On September 16, 2008, the U.N. evacuated north Sri Lanka due to the escalating conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. I had been there for four years working as a U.N. humanitarian worker in the rural northeastern Tamil Tiger-controlled region, called the Vanni. For an aid worker, evacuating from one’s area of duty after years of working with a community is the epitome of professional failure. I returned to London only to realize that I had my own share of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Haunted by the feeling of having abandoned civilians caught between Sri Lankan government bombardments and forced recruitment by the Tamil Tigers, I sought solutions.
I decided to tell the stories of my Sri Lankan Tamil friends and colleagues. They were arriving in Europe to seek asylum as traumatized survivors of the civil war. The silence on the global stage toward the horrific human rights abuses that many like them had suffered was deafening.
As a long-term project in changing public perceptions toward those displaced and seeking new homes, I founded PositiveNegatives in 2012 with the fantastic comic book illustrator Lindsay Pollock. Since then, we have been developing projects that give a voice to people who are unable to tell their complex stories through conventional news media, especially accounts of displacement. Our aim is to relay the first-person narratives of people experiencing human rights abuses, and others who are not in a position to share their incredibly moving accounts through video because of security reasons or lack of access to locations.
I started by collecting my Tamil contacts’ horrific stories of surviving the brutal conflict, internment camps, torture and sexual violence. Forced to flee but without legal options for safe passage, they embarked on clandestine journeys using false papers and paid large sums to smugglers to transport them across continents. When they arrived at their destinations suffering from acute PTSD, they experienced high levels of stress and depression due to bureaucratic hurdles in seeking asylum.
I enrolled in a PhD at the University of Sussex and focused my thesis on the methodologies and ethics of producing a comic book, “The Vanni,” based on survivors’ stories from Sri Lanka. “The Vanni” covers the decade from 2005 to 2015 – from tsunami, to conflict, to asylum seeking.
Today, everywhere I look, stories and statistics of conflict, death counts, refugee “crises,” migrant influxes and the “othering” of those fleeing persecution have saturated media coverage, especially with the Mediterranean crossings taking center stage. Engaging audiences in conflicts and displacement crises that seem remote is challenging, especially when there appear to be no means of relating to the people in the stories.
Creating a humancentric narrative is key. We develop our comics through detailed oral histories of the displaced communities and people. We spend long periods of time embedded with the individual or community we are writing about. We try to find local artists from the region where the story is based and develop the narratives with them, while working closely with the storytellers. The comic must represent their version of the stories and not our interpretation.
Through this methodical process we have developed a series of comics that relay stories of displaced people while protecting their identities and most importantly their dignity as individuals. Some of the protagonists in our stories were trafficked for sexual exploitation, others were caught up in international drug trafficking and many others were smuggled across the world to escape persecution and even exploited through domestic servitude. All of them experienced racial, physical, domestic and sexual abuse. The stories have appeared on global media outlets and broadcasters such as the Guardian, Huffington Post and the BBC.
In tandem with producing stories for news media, we are also implementing these comics as educational resources in secondary schools in the U.K. By partnering with an NGO called Just Enough UK that educates students on modern-day slavery, we hope to use our stories to help teachers convey the personal narratives behind global media headlines. Influencing the minds of children is the best way forward, so that future generations seek to solve the root causes of forced migration instead of curbing the movement of people entering their cities and countries.
Comics are incredibly powerful educational tools that allow for greater imagination, especially among younger audiences. The intimacy and empathy that well-developed comic characters induce in readers is truly inimitable. We are able to take the audiences into spaces where documentary filmmakers and photographers often do not have access – into Syrian prisons, aboard boats crossing the Mediterranean and on journeys with Libyan smugglers. Most importantly, we are able to tap into the minds of our storytellers and the perceptions of the readers.
One of the most common responses we receive from students is that they connect with one person instead of learning about the suffering through impersonal statistics. For example, a 14-year-old student in the U.K. approached me after a presentation and commented on how she normally hears about the large number of refugees, but through our comics she had learned about an individual refugee named “Khalid” and connected with him as a person with dreams and desires, similar to her and the people in her life.
We are currently pilot testing our comic “Almaz” in schools. Almaz is the story of a young Ethiopian woman who travels to Saudi Arabia to work as a domestic maid. The physical and sexual abuse she experiences and the debt bondage she lives through harness the personal story. I met and interviewed Almaz (whose name has been changed for security reasons) at a women’s shelter in Addis Ababa, where she was seeking refuge. The classroom workshops developed from this comic will encourage students to empathize with Almaz on a personal level but also address their own responsibilities as members of the international community. Most importantly, the students will hopefully grasp the inequity of privilege and the abuse and displacement that today’s globalized economies have created.
Most recently, we launched our latest comic “Fleeing into the Unknown: A Journey from Eritrea to England” in the Huffington Post. The story was developed from research and testimonies that the Overseas Development Institute had gathered from Eritrean refugees. Our goal was to mold policy-related research into personal narratives that are relatable to a wider audience.
Academic research is often packaged in a language that is unfamiliar and intimidating to a general audience. By transforming the documentation into visually immersive narratives, we can reach audiences that would otherwise not engage with these issues. By working with media outlets, schools, universities and policy institutes, we can bring to light powerful human anecdotes that are often lost in the larger conversations on displacement and human rights.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
Top image: Tamil protesters plead with the U.N. not to evacuate in September 2008, taken from “The Vanni.” (Lindsay Pollock)