Global Development Institute Blog

Tess Hartland is a PhD researcher in Sociology, and a member of Manchester Urban Ageing Research Group. Her research focuses on experiences of ageing among refugees and asylum seekers living in Greater Manchester. Here, she reflects on the creation of Echoes of Displacement, a co-produced comic developed from her research.

Tess with (from L to R) Dr Patty Doran, Prof Tine Buffel, Lindsay Pollock and Prof Tanja Bastia

I embarked on the 2nd year of my PhD feeling nervous and excited to begin my fieldwork, curious to see how the narrative and co-productive methods I had proposed would fare. Volunteering among the local refugee and asylum-seeking community in my 1st year proved essential. Without building these foundations, it would not have been possible to develop the trust required for people to share their story with me. As time went on, I was in awe of how those I interviewed shared their life experiences so candidly. The hundreds of pages of transcripts held so much meaning and emotion. How was I ever going to do their stories justice, and not let them be buried among the rest?

My supervisors and I brainstormed ideas and, after sharing suggestions with participants and community gatekeepers, we landed on a comic. It checked all the boxes by preserving the narrative nature of the interviews, conveying emotion, communicating research in an engaging way, and providing a tangible output for our participants to feel proud of. So, I began the search for an artist, scouring the web for someone with some sort of experience in communicating humanitarian stories and/or research in a creative way. I finally stumbled across Lindsay Pollock – I couldn’t have been luckier; he had previously worked on projects such as A Perilous Journey and was keen to be involved in the whole project, from the creation of the storyline to the launch event. As I had never undertaken a project like this before, he was ideal.

Channelling inspiration from academics such as Gemma Sou, Lindsay and I ran two co-production workshops to ensure those with a lived experience led the development of the storyline and imagery. I have so much gratitude for RAPAR and Manchester City of Sanctuary who really made this possible. Alongside the themes identified from the life story interviews, we were led to one of the most pivotal moments in the life of someone seeking sanctuary: the Home Office decision on their asylum application. This dictates the future of peoples’ lives, and for those still waiting, moments of hope seem more fleeting with each passing day. So, during the workshops, we were guided, somewhat tumultuously, through the emotions, practicalities and encounters faced during this experience. For those in mid-later life, the inability to rebuild the life they had lost, including family, housing, employment, and any autonomy over their daily lives, felt especially heart-breaking.

After months of careful illustration (by Lindsay), fact-checking, (re)drafting the storyline and last-minute fine-tuning we did it, Echoes of Displacement was good to go. I felt incredibly apprehensive about sending it to the printers. How would it be received; would participants feel heard? Would all of the resources thrown at the project be worth it? Am I doing the incredibly moving stories I heard justice?

Alongside the creation of the comic itself, we felt it important to have a launch event to thank everyone involved and have a moment for celebration. It would also provide an opportunity to bring together unlikely groups including academics, civil society organisations, members of the refugee and asylum-seeking community and the general public. The People’s History Museum, itself inspiring equality, justice and co-operation, was a perfect location.

People gather in the Engine Hall at People’s History Museum for the launch of Echoes of Displacement

People gather in the Engine Hall at People’s History Museum for the launch of Echoes of Displacement

And so, on a sunny (and showery – it is Manchester after all) afternoon in June, Refugee Week 2023 proved a fitting occasion to launch Echoes of Displacement: a collective story of growing older and seeking sanctuary in Manchester. Arriving to delicious food from Open Kitchen, around 50 people joined us in the magnificent Engine Hall to celebrate. Among them were many from the refugee community, the charities we collaborated with (RAPAR, Manchester City of Sanctuary and Rethink Rebuild Society) and colleagues from the University of Manchester. The joy and warmth felt in the room culminated in a moving performance from The Voices of Hope Choir  – comprised of people who have sought sanctuary in Manchester. The singing continued, as a woman (who herself had contributed to our research) spontaneously asked for a microphone before beautifully performing a gospel song, exuding resilience, hope, and strength. It was the perfect note on which to close a successful event.

I am overwhelmed by the positive response to the comic, by both those already fully versed in the experiences of forced displacement, and those who have never contemplated the subject before. Comments such as “it communicates emotion in a way a research paper can’t”, “this makes people see others” and “[the comic] represents marginalised people” demonstrate how powerful methods such as these can be.

I really hope that through the comic, we can help to raise awareness of the refugee experience and contradict the hostility that dominates media and politics. As I write this, I hear the brilliant news that Manchester City Council voted unanimously to becoming a Local Authority of Sanctuary. There is still a long way to go, but there is certainly mounting support for compassion, inclusivity and solidarity to forefront the refugee response.

While my PhD is only at the halfway point, this project indicates that bridging the gap between academia and the outside world is not only possible but should be an integral part of any research project.  I recognise this project by no means represents the experiences of all mid-later life refugees and asylum seekers in Manchester, but I feel proud to have contributed a platform for seldom heard voices to be raised and valuable experiences to be shared.

Tess’ supervisors are Prof. Tine Buffel (MICRA), Prof. Tanja Bastia (GDI) and Dr. Patty Doran (MICRA). Tess’ research is funded by The Leverhulme Trust, and she additionally received funding from the School of Social Sciences and SEED Social Responsibility Fund   to make this project possible.

If you have any questions about Tess’ research or would like to be sent a hard copy of the comic, please contact her here: Tess Hartland

Top image: Echoes of Displacement on display at Manchester Central Library during Refugee Week 2023

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.