Refugees, resettlement and our communities: Why does it matter to conduct research in Arabic?

Welcome in Arabic language
'Welcome' in Arabic language

You are an Arabic speaker, well are you interested in undertaking research in Arabic with refugees?” This was the start of an exciting project for me. Over 10 years, I have been conducting research on vulnerabilities, planning, communities and social inequalities. I never embarked on research in my mother tongue and never with refugees. I was excited that this pioneering research would have a direct impact on the sponsored refugees and help the sponsoring groups to better understand refugee families, their hopes and aspirations as well as their concerns and fears.

There are many different dialects of spoken Arabic, my Egyptian colloquial Arabic is quite widely understood within Arab speakers in the Middle East. Before conducting my first ever interview two years ago, I wondered who these refugees were. To me, they were the refugees we saw on the news, escaping on boats and surviving inhumane conditions in camps and shelters. I also knew little about sponsorship groups and how their enthusiasm, empathy, activism, and persistence drive the success of the Community Sponsorship Scheme supporting refugee resettlement in the UK. Learning about refugees’ journeys and their gratitude towards their sponsor groups for their continuous support was an emotional and unique experience. During the interviews, which were all conducted in Arabic, I was amazed by both the hospitality and rich information the participants shared with me. Ultimately, I was overwhelmed with the idea that this “could have been me”. Perhaps, because we shared the same language or perhaps because of the extraordinarily 'normal' lives families lead before conflict. They had secure jobs, homes and loving families and friends, dreams and aspirations, all of which they lost during the conflict in 2011. They suddenly became refugees.

Throughout more than 60 remarkable interviews, respondents revealed to me details of their experiences during flight from the conflict zone, their expectations about life in the UK and their arrival journey. They recalled the warm welcome of their sponsor groups’ and their settling down experiences. They described to me their daily life situations in their new homes and communities. Moreover, they discussed their first steps in integration, the support they were given and challenges they faced learning the English language. It was very revealing to learn about their experiences in Arabic. They explained details never shared before sometimes with their closest family members and issues they could not translate to their sponsors. Overwhelmed by the help the volunteers and sponsor groups provide them every day, sometimes the respondents felt reluctant to raise concerns about experiences and difficult relationships upon their arrival. They avoid asking for help around some matters because they do not wish to become a burden to their sponsors. However, they always seemed happy to share concerns as well as positive experiences with me without the language or mediator barrier. I felt overwhelmed with responsibility to make their voices heard and the challenge of interpreting the meanings of what they shared.

The bigger task in this research journey was the challenge of interpretation of meanings. Language is used to express meaning but also language influences how meaning is created and understood. For example, many of those interviewed needed to express their experiences and frequently used narratives and metaphors which capture the richness of experience using Arabic. However, metaphors differ from culture to culture and are indeed very much specific to the language. Language does not only influence what can be expressed but also shapes our realities and how we experience the world. Many refugees framed this perfectly, stating that they needed to think in English in order to express the meaning they wanted to communicate. Perhaps, to me, one of the biggest challenges was to interpret the meaning behind these stories and metaphors. As part of a multi-national team of researchers I was responsible for clarifying what interviewees had shared and then relaying this interpretation in English for the research team to design analysis and synthesis. Hence, my task was not only to understand and report findings from the interviews but also to validate my research by making sure that the distance between the meanings as experienced by the refugees and those interpreted in the findings are as close as possible. Thinking and reflection processes by our multi-national research team needed innovation where discussions primarily benefitted from using descriptions to meanings rather than a word for word translation.

Many lessons were learnt throughout this staggering research journey, which required not only my research skills but also my language and personal skills. I am honoured to have been part of the research team undertaking this study and eternally grateful to the kindness and hospitality of both the participant refugees and their sponsor groups. You can read my report at http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/refugeesoncommunitysponsorship. I hope that the information I have relayed does justice to that shared and provides much needed insight into the experience of refugees coming to the UK under the Community Sponsorship Scheme.

Blog written by Dr Sara Hassan, Community Sponsorship Evaluation Researcher, University of Birmingham.

Read more about the Community Sponsorship Evaluation in the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS).