Reflection on Refugee Council Archive Events for Refugee Week 2019

By Paul V. Dudman, Archivist at the University of East London

June 2019 saw the interweaving of both the London Festival of Architecture 2019 with a focus on boundaries and Refugee Week 2019, with an emphasis this year on ‘You, me and those who came before’, focusing on the lives of refugees through the generations. Here at the University of East London Archives this represented an opportunity to focus on several key aspects of our work over recent years documenting the refugee experience through oral history  and the collection of oral history archives, combined with civic engagement and community history with local communites in North Woolwich and Silvertown, documenting the nature of place in the face of regeneration and change.

Our month-long series of events and activities began on Thursday, 30 May 2019 with an event on Newham Monitoring Project & The Anti-Racist Fight in East London organised by Eastside Community Heritage and hosted by Refugee Council Archive at UEL, exploring the history of anti-racist organising in East London over the past fifty years and the creation of the Newham Monitoring Project in 1980 as a response to racial violence and the rise of the National Front across the London Borough of Newham.  Colleagues from Eastside also brought with them their exhibition on the Silvertown Explosion of 1917, which we subsequently exhibited within the Archive reading room for the next two weeks as part of the London Festival of Architecture.

As part of a two year civic engagement project entitled Tate Lives, the UEL Archives has been working in collaboration with the community-based organisations including the Craftory Workshop and Royal Docks Community Voice initially to document the history of the Tate Institute, the former sports and social club built by Sir Henry Tate in 1887 for workers at the Tate and Lyle Sugar Factory in Silvertown, before expanding the project to document the wider community histories of North Woolwich and Silvertown.  The Silvertown Explosion exhibition curated by Eastside Community Heritage documented the explosion of the Brunner Mond munitions factory in Silvertown on 19th January 1917, killing 73 people and destroying or damaging thousands of buildings.  The exhibition documented both the explosion and its aftermath as well in the context of the history and community heritage of the area.

This was followed by a University inspired Royal Docks Festival to showcase the various works undertaken at the University but sadly the weather intervened and what we hoped would be an outside stall to help showcase the work of the Archive became more of an attempt to shelter from the rain but at least we were able to road test an Archives Quiz which, with some refinement, we might be able to develop in future.  And with an almost seamless transition, we moved on to our Refugee Week 2019 activities.

For Refugee Week this year, we looked to undertake a series of events exploring themes of refugees across the generations and how the refugee and migration archival collections that we hold at UEL represent the histories and narratives of the refugee experience.  Our week began on Sunday, 16th June with an event at the Victoria and Albert Museum entitled, “Who Came Before You?” This was a collaborative event with colleagues from the Refugee Council and Diaspora Woman – Mujer Diáspora – UK. The Mujer Diaspora group is formed of Colombian diaspora women and “seeks to empower Colombian women as peacebuilders and agents of change in their environments in the United Kingdom and Colombia,” whilst the Refugee Council is one of the main charities working with refugees in the UK and a long-term depositor of archival materials at UEL.  This was a drop-in session which encouraged participants to come and engage with the archival materials in display and to create their own responses to these materials through poetry and craft with colleagues from Mujur Disapora. The group have also recently published a collection of poetry entitled, “Poems, Women and Peace: Poetic Memories of Colombian Women in the Diaspora.”

We were also pleased to be able to welcome the author Dina Nayeri to UEL for a discussion of her first non-fiction

Prof Giorgia Dona, Dina Neyeri and Paul Dudman. Photo Credit: Dr. Aura Lounasmaa

book entitled, “The Ungrateful Refugee.” This was a fascinating start to our World Refugee Day activities at UEL as Dina spent an hour discussing the issues that inspired her to write the book in conversation with Professor Giorgia Dona, co-director of the Centre for Migration, Refugees and Belonging at UEL and the MA in Refugee Studies. Dina Nayeri was already an established author with her novels entitled Refuge and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea and her new book, The Ungrateful Refugee, published by Canongate on 30 May 2019, was born out of an article originally published in The Guardian newspaper entitled, “The ungrateful refugee: `we have no debt to repay.’”

The Ungrateful Refugee interweaves Dina’s own family experience of leaving Iran as a refugee when she was a child and her family’s experiences of living in refugee camps before receiving asylum in the United States combined with experiences of other asylum seekers forced to leave their homes and seek a new home and a new life in a different country. The book seeks to reflect on “the real human stories of what it is like to be forced to flee your country in hope of a better, safer life, and for the lucky few, the struggle to start afresh in a new culture.”

And Dina herself says:

“I’m writing The Ungrateful Refugee because the world is regressing: as I watch the news, I think of how necessary it is to show refugees as they are, the full arc of their story, in ways that they’ve hidden from the native-born out of a misplaced sense of gratitude. I don’t want to show how refugees contribute to their host countries; I want to show instead how they become enmeshed in a community, how they live, what they suffer, how they love and are loved by the native-born. I want to show how a single moment of displacement can shape everything that comes after, and how, in the West, the label ‘refugee’ can become a permanent siphon of identity and power. Most of all, I want to give the world a new, complete narrative of resettlement that doesn’t assume (despite brushes with joy and community) that the story ends happily the moment asylum is won.”(The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri, coming 2019, no date)

An important part of our Refugee Week 2019 activities was an exhibition held in the Archives reading room at the UEL Docklands Campus showcasing materials from our different refugee and migration collections that we hold.  We wanted to take this opportunity to show the importance of archives in documenting, preserving and making accessible materials than can reflect the first-hand narrative testimonies and life histories of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers and, also those who seek to work with them. Our exhibition included materials from the recently deposited oral history collections including Gujarati Yatra and VOKIM: Voices of Kosovo in Manchester as well as physical materials from the Refugee Council Archive itself.  “Yatra” is a Sanskrit word meaning journey and the aim of this project and exhibition was to document the movement from Gujarat on the west coast of India, initially to the south and east of Africa and finally on to Britain and other countries in the West.  The project:

“Tells the stories of the individuals and communities who made this journey, through their objects and oral histories. These stories also reveal the art, language, literature, food and religion of the Gujarati people and how these were preserved and adapted in different cultures. The history of the Gujarati Yatra is intertwined with, and helps us understand, changes in politics, trade, business, education and migration from the period before British rule in India to the present day.”

VOKIM was developed by the Manchester Aid to Kosovo (MaK) charity in 2016 to help record and preserve an archive of the stories of the Kosovar community in Manchester and the humanitarian response to the ethnic cleansing taking place in the Balkans during the conflict of 1998-1999. The archive contains oral histories documenting the personal stories of a community fleeing from ethnic cleansing and their subsequent arrival in the UK, and of those who chose to respond to the humanitarian crisis.

MaK continues to work in Kosovo and is currently working with the community of the Municipality of Podujevë to create the Manchester Peace Park with support from the Eden Project in Cornwall. The Manchester Peace Park is being created at the request of the Bogujevci children in their home town, Podujevë, the site of a massacre during the Balkans conflict.  See short Channel M documentary film.

Documenting the Refugee Crisis: Remembering through Embroidery project based at Aberystwyth University

We were also very fortunate to be able to host a collection of textiles on loan from Aberystwyth University especially for our Refugee Week Exhibition.  This was a collection of hand-stitched and embroidered hankies curated by the Stitched Voices Embroidery Group based in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University.  Stitched Voices had been working on a project entitled, “Documenting the Refugee Crisis: Remembering through Embroidery.” This came about through a collaboration with the #IR_Aesthetics project based at Aston University, which investigates the stories of the refugee crisis in Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. The project sought the document the refugee crisis through embroidery.  The project drew upon the UNITED for Intercultural Action List of Refugee Deaths which documents all reported deaths of individuals who have attempted to enter Europe.  The list dates back to 1993 and the latest version published for World Refugee Day on the 20 June this year includes 36,750 entries, with many listed as “N.N” (Nomen Nescio: I don’t know the name).  Thank you to Drs. Gillian McFadyn, Berit Bliesemann de Guevara and Christine Andra at Aberystwyth University for your support in agreeing to loan the hankies for our exhibition.

We were able to include in the exhibition a poster, books and flyers from the 50th anniversary activities of The David Oluwale Memorial Association which were held between 17-24 April this year in Leeds. David Oluwale was a Nigerian immigrant from Lagos in Nigeria who arrived in Hull as a stowaway on a ship in September 1949.  After serving a period of 28 days imprisonment for this crime, Oluwale lived the remainder of his life in Leeds before his untimely death in 1969.  Given the nickname Yankee by hid friends due to his interest in American popular culture, Oluwale worked in low-paid jobs during the reconstruction of post-war Leeds.  However, by 1953 Oluwale had been committed to Merston psychiatric hospital due to mental health issues.  Following his release in 1961, Oluwale spent the next eight years of his life homeless and sleeping rough, in and out of prison and Merston hospital. During the last couple of years of his life, 1967-1969, David Oluwale was systematically assaulted by two members of the Leeds Police Force, Inspector Ellerton and Sergeant Kitching, before being discovered drowned in the River Aire on 18th April 1969.  Ellerton and Kitching were subsequently convicted of these assaults, in part due to the testimonies of other police officers.

The #RememberOluwale charity is currently working on a project to create a Memorial Garden near to the River Aire in Leeds City Centre “as a place of tranquil reflection on the life and tragic death of David Oluwale.” Thanks to the help and support of our colleague Max Farrar for organizing the transfer of these materials.

Rolf Killius, co-curator of Gujarati Yatra with UEL Archivist, Paul Dudman

Our second event on World Refugee Day, saw the re-launch of our Migration Special Interest Group with the Oral History Society.  Entitled as a Roundtable on the Importance of Oral History for Documenting Life Story Narratives of the Migration Experience, the re-launch of our Oral History Society Migration Special Interest Group brought together a number of oral history practitioners to discuss the role and significance of oral history approaches to documenting the life history narratives of migration.

We were fortunate to have a number of fascinating speakers including Louise Wong and Circle Steele, from the Crossing the Borders oral history project with the Wai Yin Society located in Manchester; Rolf Killius, co-curator of the Gujarati Yatra exhibition; Judith Garfield, director of Eastside Community Heritage; Dr. Annabelle Wilkins from the Translating Asylum project; Marella Hoffman, oral historian and author; Bram Beelaert, Researcher and Curator at the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium; and Dr. Rumana Hashem, from the University of Warwick and Coordinator of the IASFM Working Group for Archiving and Documentation of History of Forced Migration and Refugees.

During the presentations, Judith Garfield emphasised the need and importance for oral history whilst Louise Wong and Circle Steele from the Wai Yin Society in Manchester talked about a collaborative life history research with East Asian immigrant communities, in this case displaced women and men from China, Hong Kong, Macum, Malaysia, and Vietnam.   Their Crossing the Borders project investigates migration of women and men from the above East Asian countries Quiet but not silent communities, life stories of older Chinese community members living in Manchester.  Bram Beelaert discussed he project he had worked with people who are refugees and migrants, who are unprivileged, low in income, and in need of help. Dr Annabelle Wilkins addressed an important aspect of life history research with asylum seekers and forced-migrants and introduced the “Translating Asylum” project in Manchester which explored the role of language in humanitarian research. Dr. Rumana Hashem then briefly highlighted how her civic engagement project leading to life narrative research tackled the associated ethical challenges in the research with asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. The project was undertaken in 2015 by focusing on the preservation of refugees’ and migrants’ lived experiences in London.

The purpose of the OHS Migration SIG is to bring together people who are working within the fields of refugee and migration studies, or who are interested in the issues and practice involved, to gather and share knowledge, to explore these and related questions, and to formulate an Oral History Society response that can be useful for the wider oral history community.  In the second half of our re-launch event, we discussed initial ideas for how best to manage and develop the Migration SIG.  Ideas and suggestions included community engagement and the sharing of knowledge through events (workshops, seminars, webinars), working papers, and the Web (website, social media); enhancing networking opportunities for the exchange of information between academics, students, researchers, practitioners and members of the public, including opportunities for virtual and physical networking and advice. To collaborate with other networks, both nationally and internationally, to help connect with the international migration issues as recorded through oral history.  There was recognition that specialised training in oral history research with displacement and humanitarian field would be beneficial as would working towards producing guidelines for how to use oral history methodology in research with migrants and refugees would be useful, especially in relation to ethics. We as the convenors are looking for new and pro-active members to the group who can help with the production of such guidelines, including applying for funding and outreach work.

Rumana Hashem indicated that “we hope that this connection, awareness, and discussions will lead to a more connected dialogue and positive way forward for documenting authentic history of displacement and the displaced,” whilst Annabelle Wilkins has kindly written a blog reflection on the event on the Translating Asylum blog and this can be found online here: The Importance of Oral History for Documenting Life Story Narratives of the Migration Experience.

Image Copyright: Citizens Rights Watch

Our final events included an archives Open Day on the 22nd June to showcase the Refugee Council Archive and our exhibitions which followed on from a poetry session on Friday 21st June, hosted by Sonia Quintero from the Newham Poetry Group which explored Refugee Voices through the medium of poetry.  A recent interview undertaken with the multi-talented artist, poet, and activist Sonia Quintero an be found online via the Citizens Rights Watch network website at: “Don’t give me more ideas, I’m too creative!

For further information on the work of the Refugee Council Archive and or collections; the OHS Migration SIG and the resources of the Living Refugee Archive, please contact the Archivist, Paul V Dudman, on or 020 8223 7676


Gujarati-Yatra (no date) gujarati-yatra. Available at: (Accessed: 4 July 2019).

Hashem, R. and Dudman, P. V. (2016) ‘Paradoxical narratives of transcultural encounters of the “other”: Civic engagement with refugees and migrants in London’, Transnational Social Review, 6(1–2), pp. 192–199. doi: 10.1080/21931674.2016.1186376

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Nayeri, D. (2019) ‘“I wouldn’t be the refugee, I’d be the girl who kicked ass”: how taekwondo made me – podcast’, The Guardian, 21 June. Available at: (Accessed: 4 July 2019).

Nayeri, D. (2019) The Ungrateful Refugee. London: Canongate.

Remember Oluwale (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 4 July 2019).

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Wilkins, Annabelle (2019). “The Importance of Oral History for Documenting Life Story Narratives of the Migration Experience.” Translating Asylum Available at: (Accessed: 4 July 2019).