Syrian Voices: Pioneering initiatives in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic

The coordinator of the Syrian Voices project, Angela Flynn, shares her team’s experiences of pioneering this initiative during 2020-21, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic: including embracing the challenges of learning how to conduct sensitive oral history interviews over video-calling platforms and managing all the data protections that this entailed.

The Syrian Voices project strives to be apolitical, humanitarian and community facing. It arose from conversations held during a Centre for Gender, Identity and Subjectivity (CGIS) Summer 2020 workshop, attended by members of the University of Oxford and Glasgow University. It was initially conceived as an oral history project recording the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on under-represented and minority communities in the UK. It became even more timely and relevant after the UK government launched a short-term consultation in March 2021 to design a ‘New Plan for Immigration’, through which it is aiming to alter the current legislation on refugee status in the UK.

Most of the Syrian Voices participants to date arrived via the UK government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme which ended earlier this year. I was moved by the incredible eloquence, bravery and huge generosity of those who felt able to share their stories. All the testimonies are framed by unique and individual life experiences, interests and perspectives. Common strands include a deep love for Syria; vivid memories of the rhythms and routines of daily life before conflict; and poignant, sometimes wry, first impressions of life in the UK. Also, extremely thoughtful insights were shared about the opportunities and challenges posed by life in the UK. The narratives focus most vividly on the decision to leave Syria and first impressions of entry into the UK. None left their homes willingly. All hope for peace in Syria; few believe they will ever return.

During the summer of 2020, with the aid of BBC and freelance cameraman Nick London, we were able to film participants on location at home across the United Kingdom. While the initial aim was to record perceptions of life in lockdown, participants were keen to recount many other aspects of lived experience both in Syria and the UK. The testimonies took shape as loosely structured life-stories, often more than 120 minutes long.

Our participants came from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and included dentists, shop workers, doctors, architects, farmers, factory workers, students, bankers, volunteers and lawyers. Most of these individuals were granted refugee status before their arrival in the UK and came through official channels. However, a small minority of participants arrived illegally and were granted asylum. These include a young man who, aged only 17 years, spent several months homeless in Istanbul before finally making his way to Calais and then into England inside a refrigerated lorry. He now forms part of a supportive and loving community in Cambridge and was able to start a successful food delivery service in lock-down. Another testimony comes from Arwa, an actress who made the perilous journey overland through Turkey and Greece via an established smuggler’s route. Her plans to start a new acting career in the UK have been thwarted by the pandemic, but she is now involved in community theatre workshops organised by The Playground Theatre in London and The Trojan Women Project. During Trinity Term 2021 Syrian Voices staged a live theatre work-shop and broadcast a webinar event with Arwa and members of the Playground Theatre exploring theatrical responses to the Syrian crisis. These events were kindly hosted by the Playground Theatre and by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH): See the event at

In Autumn 2020, we decided to continue the project despite the lockdown restrictions - using recorded Zoom interviews. This represented a departure from standard oral history practices. We were sensitive to the potential pitfalls of remote communication. All interviews have therefore been encrypted and securely stored, and no licence is granted to Zoom or third parties to use content. We were also acutely aware that eye contact and other vital embodied social cues and signals might be missed or misinterpreted. The almost imperceptible time lag between voice and image transmission contributes to the tiring and unsettling nature of everyday Zoom interactions. However, against all expectations, the interviews were extremely fruitful and hugely rewarding. The Zoom setting promoted an accelerated intimacy. Participants felt comfortable in their home space and were tolerant of the constraints posed by the digital medium, not least instances of interrupted internet. It appeared to me that the remote divide encouraged everyone to immediately connect on a more informal and personal level. The potentially stressful and intrusive pre-interview social rituals, including perceived obligations of hospitality, were no longer applicable. The digital platform created a curiously freeing, intimate and informal space.

The new digital communication platforms arising from the pandemic represent a novel and exciting chapter in oral history methodology. Historians will be able to interview participants across the globe using an economic, lasting and environmentally friendly medium: which, if used ethically – with care and sensitivity, and in combination with established practices – may prove to be extraordinarily fruitful. The use of digital communication platforms will of course give rise to new ethical and legal challenges and constraints, but this is also the case for more established forms of live-subject research, not least on account of the recent changes to GDPR legislation.

We hope to create a lasting institutional archive of around 50 recorded interviews for future historians and researchers using filmed testimonies, zoom recordings and photos. We will also hold termly seminars and events with our collaborators. A series of short documentary films illustrating individual stories will be posted on our TORCH website going forward. Get in touch with us there if you’d like to find out more and join our project!

- Angela Flynn