The Active Citizens Archive

In this piece, Tom Western introduces The Active Citizens Archive, a project of the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum (SGYF) that ‘reclaims vocabularies of integration and political inclusion, aiming to disrupt the moral authority of NGOs to speak on behalf of those who have crossed borders.’ The Archive records and archives ‘sound, activisms, citizenship practices, encounters, inclusion activities, and everyday life’ that can be used to assert the agency and activism of refugees and a (collective) resistance to ‘asylum regimes, racialized persecution and border politics.’ In so doing it resists reductive narratives of ‘refugeeness’ and, in line with the Southern Responses to Displacement project aims recognises the agency of displaced populations as humanitarian actors rather than merely as humanitarian subjects.’ Tom goes on to argue the archive enables Syrian refugees and Greek citizens to perform, protest and ultimately remake citizenship as something that is ‘emergent and iterative’ rather than the static and dominant tropes of ‘refugee crisis.’ In so doing it also speaks to the Southern Responses to Displacement project’s aim to ‘develop a new conceptualisation of humanitarian history, theory and practiceand centralise refugees experiences and conceptualisations.

This post was originally published on the Refugee Hosts website here.


by Tom Western, University College London / The Syrian and Greek Youth Forum

‘We encourage our team, always: act how you act in the dabke. Be together, on one line. Everyone act as one body and support the one next to you’.

Wael Habbal, The Syrian and Greek Youth Forum, al’athinioun / الاثينيون

In her book, Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, Sujatha Fernandes highlights the need for ‘autonomous collective spaces of resistance that can forge new representations’. She calls for ‘dissident narratives’: in order to escape limiting and unhelpful narrative frames, we need to shift to creative storytelling projects showcasing solidarities and activisms, stories grounded in collective movements and everyday struggle, against the spectacle of borderscapes and ‘crisis’. She asks for spaces that allow people to be more than storytellers, but demand a seat at the negotiating table.

Enough with the empire of trauma! A critical mass of articles and incendiaries, reflections and rallying cries, has skewered the notion that refugee storytelling is somehow inherently useful, and that ‘giving voice’ is a benevolent practice – especially when these practices are predicated only on tragic tropes, and silence people as critical and active(ist) subjects (see examples that critique refugee voicesstoriescommodifications, the representation industry and the refugee machine). Enough with coverage that constructs people crossing borders as a state of emergency. Enough with reductive prototypes of flight, suffering, and refugeeness. In which complexities, creativities, histories, humour, ambiguities, and political struggles go missing. In which agency is perpetually denied.

This short piece of writing is to announce the Active Citizens Sound Archive, a project of the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum (SGYF). I write both as an academic researcher and as a core team member of SGYF, having been invited to join in early 2019. The Syrian and Greek Youth Forum is an activist collective based in Athens. We are focussed on community-building activities, providing pathways to employment, and contributing to and participating in research to find and implement sustainable solutions for an inclusive society. We work in solidarity and collaboration with other migrant and minority organisations and communities to become active citizens in Greek society.

Our activities centre on a series of programmes and projects to achieve these goals – one of which is a sound recording programme, running since spring 2019. Through a series of workshops, we are thinking about the city and citizenship, using sound as a heuristic and a catalyst for narration. We are earwitnessing the current moment in political history. Recording activisms, citizenship practices, encounters, inclusion activities, and everyday life. We are sharing skills of editing and mixing so that the team and the community in Athens has the ability – the power – to produce its own media.

The Active Citizens Sound Archive is a multilingual archive of solidarities and collaborations, of diversities and possibilities. It contains performances, protests, songs, speeches, plans, dreams. The name speaks to new identities and emergent citizenships. It reclaims vocabularies of integration and political inclusion, aiming to disrupt the moral authority of NGOs to speak on behalf of those who have crossed borders. And it unsettles ‘passportist’ understandings of citizenship dictated by states, instead highlighting the efforts to carve out and voice subject positions worth inhabiting.

‘Loudspeaker and bread’ Syrian and Greek Youth Forum (2019).

Take, for example, a radio programme that we made and is now housed in the archive, in which we discuss being and belonging in Athens, resisting the label of ‘refugee’ and instead becoming citizens. We called it al’athinioun – Arabic for ‘Athenians’. The programme showcases an array of audible activisms, and it opens a series of rights: the right to the city, the right to narrate the city. These ideas speak to what Asef Bayat calls the art of presence: ‘the courage and creativity to assert collective will in spite of all odds, to circumvent constraints, utilising what is available and discovering new spaces within which to make oneself heard, seen, felt, and realised’.

Another example. The song ‘Huriye’ (‘Freedom’), which the SGYF team wrote to describe the situation in Greece. In this song we hear a musical activism in which the community’s perspectives and politics are made audible. We hear agency and creativity and resistance. We hear the backdrop of war and the struggle for freedom. Musical performance and the struggle for political rights are indivisible, with each constantly opening and folding into the other. The border spectacle that marks this moment in political history is remade and creatively transformed into an anti-border spectacle of musical performance in the city.

Sound is a tool of asserting belonging in the face of asylum regimes, racialised persecution, and border politics that play out in urban space. People improvise festivities through song and music and oral performance cultures that produce new socialities; learn and adapt the Greek language to open and rearticulate ideas of national identity; vocalise injustice through protest and find common cause with broader urban struggles. Musicians come together in performance, finding the same melodies across different cultures, swapping verses in Greek and Arabic. The swooping and stomping of dabke is ever-present, echoing what Shayna Silverstein describes as the dance’s development as a ‘performance technique that embodied collective resistance against the state’ through the Syrian revolution.

On one level, this is a matter of hearing how people perform and protest citizenship, and how citizenship itself is remade as something emergent and iterative, something adaptive and activist, something disruptive and creative. The archive is a storehouse and an amplifier of these creativities – not just creativities in the sense of the performing arts, but the creativities that are a necessary part of everyday life. On another level, it is about distorting the dominant tropes of ‘refugee crisis’, echoing Arundhati Roy’s call for the need to ‘reclaim the space of civil disobedience … to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of crisis reportage’ through ‘our experience, our imagination, and our art’. In both cases, this work comes from what I think of as activist lessons: things I’ve learnt from my Syrian colleagues who tell me that life as they experience it is very different from life as it is reported by the media – who tell me that we have a responsibility to record what is happening in Athens: both to try and fix damaging narratives about refugees, and to spread word of the situation from within.

To return to where I started, Fernandes argues that ‘we need to reclaim storytelling as a craft that allows for the fullness and complexity of experience to be expressed and which seeks to transform rather than reproduce global hierarchies and structures of power through movements for social change’. The Active Citizens Sound Archive aims to contribute to this movement, acting as a space for transformation as much as representation, unmaking borders between citizens and noncitizens, between refugees and hosts.


If you found this post of interest you may like to access Refugee Hosts Conference Archive in which Tom Western presents his research, or access the list of recommended reading below:

Antonopoulou, A. (2017) ‘The Virtual Reality of the Refugee Experience’

Blachnicka-Ciacek, D. (2017) ‘Refugees Present/Absent. Escaping the Traps of Refugee (Mis)representation’

Carpi, E.  2018 In conversation with the Kahkaha project in Lebanon: an effective example of a Southern-led initiative.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring refugees’ conceptualisations of Southern-led humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Refugee-Refugee Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Internationalism and Solidarity

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Shadows and Echoes In/Of Displacement

Harsch, L. (2018) ‘Giving Refugees a Voice? Looking Beyond ‘Refugee Stories”

Karimi, S. A. Kurdi, M. S. Sourmelis, G. Western, T. Zafeiriou, S. ΤΣΣΣΣ ΤΣΣΣ ΤΣΣ ΣΣΣ – Summer in Athens: A Sound Essay

Oliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement

Wagner, A. (2018) “There are no missionaries here!” – How a local church took the lead in the refugee response in northern Jordan

Featured Image:  ‘A social gathering hosted by SGYF’ (c) Syrian and Greek Youth Forum (2019). 

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