What Our Collaborators Say
Storytelling is central to the advancement of human rights in our time. But how these stories are elicited, by whom, using what protocols and under what conditions is at least as important to the success of that humanitarian project as their dissemination.
This case study focuses on the research, collaborative development and delivery of the Women in Conflict Expressive Life Writing Project (2016-2019) which investigates the complex relationship between storytelling and human rights through interventions at the site of the interview and via workshops supported by training in life writing techniques. The research was developed in iterative ways in Kirkuk, then applied with UNDP in Baghdad, with a further parallel and ongoing project in Lebanon:
2016: With our partner INMAA for development - an NGO charity working in Northern Iraq (Kirkuk) with funding from Beyond Borders, Scotland, we developed approaches in expressive life writing techniques which were informed and adapted by investigations on the ground. We established ways of using the interview opportunity, with women presenting for free legal and social aid, to pursue a track parallel to (and proven to be supportive of) the juridical, by allowing for personal life story to be elicited in two ways (writing and ‘telling’). In so doing, we are problematising and offering an alternative to the UN sponsored ‘do no harm’ directive. Publishing the Expressive Life Writing Handbook in English and in Arabic, we provided training in story gathering and narrative techniques to 12 social workers and human rights activists.
Asmaa Al Ameen writes in the project report:
The work by Beyond Borders contract teams from The Open University and Kingston University on the Expressive Writing project has gone well beyond expectations in the depth and comprehensive material they have produced. This in turn enabled the INMAA team to reflect on and improve their working practices especially with respect to the interface with victims/clients. The training you have provided to our team of human rights lawyers and social workers has changed the way we work with victims and allowed us to allow these victims to tell their stories.
2017-18 Working with the UNDP SIRI initiative, Iraq, we adapted techniques after initial needs analysis to identify the specific requirements and cultural markers pertaining. Developing the Expressive Writing for Social Cohesion: Dealing with, and documenting the past, we trained UNDP representatives in implementation, also covering how social workers might operate in creating and sustaining their workshop groups of women in the regions. Campbell and Jensen reported from their experience working with NGOs on how capacity development is supported by the valuing, recording and dissemination of stories created in workshop sessions. As part of program mentorship, Campbell and Jensen provided consultation in the lead up to, and during, the five day first training course for 35 young female social workers from Baghdad, Wasit, Babil and Diyala provinces. The life writing section formed a key part of training on documentation of social violence in conflicts, showing the reach of the research. The workshop, organized by UNDP in cooperation with MOLSA and the Senior Undersecretary of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs led to Mr. Falih Al-Amiry (minister) saying: that “social workers play an active role in showcasing what is happening within the society, especially civilians that been subjected to violence” adding: “this kind of documentation is much needed now in Iraq especially in post-liberation phase”. The Expressive Life Writing Project is predicated on an understanding of the active and crucial role that actors on the ground can take in valuing the documentation and elicitation of individual stories.
As Sundus Abass (UNDP) reports:
‘Through the initial training, I can tell that Expressive Writing in Dealing with the past approach is a very important tool, especially in Iraq’s current situation. This initiative gave social workers many strong inputs to contribute in documenting Iraqi history.
In consultation, it became clear that Expressive Life Writing and Telling, will - with UNDP’s support - help women to deal with the past, to document their stories and to draw lessons that can help them imagine the future. The final set of exercises in our handbook is just that - to begin to imagine the future self, a self that is enabled to look to the future by having dealt with the past. This project also demonstrated that not only individual stories but also community stories can be valued - becoming, as one participant said - part of the community histories of Iraq.
April-May 2018 and April-May 2019: working with our Lebanese partner, ‘AND NGO Akkar Network for Development’, we established a pilot set of workshops with the Director and key social workers in AND, using the opportunity, over a week in May 2018, to adapt materials in consultation, to provide translation of pedagogies and workshop templates, using anonymised stories from other venues as prompts and finding this enabled good practice. Supported by the Global Challenges fund, we wanted to establish whether our research could have purchase in a radically different environment with Lebanon currently experiencing an influx of Syrian refugees and still feeling the effects of its own war. In addition, recognising that the contexts of research are themselves informed by story, Siobhan Campbell undertook a series of structured interviews (supported by the OU’s SRA, Justice, Rights and Borders) - ‘The Stories We Have to Tell’ – Crossing the borders of story-making in post-conflict cultural recovery. Results of the initial 2018 workshop show that an adaptation for more interactivity in writing exercises worked to allow social workers to implement the techniques with diverse groups exhibiting very different needs. Follow-up has entailed remote monitoring and consultation and a further workshop series with the implementers will take place in April 2019.
Director of ‘AND’, Nadine Saba reports: ‘Working with this project meant a liberation of sorts. Our own experience and the narratives of our actual work on the ground were valued in this context. The workshops allowed for expression of the real fears related to anti-refugee rhetoric in play and allowed us to explore how, in mixed groups, writing could interface in positive ways with sensitivities around the refugee crisis. In addition, in terms of interviews with my social workers, they were able to record how they often cannot narrate difficulties of operation for fear of being thought to be inefficient. Life writing has proved itself a valuable tool when supported by the scaffolding that Drs Campbell and Jensen provide in training.’