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Living History: Stories from Displaced Migrants

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Women at Roshni Asian Women's Resource Centre in Sheffield sharing folk songs with a traditional Dholki drum, played at Mehndi pre-wedding parties during wedding season.

Displaced Migrants: Living History is a project headed by Element Society and aimed at collecting the stories of people from migrant backgrounds in order to record their lived history.

In some cultural traditions, stories and wisdom are traditionally shared orally, which means they are stored only in memory. The project came about two years ago, when young people on programmes hosted at the charity spoke of their culture, traditions and stories of their identity which they feared would be lost. They wanted to find a way to share the richness of their heritage and the stories of people who have come to Sheffield from all over the globe.

The project has been visiting local community events, festivals and group meetings to share interest and learn more about the diverse cultural traditions of origin countries that are shared in our city. Conversations have often been themed around dance, music, food, and historical or politically motivated events.

Working with Sam Smith, an oral history expert from the University of Sheffield, with support from Heritage Lottery, young people aged 16 to 24 learnt how to collect, organise, theme and present stories like social researchers. They also learnt about the ethics of storytelling and recording and what we can do to ensure that people tell their stories their way. The fun bit (or not) came when the young people got to have a go at recording each other; it's always strange when we hear our voices back on a recorder for the first time.

Many of those who shared their stories did so with rigour and energy in their voices

The young people have recently been leading interviews with people from displaced communities in Sheffield, including refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and new arrivals. This process has uncovered powerful personal accounts about growing up in conflict zones, memories of home, and reflections on identity and belonging. Many of those who shared their stories did so with rigour and energy in their voices. One participant came to England and had a harrowing experience in the transition period. She says that she wants her children, who are currently in their home country, to know the lived experience of their mother when they are older. "It is important for them to know and understand," she says.

These audio recordings are primarily a tool for understanding the life paths that some migrant communities have had to face, experiential accounts of resistance, resilience, and what it's like to start again in a new country. Khalid Adam recalls memories of smell from home, where coffee would bring the community together on a Friday evening: "We have a small village. Every Friday evening all the people stayed together and made coffee, a special kind of coffee. Everyone would stay together, bring chairs, talking together, share stories [...] When we left Sudan, we left these good things. Maybe one day we go back and start a new life there."

There are a variety of stories from people who are new to Sheffield and those who are much more established here. There are sounds and songs from folk traditions, like sharing moments from iconic films, poetry, quotes, design, recipes, and hopes and dreams for the future. We have also collected some traditional folk songs from women from South Asia and Central Africa, known as 'geet' or 'boliya'.

Once all stories are collected, they will be edited into shorter clips and represented creatively as zines, which will be shared at exhibition spaces and gatherings around the city, as well as being archived at the Local History Library, creating a legacy for future generations of this City of Sanctuary.

The project will be marked with an exhibition and celebration event in October, where everyone who has participated can share their experiences over food, music and conversations. Beyond this, we hope the success of the pilot project will enable Element Society to carry the project on in different ways, crucially led by young people's input and contributions.

Uzma Kazi


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Sarah and Angel share their stories of 'home'.

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