Together/apart: digital connections in pandemic times

By Olivia Sheringham, Birkbeck, University of London

This article is reposted from the Stay Home Stories blog with permission. Read the original article.

How can mutual care, solidarity and belonging be practised and experienced through the ‘tiny windows’ of zoom? How can a relational sense of home that is created through sharing food and stories be transposed to digital platforms in pandemic times? These are some of the questions that we will be exploring as part of the ‘Stay Home’ project, and became key concerns for organisations seeking to sustain practices of care and connection in pandemic times. 

Stories & Supper is one such organisation, a refugee storytelling and supper club project, based in the London borough of Waltham Forest. Participants – including refugees, asylum seekers, migrants (status is irrelevant) and local volunteers, many of whom are migrants themselves – meet every Saturday morning for informal drama and storytelling workshops followed by a shared lunch. Alongside these workshops, Stories & Supper also organises supper clubs and street food events in which paying guests attend a dinner cooked by the Stories & Supper team and listen to stories, poems and music created and performed by refugees and asylum seekers.  

I have volunteered for Stories & Supper for the last three years, attending the weekly workshops and helping out at some of the events, as well as collaborating on Global Story Cafés – a story-sharing café project funded by Queen Mary’s Centre for Public Engagement. As I’ve suggested elsewhere and echoing the insights of colleagues who have reflected on similar themes (see e.g. Burrell and Hörschelmann 2019), these tangible spaces of shared creative practice, as well as preparing and eating food together, can stand in stark contrast to the hostile and exclusionary environment that pervades the lives of migrants and refugees in the UK and beyond. With regards to the story café project, I reflected on these as spaces of ‘quiet resistance’, whereby practices emerge that challenge mainstream narratives surrounding forced migrants, ones which invariably depict them through dominant tropes of pitiable victim or unwelcome intruder, and rarely as individuals with multi-layered stories and storylines. Indeed, one of the core aims of Stories & Supper is to provide platforms for solidarity and activism through which these dehumanising discourses can be unsettled.  

For many of those who join the weekly workshops, these spaces of creativity and sharing food have also become integral to their sense of home in the UK, a sense of home which extends far beyond their place of residence. For many of the refugee and asylum seeker participants, beyond the traumatic and painful experience of their journey, the UK’s immigration policies in recent decades – driven by a narrative of crisis and fear and culminating in the ‘hostile’ or more recently re-labeled ‘compliant’ environment – have exacerbated their experiences of isolation and marginalisation. Participation in community-based projects can thus form part of wider networks of care and connection beyond the ‘home’, which as Jupp and Bowlby (2020) argue, can be fundamental to how ‘home life may be made liveable’. 

So what happens when these spaces that are so integral to people’s weekly routines and networks of friendship and community are no longer available? And how can these networks be effectively transposed to digital platforms? What happens to the sense of intimacy and togetherness that emerges through sharing food and physical connection? These were some of the questions that Stories & Supper faced when the weekly activities had to cease following the UK’s national lockdown last March. Activities were rapidly shifted online and participants were invited to take part in weekly creative workshops digitally from their ‘home spaces’. Yet as we know, and one of the main rationale for the ‘Stay Home’ project, the national ‘Stay Home’ directive assumes that ‘home is a site of safety, equates it with the household, and inscribes it with nation- and life-saving significance’ without taking into account the multiple and deeply uneven ways in which home is experienced. Indeed, the homes in which many of the Stories & Supper participants were required to ‘stay’ were far from boundaried, comfortable, homely spaces; rather, in many cases, they were sites of discomfort, precarity and fear. The ‘stay home’ directive also assumed a simple shift to a life ‘online’, ignoring the deeply rooted digital inequalities across the UK. 

Acutely aware of these inequalities with regards to digital access and accommodation, Stories & Supper sought to develop and deliver workshops in ways that could as far as possible maintain the relations of trust, intimacy and an ethics of care that had been so integral to the face-to-face meetings. For those who needed it, a phone data subsidy was provided, and we also sent food parcels for one participant who was destitute. These workshops have continued virtually throughout the pandemic, with a brief period of meeting face-to-face during the lockdown’s easing in the autumn of 2020. Drama, storytelling and poetry workshops have been alternately led by Helen Taylor (director of Stories & Supper), local storyteller Jumana Moon, spoken word poet and activist Joelle Taylor, and the refugee theatre company Phosphoros Theatre. The workshops have been regularly attended by most of the existing participants, and some new people who live further away have joined since they have gone online.  

There is no doubt that meeting virtually cannot achieve the same sense of intimacy as face-to-face meetings and people’s varying levels of internet connection, of English and of access to a private space from which to participate were amongst some of the many challenges that virtual practice brought up. Indeed, some of the older regular participants have not attended the online workshops as they find the technology alienating. Yet online platforms have also opened up some new opportunities and possibilities. Several people have been able to participate more regularly because of not having to travel a long distance to attend workshops in person. In the poetry and storytelling workshops in particular, some people have found it easier to participate more actively through writing their thoughts and ideas in the chat function rather than feeling they have to speak out. The fact that people can turn their cameras and microphones off when they don’t feel like participating has also allowed people to remain connected without feeling obliged to be visibly there. 

Digital platforms have also opened up interesting and innovative ways to collaborate and connect. For refugee week, we developed a collaborative, polyvocal poem with Joelle Taylor  Together/Apart  which captured different experiences of lockdown as we looked out of our windows onto the street, as well as looking through the ‘tiny windows’ of zoom. We created stories about clothes, about our favourite sweet treats and, in a more recent project in collaboration with Birkbeck and Phosphoros, a collaged story about waiting, and a poem about the places we would like to visit one day and memories of the things that we have done. As the face-to-face meetings usually involve preparing and sharing food, we also co-produced a series of self-filmed cookery videos, featuring refugee/asylum seekers preparing favourite recipes. 

Coronavirus is definitely not that ‘great leveller’ as suggested through earlier pandemic narratives and the directive for all of us to ‘stay home’. But as more of life has shifted and been re-worked to ‘online’ platforms, so too have some of the relations of friendship, solidarity and trust between the Stories & Supper participants. If home-making is a dynamic, flexible and relational process, these workshops have demonstrated some of the possibilities that emerge through ‘care-full practice’ (Midgelow et al 2020) and attention to the agency of refugees and asylum seekers in taking control over their own narratives. In this way, online spaces can perhaps become integral to a multi-layered sense of home and belonging. We are all eager to meet again face-to-face as soon as we’re allowed. Yet for many Stories & Supper participants, these online experiences may have formed part of the complex and uneven patchwork of belonging and construction of home in the UK. 

I look forward to returning to some of the questions I have touched on here as part of this ‘Stay Home’ project. I  am involved in the Practising Home strand in which we will be exploring some of these multifaceted and emergent practices, spaces and meanings of home for people from a range of backgrounds and experiences in London and Liverpool.  

About the author: Dr Olivia Sheringham is a social and cultural geographer whose research interests and expertise span home, migration and belonging in urban contexts; cultural diversity and geographies of encounter; religion and migration; and creative and collaborative practice. 

Suggested further reading

Luchs, M. & Miller, E. (2014). Not so far away: a collaborative model of engaging refugee youth in the outreach of their digital stories. Area, 48, 442 – 448.

Blunt, A., Ebbensgaard, C. & Sheringham, O. (2020). The “living of time”: Entangled temporalities of home and the city. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 46, 149 – 162.

Leave a Reply or Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: