This blog is an edited conversation between Mey and Rachel Rosen, from the research team that produced Stories too big for a case file, and Nelli Stavropoulou, Producer of Moving Worlds for Refugee Week.
Nelli: Thank you both for joining us today and for sharing your important film with our ‘Moving Worlds’ community. Could you tell us about yourself and your involvement in the film?
Mey: My name is Mey, and I’m from Somalia. I came to the UK almost 5 years ago. I came here as an unaccompanied minor when I was 16. Now, I’m a college student taking aviation. I am involved in this film because I have been involved in the research project Children Caring on the Move (CCoM). Our research is about young unaccompanied minors going through the system and how the Home Office, social workers, and foster carers treat these young people. The research was interviewing different young people from different backgrounds to see how they find the system and hear about their different experiences of the system. We collect the data – this is the meaning of research – so we can analyse what we hear and hopefully come to conclusions to change things.
Rachel: My name is Rachel, and I am from Canada originally. I have been in the UK for 12 years now, which feels strange to say! I am an Associate Professor at University College London. I’m co-leading the CCoM project with Professor Sarah Crafter at the Open University, which – as Mey said – is the basis for our film Stories too big for a case file. One of the things we have talked about in our research is the experiences unaccompanied young people have with the system, but also the relationships of care that they have with others. We are really interested in the ways unaccompanied young people care for others – both because they want to but also because of the gaps and hostility of a system that is meant to care but often doesn’t. Our research is participatory, which means that we have been working as a team of 8 Young Researchers with migration experiences and 4 university-based researchers to design and carry out the research.
Mey: Like me, I was an asylum seeker and now I am a refugee. I’ve been through the system myself, and I’ve seen how it goes. This is what encourages me to put myself out there to do the research and the film. I am involved in this film to make change for unaccompanied minors and people going through the system. I want them to receive the message so they can know their rights and know there were people before them and whatever they are going through will pass. We want to make them feel included. We want to make things better in the future, so they don’t have to experience what we’ve experienced or what we’ve been through in the system.
Rachel: With the film, we thought together as a team about what we were learning from the research and what we wanted to say with the film. One of the things we’ve been talking about is that each young person’s story is unique and different, yet at the same time many of the stories we’ve heard are about similar barriers, challenges, and hostility. We’ve analysed how these experiences are part of a whole system that is meant to care, support, and offer asylum to those who need it, but often is a significant source of the problems facing unaccompanied young people. This individual diversity and the complex stories each person have, that are ‘too big’ for a Home Office or social services case file, as well as structural injustices which unaccompanied young people face, were what we wanted to share in the film.
Nelli: What did you originally hope the film would achieve? Has the outcome confirmed your original expectations or surprised you in any way?
Mey: We wanted the film to go out there so that professionals can see and can use it through social worker and foster carer training, even the Home Office although I’m not sure that they have training! We wanted them to see what unaccompanied young people are going through, the struggles, and what they can hopefully change to make us feel better and make us feel included. Sometimes you feel because you are a refugee and asylum seeker that you are not included in the society and the community. In a positive note we have achieved that – that’s our goal anyway. And people are asking for the film and wanting to use it. So, we hope we’ll get there! One step at a time. I’m sure other people have seen it because it is on social media, and we’ve shown it to other charity groups for unaccompanied young people to give them courage to go and have their voice be heard.
Rachel: I think for me that’s one of the most surprising and wonderful aspects of the film: when we’ve gone and shared it with other unaccompanied young people. The response has been so powerful, and the film seems to really resonate in the sense that young people recognise their own experience in the film. It rings true. They have also added new layers of understanding as they speak about their own stories after watching the film. For example, one young person commented on being surprised that other young people have been able to make complaints to social services managers. They said, ‘I don’t even know who to speak to!’ We had a really good conversation about how little evaluation and accountability there is of many of the accommodations where young people are placed, and the importance and difficulties of struggling against injustices. Other young people have said: you forget to include x or y! The film seems to really stimulate important conversations.
Mey: Exactly. Because every young person has a different experience. We’ve given them a chance to speak with us in the research and be heard. We have told young people not to be scared – they will be anonymous. No one will know it is them. And it is their choice to say anything they want, but only if they want to.
Rachel: And the stories together in the research and the film are so powerful. So, when we’ve shared the film, people who are new to the issues also really respond. They’ve asked: ‘What can we do to change the situation facing unaccompanied young people in the UK? What can we individually and together?’
Mey: And for our first film, to have so many great comments and excellent feedback is just great. For me, I am so proud of us!
Nelli: What has been the most important learning moment as part of working co-collaboratively and engaging in dialogue as part of the research process?
Mey: Learning myself, as a person. When I started doing interviews with other young people, I was worried. My gosh, the patience, that strength that is needed. Through this process, I’ve learned that I am patient, and I am strong. Because sometimes, you can do an interview and you feel low yourself and think ‘Oh I don’t want to hear this. It is hard for me.’ But you want to be there for that young person and let them keep talking. So for us, because we decided to make this change, so you have to take the cockpit. You have to be strong to save other people on board. So, you have to stand as a captain, even if you yourself are going through hard things. If you feel low doing an interview, and a young person is not feeling confident or comfortable, and you say ‘oh, I don’t want to hear this’, then you kind of dishearten them. So, you kind of have to overcome that fear. And for us, we keep doing interviews so it is getting better and better. For myself, it’s been beneficial for me to understand how strong I am, how I am capable of being strong enough to hear the sadness and stuff like that.
Rachel: I have seen that too. I am in awe of how strong our team is – individual members but also the research team together. I can really see that in our team meetings when we dialogue about ideas and debate next steps. We don’t always agree, but that’s ok because we talk through things in a really thoughtful and respectful way. I think it makes what we do to move forward better and more united. I also love our interviews, which are led by Young Researchers with a university-based researcher as a partner. There is so much care, advice, and support that you and other Young Researchers on the team have shown to participants. It’s made me change how I want to do interviews in the future!
Nelli: In your opinion, how does the film relate to this year’s Refugee Week theme of ‘healing’?
Mey: Our film shows other unaccompanied young people that they are not on their own. It shows: ‘there are people who can support you and help you to go through struggles and hardship’. I don’t know if this links to ‘healing’. Maybe a link is that the film gives a sense to unaccompanied young people that we are here with you on the journey through your healing process.
Rachel: That’s an interesting idea. I mean our film doesn’t show the images of young people. It looks outward, at the places where young people spend their time, the structures that entrap and harm, as well as spaces of strength, care, hope and solidarity. We wanted to portray unaccompanied young people as the protagonists of the film, while inviting the viewer to walk alongside them. I always remember, Mey, when you said to a participant one day: ‘I can’t walk in your shoes, remember?’ I’ve kept that in my mind because we can never know exactly what a person is thinking or feeling, and it is quite harmful to think we do because we stop listening. Maybe, like you say, the film offers a sense of accompanying, of being together in something, which is an important part of care and I suppose healing. One thing that I think is important is that many of the things unaccompanied young people are ‘healing’ from are not (only) experience from the past or harms endured elsewhere. One of the young people I interviewed said, ‘My Home Office interview was like having a Band-Aid ripped off a sore over and over.’ I thought that was a powerful way of expressing the idea that the hostile immigration environment in the UK not only does not allow for healing but it causes new hardships.
Mey: Yes, and I think that with our research project we don’t want young people to experience this now or in the future. Rather than people having their Band-Aid ripped off again and again, we are trying to stop that. We are trying to make change.
Nelli: What do you hope viewers will take away from watching Stories Too Big for a Case File?
Mey: Learning really. Not everyone understands what unaccompanied young migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees are really going through and how the process works. At the end of the day, we might come from different backgrounds, different countries, different languages, but we are all human, we are all the same.
Rachel: I think that’s important because one of the things that really strikes me in the film is how the system dehumanises people. That’s something we’ve talked about a lot in the research. Young people have told us they have their language, their age, and their country is stolen from them in welfare and immigration systems. Others have told us they are treated as though they are worthless or don’t matter. Our team have talked about how important it is to challenge this situation. I’ve always thought about change-oriented research as being able to aid pro-migrant activism. I’ve also learned from our research team and participants that another way to challenge the hostile environment is finding new ways to care for each other and be together in solidarity. Despite the exclusionary, racist and dehumanising aspects of the system, I have witnessed so many brilliant examples of people caring for each other and looking out for others – walking forward together like you said before.
Nelli: Thank you so much for sharing with us today your experiences and thoughts. Anything else you’d like us to know?
Mey: We are on the way to achieve our dreams to make change for the better, for the future, so other unaccompanied young people don’t experience the same things in the system.
Rachel: That shouldn’t have to be something that only migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees work on, but something that everyone works towards!
Mey: Sharing our research and the film is a big part of that. Even if you are a person who has never been through this situation or you never had to experience it – what can you do, and what can we do, now that you have seen this film and heard these young people’s voices?