Refugee Radio is a weekly radio programme that stands against the victimisation of refugees in the media. Broadcast on local FM and internet stations, its mission is to provide a platform for refugees to produce and tell their own stories.
Founder Stephen Silverwood explained how the organisation started purely by chance while he was running a pirate radio show in his spare time. A refugee friend happened to be around to join him on the show one evening, and the idea was born.
The participant in question was Heval Akram - a Kurdish refugee from Syria - now a trustee of the charity and musician for the Refugee Radio Orchestra. He prompted a discussion with Stephen about the media representation of refugees in the UK and the public response to such provocative tabloid headlines as, 'Asylum Seekers Attack Britain'.
“Eventually the penny dropped that this was an opportunity for some counter-propaganda,” said Stephen. Heval's first appearance on air also marked the beginning of the Refugee Radio format. He played some of his own records, and the show naturally developed into a take on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, in which celebrity guests choose the records they would take if stranded on a desert island.
The Refugee Radio version, however, sees the guests actually stranded on an island (albeit a cold and wet one): the UK. They play and talk about the records they brought with them from back home. The format stuck as an effective way to get people talking and share their culture. “It's quite a thing to sit down with somebody and say 'tell me your life story',” said Stephen. “So the music felt like a good hook to hang it off as an easy way to get people to loosen up and talk about themselves.”
Soon after the show with Heval, Stephen registered Refugee Radio as a charity. With a small grant from the Big Lottery Awards For All, he continued the programmes and sought broadcasting on legitimate stations. The show has been going for about 6 years in its current form, not to mention a few more on underground radio. Programmes and podcasts are produced on a regular basis, and are now complemented by numerous gigs and events, involvement with Refugee Week, and various arts projects. An additional project the charity has developed is the Community Resilience Project, which focuses on support and stigma around mental health issues. “We are trying to reach out to educate the refugee community around Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Stephen. “It's a huge problem in the refugee community, but although 40-50% of people have had it, nobody's ever heard of it.” The original mission, however, continues to be the crux of the organisation. Refugee Radio mentors refugees to help them write and publish their stories, own and take part in and produce the radio shows.
Morris, a refugee of five years from Uganda, has just started volunteering with the organisation and dreams of being a radio interviewer. He described who he hopes to interview: “Vulnerable people, people in my situation... To talk with them and to encourage them”. He added: “I think it's important to know about my culture or my country's culture, and for me to know other people's culture as well.” Farah, a refugee from Iran has been working on various radio projects including Refugee Radio for over five years. She was stranded in the UK in 1981 after the Iranian airport was destroyed in the Iran-Iraq war. A series of further unfortunate events led to her remain here. She has been interviewed for radio on numerous occasions - amassing around 30 hours of audio – talking about her life story, her beliefs as a Bahá'í and her community work. She explained the benefits of radio for its accessibility: “People can hear the radio everywhere, like in the car. They only watch television in the evening and they might not get the newspaper. It's easy to listen to the radio.” She talked of the success of sharing music through Refugee Radio. “It's a very good idea to share music with people,” she said. “So many people show an interest. We have a lot of telephone calls from people asking to hear things again and again.”
Stephen explained that the most memorable people he has had on the show have often been those in detention. Sometimes contacting him regularly for months on end, and sometimes calling him because they are about to be deported, he described them as anonymous, scared voices at the end of the phone, who for whatever reason are often never heard from again. He said that these moments are when he feels most like a listener of the programme, hearing a disembodied character painting a picture through words alone.
Refugee Radio wants to concentrate on producing in-depth radio documentaries about people such as these, alongside publishing magazines and books. The first book, a collection of refugee stories and wider analysis called 'Refugee Radio Times', has recently been published and is now on sale. The stories in the book compliment the radio show in illustrating the characters of the refugees as simply human. It always comes back to that original drive of counteracting the dehumanising approach of the mainstream media. As Stephen said: “They aren't necessarily baddies, they aren't necessarily heroes; they are just people.”
As a complement to this article, we asked the refugee participants to choose their favourite castaway track to share with us, and for Stephen to choose a favourite that has been shared with him:
Morris: Annet Nandujja – Endabada - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpC_nvAzi9M A Ugandan singer and composer who established her band, The Planets, to preserve Uganda's musical and dance heritage.
Farah: Shokouh Rezaei - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ip31xay5eM4 An Iranian newsreader come singer who was the first person on Iranian television.
Stephen: Thomas Mapfumo - Pfumuvhu Parizevha - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zxxuZzvjn8 “The Lion of Zimbabwe”, a political singer and musician, founder of the Chimurenga genre, and imprisoned without charge in 1979 under the white dominated regime of Rhodesia.