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  • Writer's pictureKiran Kaur

Co-Acting with Refugee Women

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

What does it mean to work together with refugee women, and other forced migrants, as equal partners? This was a subject myself, Paul Dudman over at the Living Refugee Archive and the refugee participants spent a lot of time discussing during our joint project to produce the Special Issue: Their Own Voices for the Displaced Voices Journal.

Following, the publication of the issue I was invited to present in a Webinar Seminar Series organised by the Gender Studies Programme, Universiti Malaya and the CHCI Global Humanities Institute 2020-202: Migration, Global Logistics and Unequal Citizens. In spirit with the co-written special issue, I invited Naima Ismail to present with me. You can listen to our talk at the following link:

So, why co-action and not participation?; Listening to Engage and Listening to Extract

When planning this presentation, Naima and I discussed what was the core of the message we wanted to communicate. We could have simply done a spoken version of her article and an explanation of how we co-wrote the special issue. However, what we felt was more important was our relationship and how we had developed a way of acting together.

When we had first met Naima reflected how actually she had not wanted to work with me. For the simple reason, that she did not know and trust me, and she had a lot of researchers wishing to connect with her. Most of her experience with researchers had left her feeling that the research would not necessarily be worth the investment of her time. She felt she could rarely see a positive outcome of the research. Nor was there any sense of investment into her, her organisation or the women in her community. This meant it took a long time for me to develop trust during the fieldwork and again after I left Malaysia.

In the presentation she notes: "researchers often do not explain how or even if their research goals match our community’s goals and needs. What is more, it seems to me that sometimes researchers do not respect our knowledge or experience of already knowing research practices. It has happened to me before that researchers contact me for conducting research, but when I ask for the consent forms and their research goals, they stop contact. I then discover they have connected with other community members who do not ask these questions. They are more vulnerable and easy to take advantage of. "

Naima Ismail

We frequently discussed the idea that researchers in listening to refugee stories were listening for their own purposes, driven by needs and requirements of their research project. She felt they were not necessarily listening to engage with her, learn from her or about her story or community. Even when only interviewing and following ethical procedures, she still felt the processes of research were extractive. What changed her mind to work with me, (so she told me) was that I was quietly persistent and happy to change how we interacted for the research project. I created a training aspect that I (re-)adapted for her, in accordance to what she needed. This approach and the fact I didn't disappear as soon as I had the data, allowed her to gain trust.

Over the past few years since my fieldwork in Malaysia I’ve tried to find ways to keep connected with the refugee communities. Even if we could not find a basis to work together, we kept talking. As time has been going on, I build partnerships to find platform to create small scale projects with the communities. In these projects, for example with the Living Refugee Archive, we tried to build a collaborative, and what I later termed a co-action approach.

But, lets back up for a moment to understand how I went from 'participation' to the term 'co-action'.

In my own research project, I used a participatory action research approach (PAR). Under this approach, communities become active agents in the research process. Active in how they connect with research and how they create transformative change. Often marginalised groups have little space to have a voice in the public space in the media or at policy-level. The aim of participatory action is to include marginalised people in not only the research but also to contribute to public debate or spaces where decisions are made that impact them. For me, in my own research this mean taking a community's voices as a starting point and to work with them through a participatory action research to understand their needs, skills, talents and hopes. I learnt PAR starts and ends (then restarts) with the engagement of people. So much like Naima I too see the basis of any research connection to community being one that focuses on engagement as a priority.

However, I came to realise my PAR project was still, by and large, driven by my own research goals and needs. Whilst I had created space within that project to listen and adapt the project, the project itself was not driven by the community. The initiating steps were mine. When speaking the the Living Refugee Archive on potential projects, we decided we needed to feed into grounded projects that the refugee communities were already enacting. We wanted to move beyond participatory approach to research to look at how we could support community-driven initiatives. Further, to consider how research communication (publication in this case) could be an action to support the communities' voices. By research communication, or dissemination, I mean the ways in which researchers make public or visible the outputs of their research. I was in the process of this and when considering the PAR values I had tried to find ways to reconnect with the community and share my ideas and findings. Originally, I had always considered research communication to be limited to the publication or presentation of my own research findings. But what I have been slowly coming to realise is more important than the findings of my research, was the collaborative platform I had been building with the participants. This space for collaboration allowed them to connect with me with their ideas and proposals for joint projects. This is what I came to term as co-action.

To get to the point of co-action is a long process, we need to first listen, connect and allow space for their voices before we can start acting. In coming to understand this as a concept we could use for our project, the first important lesson I had to learn is that we cannot give anyone a voice. Refugees and asylum seekers, already have a voice. The best we can do is allow space for those on the margins to speak and actively listen as they share their experience. When working with the Living Refugee Archive, we tried to remember this and that sharing experiences allows the possibility for collective action. But we also realised cannot expect to place the burden for change on the most marginalised alone. Instead, we need to be proactive to find ways to listen. Researchers and activists cannot give a voice. But we can act to provide space for and support voices, narratives and creativities.

Co-Acting as Co-Writing and Co-Presenting

It was for this reason in the special issue we explore what inclusive publishing, i.e. co-writing with participants in research, might look like. In order for both the co-writing and co-presenting to be impactful and effective, I had to pull together short trainings and find ways to support their voices. I used my skills in academic writing and communication in science to support the women to write what they wished to write about – their perspectives, their challenges and their personal journeys. We worked with them to help provide better structure to their writing, help shape their ideas and find ways to better communicate what their message was.

What were the issues faced by the women? What experiences did she have to show and illustrate her message? What was it that she really wanted to say to the audience?

And together, slowly we worked our way through these same questions in the presentation as well. So, continuing in the idea of the co-acting we felt it was best to include Naima in the presentation to the Gender Studies webinar and give her space to communicate her perspective of working with researchers and what means for her and her community. By co-presenting and having Naima's voice next to my own in an academic format, allows her voice space that is often neglected. Naima is here for the first time allowed to reflect on her experiences as a refugee working with researchers in what is traditionally at least an academic only space. I think this is important allows for the communication of research to become a true lived dialogue.

In order to prepare Naima for this, I taught her four short sessions on giving academic presentations, namely: using structure, having style in your voice, giving visual impact, and finally practice. In these sessions, I drew on the years of academic skills training I had given to students in bachelors and masters programmes. In adapting this training for Naima, I did not grade 'down' the subject of the material. Instead I opened it up to create space for her experience and needs, and reached the same learning objectives. Naima was already a confident and professional speaker, so we used these sessions were mostly practice with a specific goal in mind related to her message and voice. Often she would speak and I would write down her ideas for her and we would then recap together to reword and re-edit until she felt it best communicated her ideas. Often I would shorted or paraphrase her words and then we would play around with the words until felt like something she felt was right. The presentation was co-written but it was her ideas and message. Simply this process involved some ‘teaching’ but mostly asking questions and listening deeply.

Visibility, Vulnerability and Value

Another note that should be mentioned, (but to be explored in a later blog) is that there is a burden placed on communities. I noticed in the presentation there was a heavy emphasis on Naima and her message. This was of course as intended, but it also placed her in potentially a vulnerable position having to answer questions that she may not feel comfortable to answer or having a scrutiny on her personal status that is uncomfortable. There is as always a question of safety. Prior to the presentation we developed a code (basically my name). If she felt uncomfortable she would simply ask me to speak. This helped shift some of the stress in the moment. However, the question of visibility and subsequent vulnerability remains.

In any case, the co-acting approach has not been without its challenges on the behalf of the researcher, especially PhD researchers. There is as always a demand on time, patience and personal resources. Often this style of publications, events and outputs are not valued within academia in terms of our career progressions. We’ve all heard the phrase publish or perish. But publishing with communities...Does this count as a high impact publication? I may find people, academics and organisations, willing with listen to the refugee participants I wish to collaborate with, but will my own voice be taken seriously? Will the hard work and my own voice in developing the co-active approach, as I have done, be valued and recognised?

So there is a frustration when it feels as though there little impact in terms of our careers or even support within departments to conduct this form of engagement. For early career researchers communicating research and engaging with communities is a daunting prospect. This is no less true for myself. Yet, finding methods to re-connect with participants and find ways to communicate together on their terms has also been a rewarding experience. I've learnt more as researcher in these collaborations than I have from any of source. I asked a final question in my presentation, which we did not have the time to explore in the discussion, so I will leave this blog with the same question;

What can academia and universities themselves do to valorise and support co-action between (early career) researchers and communities?

You can listen to our talk at the following link: Co-Acting with Refugee Women.

To cite any information or ideas from this blog:

Kaur, K. (2021) Co-acting with refugee women, Kirandeep-Kaur, 20th April 2021 available at: (access date).


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