
We first met in class, shared introductions, and, sitting in a circle, passed around the objects that our guests brought with them. A fruit bowl smuggled from Germany to the US in a hat box. A keychain that used to hold keys to a lost home in Damascus. A traditional Afghan costume. Pakistani currency, a prized possession for Afghan refugees who could not find work once they left their country escaping the war. Bracelets made in a refugee camp in Kenya, full of memories about Uganda and hopes about the future. Photographs (not many), as well as smartphones containing digital images, songs (and playlists), and facebook contacts, were discussed as essential vehicles of memory and identity for displaced persons.
Following this initial meeting, Sam returned to class to hold a training session on how to conduct interviews. Students learned how to plan an interview session, how to formulate questions, stay on target, and manage time. Subsequently, five interview teams were created, and we all worked on preparing interviews with the five refugee/guests.
On December 14, our class #unfinal (as I like to call the projects that I create in lieu of formal final exams) focused on welcoming back to class the refugees, and on carrying out five distinct interviews. Each interview was done as audio-only: a way to respect the privacy of some of our guests, whose faces could not be shown in order to protect the safety of their families, and to continue focusing on memory objects rather than on individuals.
A preliminary tangible result of this work consisted in five distinct audio files, which I then uploaded to the Pop Up Archive, where they can be heard and where their transcripts (which are still being edited) can be searched.
The semester ended, and some works of magic began.
First of all, several students in the class offered to continue working on the project, transcribing the audio interviews and examining the photographs of the memory objects taken during the #unfinal. This work, which was carried out throughout the entire spring semester, continues to this day.
The narratives that emerged from this process are all compelling. The focus on objects seems to have directed the interviews towards an array of specific concerns that are in line with what was discussed in class throughout the semester. Paying attention to material culture allows for unexpected details of an individual story to emerge, and also seemingly took some of the “pressure” off the interviewees, who were free to focus on the details they had not previously been able to express. Themes of identity, memory, and a history of feelings, were—and continue to be—omnipresent.
Secondly, Sam began working on a documentary prototype. Here it is, focusing on Zander, an LGBT refugee from Uganda now living in Berkeley:
This video, along with short segments about the other interviewees, was presented on June 22 in Berkeley at a sold out event, titled What We Carry With Us: A Refugee Storytelling Lab, hosted by the JCC East Bay.
Our goal is to continue working on the object-based narratives, to create more documentary work based on the other interviews, and to bring everything we collected—audio files, interview transcripts, still images, videographies, and maps—together into an integrated web platform. It is still a work in progress, and the progress is astounding.