By Katherine Fobear
I want to talk about stories. From the simplest story of a trip down to the grocery store to the local news story on the radio as we drive into work, stories permeate and create our everyday lives.
They matter to us on a personal level, a social level, and on a political level. They help us to tell others who we are and who we wish we were.
Stories matter especially for refugees. Refugees make sense of their past and present and craft their identities both in their new places of residence and their home countries through the sharing of stories. For those forced to migrate from their home and resettle elsewhere, a refugee’s story serves as a fundamental link between the past, present, and future. The nurturing and forging of these links help refugees and their communities heal personally and socially. Aid workers, activists, and academics working in conflict areas call this process social repair.
When refugees share their stories with each other they build a sense of belonging and community by creating a bond among individuals through communal experiences, beliefs, and stories. Sharing a story can be therapeutic for the individual as well as the group as people share and witness the hardships of transplantation and emigration to a foreign land or culture.
Being on the receiving end of refugees’ stories takes a lot of work. It takes work not only to listen, but to also understand.
I have been working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans refugees as an activist, community worker, and academic for over three years in Vancouver, Canada. I spend hours with incoming LGBT refugee claimants helping them prepare for their upcoming refugee hearings.
Often the people I meet have just arrived to Vancouver, having fled their homes, their loved ones, and their lives under incredible duress and fear. Because of tight visa restrictions and the high costs of travel, the physical journey to make a claim in Canada is never easy. Many have to spend months traveling with the help of an agent (also known as a Coyote, human trafficker, or smuggler), not knowing if they will ever make it to Canada or survive at all. Sadly, many do not.
The bulk of the hours I spend with LGBT refugee claimants involves listening to their stories.
Well…the whole refugee process was traumatic. It was like being traumatized again. I aged from it. And the thing is again, for a long time I think we thought that these people, the refugee decision makers…they really don’t care…
That’s why it was at that moment during my hearing that I will never forget that, the judge is asking me all these questions. And it was question after question. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I punched the table and everything just flew all over the place and all of a sudden I opened my mouth and I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t breathe. The words…they just couldn’t come out… I started to shake and cry. I couldn’t even see straight. I just kept thinking that I just want to have a normal life. You know, with just one tiny little detail that I just love men, I don’t love somebody female, I love male. That’s the only detail, but other than that, leave me alone! I wanna have a life!
It was at the refugee hearing that something came out. I was fighting for my rights. I think for the first time for real. I just wanted the judge to hear me. Just hear what I was trying to say. I didn’t care if I had to scream it at him. I needed him to understand. And I was lucky, so very blessed that he did. I thank God that he did. I still thank God.
– Hector, a gay identified cisgendered male refugee from South America. Hector received his refugee status in the early 2000s and is now a Canadian citizen. (Interviewed January 2014)
Refugees’ stories don’t often follow the traditional script of what we in the West think of as a story. There’s no beginning or end. Past events jump back and forth. Names, dates, and locations constantly switch. All of this makes it very difficult for the listener to make sense of what the person is saying. There are also the cultural differences in storytelling that can affect how well you can understand a story.
Storytelling in places like Central Africa, Latin America, Middle East and South Asia is an art where there are skilled professionals paid to tell good stories. Storytelling involves sitting for hours with family and friends. When listening to the stories of refugees you can’t expect a summary or a short answer. You need to be prepared to sit and listen as the story organically flows out of a person.
From an oral historian perspective, the differences in storytelling practices of refugees can serve to deepen our understanding of their narrated memories. However, from a practitioner and activist perspective, sometimes you need to just get the facts so that you can help a person with filling out a damn form to address their immediate needs. This can be a dilemma when working with refugees.
For LGBT refugees, there’s the added fear and sometimes shame of talking about their sexuality or gender identity. The emotional cost of sharing such intimate and private parts of their lives with an outsider is considerable. For the purpose of safety, much is never said. Often silence is the only response LGBT refugees can give.
The most common question I get from the LGBT refugees that I work with is, “Do you understand?” They ask me this question not because they’re worried that I’m not listening or paying attention. They ask because of the fear that their stories will be misheard.
Being misheard is a serious concern for LGBT refugees because their story is what will determine if they receive asylum or not. When LGBT refugees make a refugee claim in Canada, they have to write a detailed biography of their life as a sexual or gender minority in their home country.
Unlike refugees claiming political, ethnic, or religious persecution where there may be clear evidence of direct persecution by the state and society, persecution of LGBT persons is often hidden in the everyday violence of homophobia and transphobia. LGBT refugees must not only prove to the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, but must also show convincing proof of their fear of persecution. “Mere criminalization” is not enough to be equated with persecution and thus not enough proof to guarantee asylum.
There is an increasing politicization and bureaucratization of the refugee process in Canada. And, because many refugees come from otherwise “safe countries,” LGBT refugees are under scrutiny more than ever by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). They have to tell their story under an increasingly hostile political and social environment that frames a large majority of incoming refugee claimants as “queue jumpers,” “bogus,” and “a threat to Canadian society.”
In the past four years, Canada has placed tougher restrictions on making an asylum claim and placed a high incentive for IRB board members to reject refugee claims by requiring that they follow stricter guidelines. IRB board members’ positive decisions are now under threat of appeal by the Immigration Minister’s office. In their hearings, the testimonies of LGBT refugees are picked apart by the deciding IRB board member in order to find any inconsistency that can allow their refugee claim to be rejected. Their stories are often misheard because of cultural differences in storytelling and the IRB members’ own biases or stereotypes regarding gender and sexuality. Even with the wider understanding about the fluidity of sexuality and gender across cultures, an LGBT refugee claimant may still run the risk of being rejected because they didn’t appear to be “gay or trans” enough. Put simply, they weren’t recognized as a “gay or trans” by the IRB member.
Their story is not understood; who they are is not understood.
Of course, being misheard has consequences.
In the case of the IRB, it can cost a person their life. There is a lesson to all of us who are privileged enough to be able to listen to another person’s story: storytelling is never one-sided.
As much as the listener may be assessing and questioning the storyteller, the storyteller is also questioning and assessing the listener. The question “Do you understand?” is not a rhetorical one; it’s a direct request to the listener to acknowledge the storyteller’s social position and to clarify their important points.
“Do you understand” also points to the social reality LGBT refugees face as they struggle to translate their realities to others and yet are often misheard. We cannot talk about giving voice to those who have been silenced without also acknowledging the difficulties of voice and recognition in certain contexts.
The challenge for us as activists, practitioners, and academics is to scrutinize our own social position and the ways that it causes us to mishear. We should ask ourselves what are the ways that we may be silencing a person by our actions and/or by the retelling of their story? What are the ways that our actions as listeners may feed into wider networks of power? How can we, as people who encounter and work with other people’s stories, avoid exploitation and misuse of a person’s story?
There’s no single answer to these questions; but, ultimately, it’s about recognizing and working with difference instead of trying to erase or force another person’s story into a form that is more familiar to us – and thus more understandable to the “us” with power. Activists, practitioners, and researchers working with people to tell their stories need to not only make room for the voices of others and to learn from them, but also to recognize the privilege one has in asking for dialogue.
We need to challenge unassuming power differentials by confronting the various systems, bureaucracies, and structures of power that silence people and give voice to others. We need to find ways to better support and enable people not only to tell their stories, but to give them the space to use their stories for their own activism and desires.
Katherine Fobear is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice, University of British Columbia. She is also a volunteer with the Rainbow Refugee Committee, a community group based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that was formed in 2001 to support and advocate for refugees making claims based on sexual orientation, gender identity and HIV+ status. Katherine is presenting at the WITH/OUT — ¿BORDERS? being held Thursday, September 25 – Sunday, September 28th.