“Stories make it possible for us to overcome our separateness, to find common ground and common cause. To relate a story is to retrace one’s steps, going over the ground of one’s life again, reworking reality to render it more bearable. A story enables us to fuse the world within and the world without. In this way, we gain some purchase over events that confounded us, humbled us and left us helpless. In telling a story we renew our faith that the world is within our grasp.”
This quote by anthropologist Michael D. Jackson beautifully captures the overwhelming power of storytelling in not just bringing forth change within oneself — but also triggering a shift in the status quo. This status quo has, for the longest time, remained harsh and exclusionary towards those who have been unable to yield power in the society, either due to historical oppression and social frameworks. These people have been perceived as the ‘other’ and include women, LGBTQI communities, refugees and immigrants and people of colour (POC) in the Global North.
Though the ‘othering’ is comparatively subtle now, it continues to exist and be propagated, ironically through ‘stories’ that misrepresent them. According to this report, ‘60% of news of Africa in international media focused on conflicts, terrorism, disasters, disease and other tragedies’ — making the narratives of ‘people of colour’ in their homeland as well as in diasporas largely negative, limited and stereotyped. Moreover, the myriad of POC identities, as journalist Dahaba Ali Hussen writes in The Independent, is largely represented as monoliths — disrupting the space to discuss and argue the nuance and narrative surrounding each community. This othering is also because of the lack of diversity in newsrooms. A 2016 study, as reported by The Guardian, found that British Journalism is 94% white.
The ‘creative’ world too for long has been dominated by white cis male artists, with minority representations either being absent, tokenised or victimised. The latest study by Arts Council England suggests that the ‘most commonly reported barriers to arts and cultural participation among women, black and minority ethnic people are the cost of attending or participating, inability to find funding and concerns about feeling out of place.’ Unfortunately, these hardly come as a surprise. They mimic the trends of almost all creative and academic industries that have been shackled with racial and sexist bias.
However, with the advent of social media, awareness has slowly started seeping in to showcase the biases that exist in the mainstream discourses. Fortunately, there has been a backlash — dissent exhibited, communities mobilized and voices raised to ensure a more intersectional, inclusive future. One platform making this possible is ‘Wasil’.
The brainchild of SOAS Alumni, Andrew Awad and Basel Almadhoun, Wasil is a London-based platform aimed to amplify marginalized voices through story-sharing. This is why the above-mentioned quote by M. Jackson stands out on their Instagram page. An inspired vision, Wasil, which translates to ‘linking’ in Arabic, wants to encourage social integration through a matrix of inspired individuals.
With a holistic three-tiered approach of intervention aimed at high schools, universities and businesses, Wasil aims to comfortably integrate newly arriving immigrants, refugees and other marginalised groups with the locals. “We want to employ various formats of storytelling such as poetry, music, theatre, debate, photography and narration to enable a sharing of experiences and cultural awareness towards achieving this integration,” states co-founder, Basel. Hailing from Palestine, the 24-year-old graduated from SOAS in 2019 with an M.A in International Studies and Diplomacy.
In mainstream discourses, where most marginalised stories are lost amongst drab headlines and dizzying statistics, story-telling – apart from providing the agency of representation – humanises narratives through individual lived realities. It further gratifies the idea that every story matters and can make a difference. Wasil understands this and echoes the therapeutic power of storytelling especially on children and young adults.
“We want to employ art as a language and fill the gaps that linguistic barriers create; especially in high schools,” exclaims Andrew Awad who, according to Basel, is a specialist in dealing with classrooms and using theatre to raise awareness about the need of cultural diversity and inclusion. The 25-year-old (who pursued the same course as Basel) has had several years worth of experience in coordinating and organizing community events and using interactive storytelling methods in educational institutes as a means of healing, protest, and sharing, especially post the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
Similarly, by providing opportunities to different groups, Wasil aims to address several issues facing the world today through individual stories and enable a healthy dialogue and debate around the same on a community level. One important way they aim to achieve this is through their consultancy services aimed at providing social integration and diversity insights to Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMES). “The challenge here is to design pitches and projects in a way that not just achieves inclusivity but also increases the goodwill and profitability of the firm,” states Basel.
A few months old, Wasil, though still in its infant stage, has had a good headstart with networking and is already in talks with several NGOs and institutions working with the UN. They have also been invited to be part of the Migrant Connections Festival happening in June 2020. However, with schools being shut and universities and businesses operating from home, the current pandemic has stalled the implementation of funding strategies and summer events. Thus, Wasil is now ideating on virtual events. They have also collaborated with ‘comm.un’, (a multi-media arts platform aimed to represent artists from minority groups) on a virtual bedtime story releasing on May 7.
“It has been wonderful to be part of this larger community of people with shared visions. Through them, Wasil has been able to add new dimensions to its character and operation,” says Andrew.
SOAS too has been a great place for the co-founders to not just develop their stream of consciousness towards this idea, but also provided a space to meet like-minded people who share the passion of bringing a positive change in the world. In late 2019, Wasil was part of an important discussion organised by SOAS Politics Society on the mobilisation of youth and student representation.
Though Wasil is in hoping to soon to build a team and expand, it is currently volunteer-run. “We want to be able to showcase our company’s vision within our team and want to have a diverse team specialising in a variety of story-telling formats,” states Andrew. Wasil is also looking for volunteers to help build their website and manage outreach. With an aim to expand into a much bigger platform, Andrew and Basel believe that SOAS harbours a great and diverse student community that can further this vision and enable collaborations and partnerships leading towards social integration across the world.
For more details about Wasil, check out their Instagram page here.
Devyani Nighoskar is a 24-year-old SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her M.A in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. You may check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo