This is my dear friend Raafat. I met Raafat in Greece last November and was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when he arrived on one of the boats on the beach that I was volunteering on. We have kept in touch as I knew he was too special to let him wander off into the wilds of Europe and never see him again. At Easter, I drove to Germany to go and visit him and we had the most wonderful time, full of laughter and full of chocolate cake that Raafat had made. Raafat wants to be a pilot but if that never happens, he could certainly open a chocolate cake shop and people would be queuing round the block if that cake is anything to go by.
Raafat’s story is something else. It is, of course, his story but it is also representative of many people’s stories at this moment in time. It is not my place to tell you his story but I hope that in time Raafat will tell it, we could all learn something by it. I have armed him with pen and paper and a promise to write it all down so that, one day, the world will get to hear his story. In the meantime, I just count my blessings that my path has crossed with this funny, intelligent, courageous young man.
That’s the thing with our stories. If we don’t tell them, someone else will and they might get it wrong. The media is certainly pumping out stories of refugees which fall far short of the truth of the people that I have met so far. We are being fed a narrative of fear, of statistics and of division in amongst which the stories of people are getting lost.
The power of personal stories is immense. It is through sharing our personal stories that a sense of communion is made, friendships are made and the narrative of fear is broken down. Our stories connect us with our inheritance, we learn about our culture and that of others, we forge families and communities. Telling personal stories is an intrinsic part of being human and one of the most significant ways of expressing and creating meaning. Once you start telling your story, or listening to someone else’s story, you start having a greater insight into the stories that you generate, take part in and exist all around you. In short, that there is no difference between anyone. We are all the same but different.
After visiting Raafat, I went to Holland to do a tour of schools and other venues telling stories of refugees and of my story of volunteering over the past 9 months. The performances focused solely on the personal stories, not the politics, not the statistics, not laying the blame at anyone’s door but on personal stories. The audiences were varied but the responses were not so varied as, no matter who was listening, it is almost impossible to not be touched by personal stories. Everything that is happening at the moment can feel overwhelming at times and it can be easy to fall into the narrative that is being fed to us of there not being enough room, not enough jobs, cultures don’t mix, economic migrant, refugee and all the other stuff that is being chucked at us. To bring it down to personal stories creates a human connection that we, as humans, are programmed to feel. I was blown away by the response of the young people in schools who immediately came up with ideas of working with refugees in their areas and ways of forging friendships. That’s what I love about teenagers, they just do it. They see past all the media hype and are immediately able to ask ‘What if that was me?’ They are immediately able to say that they have had a change of perspective without a long list of justifications of why that might be. A change of perspective gives you courage and it is courage that we need right now.
I was lucky to have had the whole tour organised by a fellow storyteller who also took me from one place to the next which is just as well as I would otherwise still be driving round now. A fellow storyteller who believes in the power of story and the difference it can make. Even though we are passionate story advocates, I don’t think even we could have envisaged the difference that it made to the places we went to. Hopefully it will continue to ripple and we have plans to keep working with the schools and their projects that they have come up with.
I then went to Belgium to do a performance at another fellow storyteller’s home. The room was packed with people from as many nations as there were people. A timely reminder of the colour, language, and histories that each and every one brings with us. It was amazing, I was humbled and also strengthened by the amount of good will in that room. There are many good people in the world and it can be easy to forget when you see so many people with their heads in the sand, feeling helpless, being actively twatish. But, at the risk of sounding fluffy, love really does derail the world weary strategy of ‘well, what can I do?’ and all the other excuses being trotted out. It derails the government’s stance of hostility and whatever else is happening in this bat shit crazy world. As Justin Welby said in his new year speech: “In today’s world, hospitality and love are our most formidable weapons against hatred and extremism.”
Our other most formidable strength is to listen to people’s stories, to tell our own stories, to make connections. It is pretty much impossible to hate someone once you have heard their story. There are even tales of parents befriending the murderer of their child once they have heard their story. To reduce people to statistics, to ignore the richness of the stories that they bring is lazy. People’s stories break down all barriers that have been put up simply to divide the people. If you are not moved by a person’s story then, at a guess, I’d say there was something wrong going on. The world was moved by the photo of the little boy on the beach in his shorts and t shirt and it spurred many people into action. There have been lots of children on the beach, many thousands of people have lost their lives but people were able to connect with that one story which is representative of so many. One person’s story is easier to make that connection with and, as we say in the storytelling world, an enemy is simply someone whose story you have not yet heard…