Beyond Victimisation: A Look into the Mapping Memories – Stories of Refugee Youth – Project – Gracia Dyer Jalea and Liz Miller

Mapping Memories: Stories of Refugee Youth is a collaborative multi-media project which uses personal stories and a range of media tools (video, sound walks, mapping, photography) to raise awareness around the situation of refugee youth in Montreal. The project is connected to the Montreal Life Stories Project, an oral history initiative that is working to collect over 500 life stories of Montrealers who have been victims of war, genocide and other crimes against humanity. Mapping Memories invites youth with refugee experience to share their personal stories with a greater public, an opportunity that they are rarely afforded. This project seeks to move beyond the stories of victimization that are so often depicted in mainstream media coverage. Instead, Mapping Memories hopes to empower youth with the opportunity to creatively frame and communicate their stories to others, and in so doing, to make personal the refugee experience in Montreal. Furthermore, the project celebrates the strength and determination of individuals who have not only survived experiences of violence and oppression, but who have found ways to transform difficult experiences into opportunities for healing and social change.

In addition to working directly with refugee youth, we have done interviews with artists and educators with refugee experience who act as mentors to youth. The two interviews that are featured in this article exemplify the work that we have done and demonstrate how women, like Nantali Indongo and Rania Arabi, use their personal life experiences to effect positive change within their respective communities.

To learn more about the project, please visit our website at: Stories of Refugee Youth

David Ward

Reflections: Interview with Nantali Indongo, co-founder of Hip Hop No Pop and famed Nomadic Massive MC

On a warm August afternoon, as I sat in her living room, which incidentally also functions as her work space, I quickly came to realise that for Nantali Indongo it is often difficult to separate her work as a community organiser and activist from her music. There are inextricable links that exist between the music that she makes as an MC for popular Montreal group Nomadic Massive, the work that she does with Hip Hop No Pop, a program that she co-developed with founder, Maryse Legagneur, which uses hip hop as a means of encouraging critical thinking and media literacy amongst Montreal’s youth, and her personal life. It is apparent from our interview that for Nantali, each of these informs and enriches the other. Arguably, each one could not exist without the others.

Over the course of our two-hour interview, it was clear that Nantali is very passionate about both her work and her craft. Her tireless involvement, as she pointed out, is no doubt born out of a sense of urgency that compels her to do her best to make society a more inclusive space for all peoples.

While having been born and raised in Montreal, she has never forgotten the origins and circumstances that brought her parents to Canada: her mother originated from St. Vincent and her father from Grenada. It is evident that her parents, both of whom were influential members of their respective cultural communities and active participants in Montreal’s 1960s and 1970s civil rights movement, have strongly influenced her current ambitions. Her parents’ commitment to creating more opportunities for marginalised members of society has undeniably made a lasting impression on her. For Nantali, it seems that it is more important and effective for us to concentrate on “sameness as oppose to differences,” an approach that she says is upheld and shared amongst her Nomadic Massive bandmates.

Nantali spoke eloquently and was well-informed about nearly every subject we discussed, indicating that education also plays a significant role in her life. When asked what advice she would give youth, she simply answered: “Read, Read, Read!”

As a ‘non-traditional’ teacher, Nantali, through Hip Hop No Pop and her music with Nomadic Massive, seeks to inspire her students and audiences to develop critical thinking. While she did not mention this explicitly in our interview, it is clear that she sees education as a crucial means through which inequalities and divisions can be deconstructed and eventually rendered obsolete. Next autumn, Nantali plans to continue her own education, with the intention of pursuing a Masters in Education at McGill University.

It was a truly inspiring experience to see someone so devoted and passionate about their work. I wish her all the best in the future.

Interview Conducted: Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Interviewer: Gracia Jalea
Videographer: Liz Miller, Gracia Jalea

“Hip Hop No Pop”

Reflections: Interview with Rania Arabi, writer and YWCA program coordinator.

Rania and I sat down in late October, on the eve of Halloween, in the warm comfort of her Plateau home. For some time we had been talking about filming an interview with her father, who had been forced to leave his home in Jaffa as a child. And in the midst of negotiating all of our schedules we decided that the starting point was in fact Rania’s story. So on this late October morning, with a bowl of fresh dates between us, we began what became a two-hour life story interview.

I had met Rania because of her work at the YWCA, where she is in charge of researching and coordinating programs for immigrant women and their children in Montreal. As the co-coordinator of the Refugee Youth working group of the Montreal Life Stories Project and the principal investigator of the collaborative media project, Mapping Memories, I had contacted Rania to explore how we might collaborate on a future project. A philosophy of the Mapping Memories project is to form strategic collaborations with existing support groups for refugee youth to ensure the longevity of the project. Rania and I have been exploring ways to integrate media and digital storytelling into her ongoing work.

We had also decided that in order to understand both the potential of a creative collaboration or a life story, that Rania and the staff of the YWCA would benefit by experiencing first-hand the kind of workshops we have been conducting in refugee shelters and with youth groups in Montreal.  By actually going through the process of using new media to tell personal stories, the staff would have a better sense of how these techniques might work with their groups.  Furthermore the staff would understand first-hand the transformative potential of this creative process, as well as the vulnerability it entails.  So before our day-long training in digital storytelling with the YWCA staff, Rania and I conducted her life story interview. We discussed at length her identity as a Palestinian woman and her thoughts on the potential of oral history and personal stories to transcend tropes of victimization.

Rania grew up in Kuwait with her three brothers and both of her parents. She moved to Montreal with her family soon after the Gulf War. Rania’s father was forced to leave his home in Jaffa at the age of seven, and during the interview I learned that Rania had also been marked by a traumatic event at the same age:

“It was during the civil war – and the conflict between the Palestinians and the Lebanese. There were only two Palestinians at my school and we were made fun of. “You look like Arafat” they would say … I stayed in that school for ten years and I never asked to be taken out. I don’t know why – for some reason I just swallowed it and said – ok, I am going to stand here alone – its there anything wrong with being Palestinian?”

Rania explained that despite the 300,000 Palestinians living in Kuwait, she still most often felt like an outsider in the country.

Rania’s first opportunity to visit Palestine came as a young adult.  Interested in the concept of “Homeland,” Rania interviewed PLO officials, who had spent years living in exile in Tunisia and were now returning to Palestine.  Her research was part of her master’s degree in anthropology.  During her fieldwork she encouraged her father to return to Palestine.  Together they visited the home he had abruptly left as a child: “It was like being with a 7-year-old again. He started crying. He was hugging me and my cousins.”  Rania and her father conspired to bring a piece of his home back with them – a piece of a window that had framed his childhood bedroom. In discussing the meaning of this encounter, Rania explained: “He had the privilege of going back and seeing his home and not many people have that. I feel that whenever you go back to a wound or a rupture you face it.  It’s good that he cried – he is still angry and has things to deal with.” In discussing the impact of the visit, she explained that her father now has a new set of memories connected to the first place he would call home.

I asked Rania about her relationship to her father’s anger and the notion of inheriting trauma. She explained:

“I had a very close and uncomfortable relationship to my father’s anger – it’s rage – it’s beyond anger – it’s a cry from the heart that this should not be – how come this is happening – that no-one is caring – and I picked it up. … But my duty, my responsibility is to take this and to transform it so that my child doesn’t have to carry it…”

She went on to describe her notion of a “sacred wound” that has resonated with me ever since our interview:

“Sometimes what we do with our wounds is hide it and live our lives like victims. But I feel that this is my wound, that I inherited it, and it became a part of me and now what do I do with this wound? Do I scratch it? Do I play with it?  Do I try to open it again? Do I tell its story – because it is fun to tell the story – and someone says – oh my god you went through this – confirming the drama and the victimhood or maybe there is a chance to heal, to transform – I am going to use this wound and make a contribution – show the world that wounds can heal.”

A few days later, during the workshop with the YWCA staff, Rania used the memory of her visit with her father as the inspiration for her digital story, which she told in the form of a letter to her son. It is powerful and inspiring, much like Rania and the work she does at the YWCA. I look forward to all of our future collaborations.

Interview Conducted: Friday, October 30th, 2009
Interviewer: Liz Miller
Videographer: Liz Miller

“Rania’s Arabi”

Gracia Dyer Jalea is a Media Studies graduate student at Concordia University. Gracia has been working with on the Mapping Memories: Stories of Refugee Youth Project since 2008. During this time she has helped to develop two curricula for this project, which focuses specifically on the refugee youth experience in Montreal and which uses photography, video and online digital resources to collect the personal testimonies of youth who have been victims of war, genocide and other crimes against humanity. Prior to this, Gracia developed a photography curriculum for Aboriginal youth in Ottawa as part of Aboriginal Awareness Week 2008. Her graduate work is centered on a photography curriculum that seeks to use photography and written text to give voice to the socio-economic conditions of high school students in Canada.

Liz Miller is a documentary maker, inter-media artist, and a professor in the Communication Studies program at Concordia University in Montreal. Miller has developed documentary and inter-media projects with women, refugee youth, senior citizens and a wide range of human rights organizations internationally. Miller is currently on the board of the International Association of Women in Television and Radio and is one of the co-founders of the Concordia Documentary Centre. Her films including Novela, Novela and The Water Front have been exhibited around the world and have been used to impact policy and educational initiatives. Mapping Memories is her newest collaborative new media project.