If our vocabulary dwindles to a few shopworn words, we are setting ourselves up for takeover by a dictator. When language becomes exhausted, our freedom dwindles—we cannot think; we do not recognize danger; injustice strikes us as no more than ‘the way things are.’
— Madeleine L’Engle

Worn Words, a community description

My journey in community education and research can be traced back to my doctoral studies.

At that time, I was involved in refugee support work in a local community. I was also taking courses on displacement and human movement around the world (diaspora). I noticed a gap between these two conversations and wanted to see the critical reflections of the university and the hopeful practice of refugee support workers come together. They had the potential to deepen one another’s understanding and praxis. So I ran focus groups to see what could usefully be shared between scholars and humanitarian workers. Gathering feedback from people who had experienced the refugee claim process was crucial to that project. Some of the results of this research are in a forthcoming article in Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture.

Since then, I have run community workshops with hundreds of people (mostly non-refugees, but a mix!) across Canada, the United States, and Australia to prompt conversations about the way that people are being represented in media stories about refugees. One of the things I noticed in those workshops is that two different people can use the same term (let’s say, ‘welcome’) to talk about refugee issues, but they mean very different things. I sometimes thought we were all on the same page but later realised we weren’t actually. And sometimes everyone was on the same page, just the wrong one, together misunderstanding the meaning of a word.

Overused terminology is sometimes a block to understanding. The name Worn Words, a listening project on ordinary terms and stories about forced migration, points to two things: 1. we are overusing a few words to describe very complex experiences, wearing down their usefulness, and 2. words are worn differently by different people and hearing those stories can make us curious again. So I am interviewing people with expertise in refugee research, in refugee support, in refugee advocacy, and in refugee narration (authors or artists), and I am asking them questions about the English words we use in Canada to talk about refugee policy and our refugee claim system. Most of the interviewees have also experienced displacement of some kind or another. Out of the interview footage I am producing online videos that anyone with internet access can watch and workshops that any group can download and run. My hopes are 1. that these videos can prompt deeper, more informed community conversations, 2. that the definitions of words, which some of us take for granted, will gain new meaning and make us curious again, 3. that the corner of the world I live in will care to listen for how we can care for one another better.

My current research is out of the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. I do this work in consultation with refugee claimant support and advocacy organizations in Vancouver. Funding comes from the national research funding council (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) and from a donor-directed fund at Vancouver Foundation. Kirsten McAllister is the faculty sponsor, Flick Harrison is the videographer, and numerous others have given design feedback or been interviewed. The official title of the project is “Digital Storytelling as a Method for Critical Dialogue on Refugees in Canada.”

If you would like to participate in the project or are interested in hosting a workshop, please contact egoheeng@sfu.ca.